Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Sheila Nevins: Coming Out and Loving It

I first got to know Sheila Nevins when I interviewed her for a Hollywood Reporter story honoring top women in entertainment. I’ve chatted with scores of bigshots in similar circumstances. But no other woman to whom I’ve spoken in the line of duty has frankly discussed with me her insecurities, her dislike of exercise, and the color of her current fingernail polish. After discovering I was once a fellow English major, Sheila even sent me a gift: a copy of Vanity Fair. (Thackeray’s 19th-century novel, that is.)

Sheila has made her mark as President of HBO Documentary Films. In three decades, she’s produced over 1000 documentaries, scores of which have been honored with Emmys, Oscars, and Peabody Awards. She herself has taken home thirty-two primetime Emmys, so you’d think she’d have a high opinion of herself.

Not true! The Sheila I know is forthcoming about her anxieties, her infirmities, and what it’s like being a woman in a man’s world. And now she’s added to her impossible list of high achievements by publishing a straight-from-the-hip memoir of sorts, an irresistible collection of stories, true confessions, and musings. She calls it You Don’t Look Your Age . . . And Other Fairy Tales. It’s blunt and funny about the phenomenon of getting older, with straight talk about facelifts, sleep disorders, weight gain (“Gliding Gracefully into Gravity”), and a change in her eyesight that now encourages her to focus on the big picture. As a career woman, she also has her say on how to tell “frenemies” from those who genuinely wish you well. Her most valuable mentor, she insists, has been revenge against the snobs who tried to keep her in her place.  

How does she feel about airing her failings for all the world to read? Sheila told me, “I always thought it would be embarrassing. I didn’t care.” In her career, she has many times chronicled stories of people coming out . . . as gay, as trans. That’s why she decided, “I’m gonna come out as old.” This woman who used to hide on her birthdays now calmly announces she’s 78. Self-revelation was a weight off her chest, even though in the mornings “I look my age, without upholstery.” Comparing herself to a couch, she quips, “It was a good couch, and you can’t buy those couches anymore.”
 Though Sheila sometimes seems brittle, there’s a tender heart beating in her breast. Part of the impetus for the book was her affection for AIDS activist Larry Kramer, who encouraged her writing and (from his hospital bed) inspired one of her gentlest pieces. It was at his bedside that she got the idea of asking their mutual friend Christine Baranski to participate in an audio recording of the book. Soon what seems all of showbiz came aboard: Lily Tomlin, Lena Dunham, Glenn Close, et al. The biggest coup was snagging Meryl Streep, whose deeply emotional reading of the book’s final section, “The Wrong Kind of Hot,” magically evoked for Sheila the voice of a mother who’s been dead for 35 years. Sheila’s relationship with her mother, the victim of two debilitating diseases, helps explain her sensitivity to those at the bottom of life’s heap.

Sheila admits to other challenges too, feelingly discussing her son’s Tourette’s diagnosis. (This story is read by Rosie O’Donnell, who “knows about wounded children.”) But she steers clear of writing in depth about husband Sidney: “I chose to spare him.” Sidney is, she makes clear, a very private individual. And she’s deeply grateful that “he took a once-thin, once-pretty woman and let her be herself.”

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