For the better part of six years, from 1998 to 2004, I sat down in front of the TV to watch Sex and the City every Sunday at 8 p.m. I turned down an invitation to dinner and a movie; I once let a friend who had broken up with her boyfriend (yet again) wait until after the show was over before I drove to her apartment to hug and console her. During the first part of Season Five, I was on a semester abroad in London and as a result, I am still disoriented about the season I had to watch out of order, in reruns.
I was 16 when I discovered the show on HBO, and 21 when it ended, the year I graduated college. I remember saying at the time: “I’m ready for it to be over, so it will release the hold it has on my life.”
Now that the movie comes out on May 30, I felt I had to do a little something to prepare. With seven weeks to go before the release, I’ve been doing a little research. The idea is to watch a season each week, as sort of a refresher course before I see the movie.
Over the past week, I’ve been rereading the book that spawned the show, a collection of Candace Bushnell’s Sex and the City columns from the New York Observer. There was a bit of a snafu, as I tore my house apart looking for my copy of the book, relented and bought a new used one at Half-Price, then found the old copy in a box marked Miscellaneous from the house move four months ago. (I have a very Carrie approach to housekeeping.)
After I started watching the show in high school, I read the book and hated it. I thought it was gossipy and vicious. There’s a term Bushnell uses, “nasty little cat,” that really sums up the attitude of the book. If this is Manhattan, I thought, then I want no part of it.
Upon a reread, I’m still not a fan of the book, although I found it funnier this time around. It’s been nearly ten years since the first time I read it, and the adult situations and humor are a bit more apparent now. Still, it frustrates me that this is the kind of thing that comes out of New York, the sort of “insider joke” that tries extra hard to exclude the uninitiated. “You don’t understand? Tough. We’re too important to possibly explain it to you.”
Here’s a shocking fact: Candace Bushnell turns 50 on December 1. I just find that jaw-dropping. A little digging on her turned up that she attended Rice in the seventies, dropped out, moved to New York, and began covering the Studio 54 scene. She had wanted to be an actress, but instead landed a plum little beat as a journalist, the Sex and the City column. (Bet she never had to chase an ambulance.) Still, after my little social performance last night, I’m pretty sure bar-hopping six nights a week for your job is actually hard work.
Parts of the book are heart-breakingly honest, like when Bushnell’s alter ego Carrie recalls her days of sleeping on the floor of her apartment with a mink coat covering her, or when she buys some pizza for down-trodden playgirl of the western world Amalita in a seedy part of town, which turns out to be the same neighborhood Carrie lived in when she was broke.
The Carrie alter ego is introduced in a strange way: the narrator and Carrie appear to be two different people involved in the same conversation. At one point, I thought another character with a C-name, Chloe, was being introduced in this way, but later in the book she gets married and so can’t be Bushnell, who got married in 2002. By the end of the book, the narrator has faded to a non-participant, and Carrie’s story has taken over.
Most of that story revolves around Mr. Big, who we know is magazine publisher Ron Galotti. I remember reading an article in New York magazine (online) about the real Mr. Big moving to Vermont with his wife. In it, his wife said something about finding the ex-girlfriend’s (Bushnell’s) clothes in the back of Mr. Big’s closet, and they were all size 0.
The thing about the New York story that stuck out to me was when the writer quipped that people in Manhattan have the sense that anyone who lives any where else must, surely, be joking. I found that article again a few days ago, and realized that one little memorable bit of observation was really a paraphrased John Updike quote.
So snotty. And yet, reading Sex and the City, this toothless, slack-jawed yokel can’t help thinking that people who live in Manhattan — and take the scene seriously — are the ones with issues. Really, this book reads like a bad high school drama; there are cliques and back-stabbing and drunk people trying to get laid.
That was a bitter pill to swallow, back in the late nineties, when I had already been hooked by the dazzle of the show and made the mistake of reading this seedy, superficial trash. I wanted to forget about high school, not find out the real world was exactly the same. At the time, I didn’t understand that I was supposed to look beyond the stories themselves, and perhaps even feel sorry for the players and their silly little lives. Now that I’m old enough to catch a glimpse of the true meaning behind the book, I can’t do it. Candace Bushnell ruined the Big Apple for me, and I still hold that grudge.
Yes, like every teenage girl in rural America, I had that dream of moving to Manhattan and being somebody. I read Vogue not for the fashion, but for the society, that world of luxury that somehow did not seem real. I think the popularity of the SATC television show wasn’t based on the socio-sexual commentary or even the sex itself (watch the show in a room with other people, and see if some eyes don’t shift away from the television screen whenever Samantha is performing whatever ridiculous act was scripted for her in that episode). I don’t think that was the appeal for my twenty-something female peers, anyway.
Producers of the show tried to spin the city as the fifth character on the show, and I think that is the true draw. At least for me, watching Sex and the City every week was like an escape hatch, a reimagining of the Mary Tyler Moore scenario.
I say Mary Tyler Moore, although I’ve never seen that show, because it’s often referenced on the internet when people are critiquing Sex and the City. It’s code for that classic fantasy, the same one that got me hooked on the show in the first place. The characters on SATC were too old to fill the “young girl in Manhattan” role, but I almost think that is why it worked. You could watch them mess up their lives and think, “When I get there, I’ll do it differently.” Manhattan, really, is the whole point of the column/book/show/movie jauggernaut.
On page two of the book and minutes into the pilot episode of the show, we’re treated to this steamer about life in Manhattan:
“No one has breakfast at Tiffany’s, and no one has affairs to remember — instead, we have breakfast at 7 a.m. and affairs we try to forget as quickly as possible.”
I never liked this statement, and it pisses me off that it’s one of the lines that was transplanted, verbatim, into the show. The 7 a.m. joke — not clever. How about “breakfast in a cab and affairs with the hired help?” Saying that New Yorkers eat breakfast in the morning and have bad relationships is not very insightful or funny. But maybe putting effort into your pop culture riffs is just not chic.
What infuriates me even more is that further down the page (and this part was thankfully left out of the show), Bushnell says that Truman Capote understood the nineties dilemma and wrote about it in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Then she goes on to outline the plot of the movie, not the book. It’s highly disrespectful from one writer to another, especially when she owes her success to an update of the Breakfast at Tiffany’s story. Bushnell probably knows how it feels now, when people reference Sarah Jessica Parker’s show when talking about her creation.
Truman Capote had nothing to do with Paul Varjak, a kept man, and Holly Golightly, a kept woman, forsaking money and finding love with each other, as Bushnell would have us believe. That is what happened in the movie, and Capote said in an interview that he was not happy with the changes or the star of the film. In the book, the “Paul Varjak” character does not have a name, and he is not a kept man. He is a writer, possibly gay, and possibly Capote himself. And in the end, they don’t find love together with the cat sandwiched between them.
I watched the movie again as part of my “research,” and started to reread the Breakfast at Tiffany’s novella, but honestly I’ve read it so many times that I know it backwards and forwards. I can’t even begin to explain how much I love the book and how much I dislike the movie. I think the movie, with its garish colors and horrible early-sixties setting, owes its success to the simple back story of Lulamae Barnes making it from Tulip, Texas to NYC. It certainly has nothing to do with Mickey Rooney’s racially offensive Mr. Yunioshi or that goofy shoplifting scene.
The only part of the film I can stomach is the opening credits, when Holly Golightly gets out of a cab at 6 a.m. in front of Tiffany’s to actually have breakfast (a to-go coffee and some sort of pastry) in her evening gown. I can handle her raised eyebrows at the sight of something really shiny in the Tiffany shop windows, but the second Audrey Hepburn begins to act, I’m done.
The show also recognized its debt to Breakfast at Tiffany’s, as evidenced by Carrie and BIg slow dancing to Moon River on his last night in New York. I’m not a big fan of the song (in the book, she sings the songs from Oklahoma! and something with the lyrics “don’t wanna sleep, don’t wanna die, just wanna go a-travelin’ through the pastures of the sky”), but it appears that the writers of the show at least have enough sense to not mix up the book and the movie. Seriously, it’s like referring to Frankenstein when you mean Frankenstein’s monster.
In the last chapter of the Sex and the City book, Carrie tells Samantha Jones that she is working on her own project, which I think is referencing the book. Samantha tells her it’s a cute idea, but it’s not Tolstoy. I always wondered how that worked in the show and in real life for Bushnell; was she completely candid with her life and the people she interacted with got to read about themselves in her column? Mr. Big could just open his paper and get her take on their latest argument. How do you maintain a relationship that way? Bloggers are one thing, but this column was actually read by a lot of people who knew the couple. With the show, is everything in the voiceover supposed to serve as the column?