When Sheila Nevins first started working in television in the 1970s, she thought “being touched by a man inappropriately was part of the rules of the game.”
“I had no way of knowing,” says the profane, glamorous and gloriously inappropriate 78-year-old president of HBO Documentary Films over a chopped seafood salad at the Carlyle Hotel. “I had no one to go to, and I didn’t suffer. I just allowed it. Now I feel a little bit guilty for allowing it, but I have to say, it’s like a wound that healed, or a wound that never was. I’m not sure that I knew there was any other way. I had to have a job. I didn’t have any money.”
We are having lunch on the occasion of Ms. Nevins’s departure as the high priestess of HBO Documentary Films, where she has for 38 years worked day and night, through weekends and vacations, supervising the production of over 1,200 documentaries, including recent hits such as “Going Clear,” the gutsy exposé of Scientology; “Citizenfour,” the highly praised film about Edward Snowden’s life on the lam; and “Bright Lights,” the poignant story of Ms. Nevins’s late friend Carrie Fisher’s entwined relationship with her mother and next door neighbor, Debbie Reynolds.
With a storytelling style that grabs viewers by the throat, Ms. Nevins helped change the image of documentaries from stodgy to provocative. And she helped HBO amass such a pile of Emmys, Peabodys and Oscars that there’s a roomful of glittering laurels at headquarters that’s known as the Holy Shrine of Sheila. She received the first Emmy Lifetime Achievement Award given to a documentarian.
When Richard Plepler, the chief executive of HBO, told his “beloved Sheila” that she was “sui generis,” she looked at him quizzically.
“Is that good?” she wondered.
“Sheila’s resting pulse is never to be satisfied even when she has done something first-rate,” Mr. Plepler says. “She is constantly driven to get the next idea, to see around the next corner. She has taken all the different dimensions of people — the fragility, the struggles, the triumphs — and told the story over three decades of what it means to be a human being.”
So who better to talk about this winter’s Waterloo in the battle of the sexes than the woman who won the first Peabody awarded to a cable program, for “She’s Nobody’s Baby: The History of American Women in the 20th Century,” produced in 1981 with Ms. Magazine, and who brought shows with a sexual edge to HBO, like the “America Undercover” series, which included “Real Sex” and “Taxicab Confessions.”
Ms. Nevins does not think that sexual dynamics can be expurgated from the workplace. She just hopes that women can become more direct, and less frightened, in how they deal with men who cross the line, and that a hierarchy of sins can be identified.
“I mean, there’s Harvey and then there’s poking,” she says. “Harvey is a criminal. He deserves to be put away. The stuff I read about Matt Lauer was horrifying. I’ve never had that happen. But I’ve certainly sat in editing rooms and had well-known people kiss my neck and put their hands on me. But I pulled it away or let it happen or said, ‘Eww!’ I was not fired up.
“I read Cosmo. No one’s brought Helen Gurley Brown into it for older women. We were brought up by her. The younger women were brought up by Gloria Steinem. I think I was a Girlie by Helen. I read Cosmo like it was Spock for babies and I dressed and did everything she told me. I bought cosmetics. I bought a push-up bra. I unbuttoned the second button where you see the cleavage. She also said you should listen to your boss’s sad stories about how his wife doesn’t love him. And make sure you look very good and then throw yourself in front of his car, waving, when he’s leaving work.
“But,” Ms. Nevins adds wryly, “all my bosses took trains.”
Half a century before the current revolution on sexual transgressions, the late Ms. Brown spurred her own revolution, coaching women on how to be temptresses at the office. Her books and her groundbreaking version of Cosmopolitan, coinciding with the advent of the contraceptive pill, preached sex without shame for single women. The Cosmo gospel was about “snagging guys” and achieving the “Big O,” blithely coaching “girls,” as Ms. Brown always called them, on how to seduce their married bosses and please their boyfriends by chilling satin sheets in the fridge in the summer.
Once in the early ’80s, I went to Cosmo looking for freelance work. They handed me a bunch of red binders with story suggestions such as “I Had an Affair With My Father’s Best Friend” and “I Had an Affair With My Best Friend’s Father.” And the all-purpose “My Fling With My Gynecologist/Psychiatrist/Dentist.”
Ms. Brown was a pioneer who abruptly became an anachronism during the Clarence Thomas-Anita Hill hearings when she wrote a Wall Street Journal article in praise of sexual electricity in the office, fondly recalling “a dandy game” called “Scuttle,” in which men chased secretaries around the office and pulled down their panties.
Years before, Ms. Nevins had switched bibles from Helen Gurley Brown’s Cosmo to Gloria Steinem’s Ms.
Although Ms. Nevins has a magnetic quality and thought of becoming an actress, after attending Barnard College and getting an M.F.A. in directing from the Yale School of Drama, she is more comfortable in her apartment, editing. She finds socializing and small talk draining. She prefers chronicling underdogs to celebrities, and when I ask which documentary is her favorite, she pulls out a DVD from her bag about the fight to save a brown pelican soaked in oil found in the waters off New Orleans after the BP spill in 2010.
“I do have a philosophy about documentaries, which is that I really do believe that almost everybody has a story,” she says. “I love ordinary people. And they’re often very heroic. And very interesting. I don’t like fame. I’m not interested in famous people. I don’t trust the sameness of the story you get from celebrity. The few times I’ve had to deal with celebrity, I’ve read the same thing they say somewhere else.”
Mr. Plepler says that Ms. Nevins’s “chutzpah and smarts” do not allow her to kiss up to stars. When the inimitable Mike Nichols came in several years ago to pitch a documentary, Mr. Plepler says he listened with reverence. Ms. Nevins, however, said flatly, “I don’t think it’s a good idea and here’s why.” There was an uncomfortable pause of about 20 seconds before Mr. Nichols spoke up: “You know, you’re absolutely right.”
Ms. Nevins’s heart is with the down-and-out or afflicted.
“Sheila is the social conscience of corporate television,” says Alexandra Pelosi, who has made 11 documentaries with Ms. Nevins. “Who will carry the torch now? She puts stuff on TV that is not fun to watch.” From her perch atop the world of documentary film, Ms. Nevins has deftly navigated subjects including substance abuse (one such project in 2007, “Addiction,” was inspired after watching her only son’s battle and recovery with drug addiction), homeless children, and pedophile priests who preyed on deaf children in Milwaukee.
Right now she’s obsessed with examining the motivations of the 650,000 Alabamians who voted for Roy Moore, much in the same way she once needed to understand Barack Obama’s haters.
“She’s in a beautiful apartment on the Upper East Side now, but deep down in her soul she is still the little girl who grew up on the Lower East Side,” Ms. Pelosi says. “She doesn’t get her ideas at cocktail parties. She gets them talking to grocery-store clerks or when she visits women in prison. She wants filmmakers to get out of their comfort zones. She has a punk-rock streak.”
Ms. Pelosi says that Ms. Nevins is so important in her life that her 11-year-old son dressed up as Sheila for Halloween, complete with a blond wig, a photo of an Emmy on the front of his shirt, an Oscar on his back and a Peabody around his neck.
But the grande dame of docs is demanding. When she attended Ms. Pelosi’s wedding reception at the University Club in New York in 2005, Ms. Nevins told the bride to leave immediately to interview Jerry Falwell for “Friends of God,” the documentary they were working on. “Thanks to Sheila, I spent my honeymoon with Jerry Falwell,” Ms. Pelosi says. And when she had her second baby, she got a call at the hospital from Ms. Nevins to tell her to get back to the editing room, stat.
But Ms. Nevins is also fiercely protective of her filmmaker “cubs,” firing off tart and impolitic notes to critics who give negative reviews. And she considers herself a poet at heart, sometimes offering her editing notes in free verse, at all times of the day and night.
Alex Gibney, who made “Going Clear” with Ms. Nevins, says she was unafraid of the public pushback from the Church of Scientology, emailing him this verse:
“I love the heat
Especially when it is so cold
And especially when we are so right to scream
Ms. Nevins calls men and women “honey” and “baby.” With her raspy voice, swooping platinum streaks in the hair she has done three times a week and glittery leg warmers she bought on a Christmas website, she’s a seductive 78-year-old.
“I’m held together by Elmer’s glue,” she says. Then, nodding to the dimly lit dining room, she adds slyly, “I’m good in the dark.
“Nobody makes passes at me anymore. You know, sometimes in a dark restaurant across the room, a waiter will say, ‘That guy over there bought you a glass of wine.’ And then he lifts his cane.”
On his WNYC podcast recently, Alec Baldwin flirted with Ms. Nevins, calling her “the Jewish Eve Harrington” and — ignoring the fact that she’s happily married to her second husband of 45 years, the former investment banker Sidney Koch — fantasized about Ms. Nevins falling in love and kissing some guy while wearing a bathrobe on a terrace in Paris. (As though the workaholic Ms. Nevins would ever lounge around on a terrace.)
In the New York Times best-selling memoir she published this year, “You Don’t Look Your Age … and Other Fairy Tales,” Ms. Nevins writes poignantly about growing up with a mother with Raynaud’s disease that caused her limbs to fall off and raising a son with Tourette’s syndrome. And she writes hilariously about her love-hate relationship with plastic surgery and dermatology, noting: “I have enough Botox in me to detonate Iran.”
She says that on her book tour, the main question she was asked by older women was whether they still had to share a conjugal bed.
“They don’t want to sleep in the same bed as their husband anymore,” she says. “Because the man pees too much. Because the aging prostate is not fun. And the woman is always hot. And the thing is, she’s throwing off the covers and he’s squeaking the floorboards and they want separate bedrooms and they don’t really know how to approach it. A woman said, ‘Would you tell my husband?’ I said, ‘Sure, give me his number.’”
Ms. Nevins, whose grandfather sold socks on Orchard Street in Manhattan and whose father was a Russian immigrant who worked booking bets at a New York post office, admits that to this day she calls the bank to make sure that her check got in and can’t believe she doesn’t have to worry about money.
She downplays how tough a climb it must have been, noting simply that “the admission charge is higher” for women in the workplace. She didn’t have any mentors — “I was de-mentored,” she says — and likes to say, “Revenge is a good mentor.”
“Fighting back to prove somebody wrong is the best thing,” she says. She got her first taste of that at Yale, when she fell madly in love with a WASP who did not fight for her after his mother frostily advised Ms. Nevins to go find a Jewish boyfriend instead.
She says she drew a circle of excellence for herself at HBO — where her office is chockablock with women she herself has mentored — and felt too daunted to try to make the leap to Hollywood, where the barriers are still obscenely steep for female directors.
So, with powerful men toppling and disappearing in a way that feels sometimes exhilarating and sometimes disturbing, because of the absence of due process and proper gradations of crime and punishment, I press her about whether we are in danger of a backlash.
“Well, I think men are so scared now that they’re being extra-nice,” Ms. Nevins says. “Sometimes men look at me and I think they’re wondering what I know. Every guy in power has a story that he doesn’t want told. And probably every woman has a story that she doesn’t want told. But I think men are on warning, and they’re very scared.”
She talks freely about the early days when she had to listen to male executives tell dirty jokes at the start of meetings and when she flirted with and flattered her male bosses or opted to leave a superior’s hand on her thigh at the opera because she wanted to see the end of the show.
When Ms. Nevins did summer stock at 17 at the High School of the Performing Arts with Charlton Heston, she says the actor pinned her between his legs as she was trying to fetch a prop.
“I mean, it was Moses, right?” she says with a smile. “Part of me was sort of, I would say, interested? Because it was a great story to tell. I could tell my girlfriends I was trapped between the legs of Charlton Heston. Part of me was terrified. Now I look back and I think to myself, He was abusing me. That wasn’t right. I should have said something. But I didn’t, and I wasn’t scarred as a result of it.”
Even now, in the midst of the blistering reckoning, Ms. Nevins concedes she misses getting whistled at by construction workers and mocks Sheryl Sandberg’s “Lean In” philosophy.
“I grew up with Lean Back,” she jokes. “You Lean In at the wrong time, you wind up working at McDonald’s — unless you land in Zuckerberg’s lap.”
She recommends finesse over fury to get beyond inevitable rough patches in the “primal” relations between the sexes.
When a young woman at Refinery29 asked her advice recently about how to deal with a guy in her office who was hitting on her, Ms. Nevins told her to tell the creeper: “I hope I didn’t hear you say what I think you said, because I respect you too much.”
She also recommends disarming with humor. “My father always told jokes at the wrong time, like at funerals and wakes,” she recalls. “He was inappropriate. But I learned you can get through a funeral if you tell a joke. And I’ve gotten through a lot of things with men in my career by being funny. And I’m funny.”
So how deep is this change? I ask. Are men are going to stop interrupting and grabbing and making lewd comments?
“I think you have six months,” Ms. Nevins says. “Because the men will come forward again. It’s almost Darwinian, spreading the seed, that makes men the aggressor. And it will be up to women to punch back. A man used to be in the position of stopping your career at the go. But now you can just say, ‘I’m going to tell.’ And there are a million people who will listen.”
I note that in many offices, the breakdown of reactions is not by gender but by age. Younger men and women are more likely to have a no-tolerance policy about louche behavior.
“The younger women are very vehement and very anti-abuse,” Ms. Nevins says. “The older women are much more forgiving. Maybe because they forgive themselves. I don’t know. But it is an age thing.”
I ask Ms. Nevins about an article by Vanessa Friedman, the chief fashion critic at The Times, about the Victoria’s Secret fashion show and the Emily Ratajkowski spaghetti-swathed lingerie shot in the Love Advent calendar, questioning the issue of whether pinups promulgate retrograde ideas about women’s bodies in a post-Weinstein world.
“If women want to parade as pinups, that has nothing to do with harassment,” Ms. Nevins says. “If I look at a delicious ad for ice cream, I don’t have to devour it or slobber it down. If women sell a product by being provocative, that’s not an invitation to be harassed or abused as professionals in a workplace. There are many faces of Eve. No presentation she chooses says, ‘Abuse me.’”
Ms. Nevins says it is also important to focus on “above-the-neck harassment”: the moments when you get demoralized as a woman in a room when you feel that you are circumvented and that you are not seen or heard, and the boss only thinks it’s a good idea if a guy presents it.
“There’s something exciting about leaving a job,” she says. “I can’t explain it. I have deprived my life of a life. All I did was work. I was, like, born at HBO and I don’t have to die there. If I stayed any longer, I probably would have died at my desk. I just regret that there’s so little time left.”
She is taking several projects with her when she leaves that she will finish at home. She is musing about a radio show with Sirius called “Kicking Ass With Sheila Nevins” and maybe another book.
Meanwhile, she was off to Bellevue for a screening of yet another documentary.
“They’ll probably leave me there permanently,” she says dryly. “Do they have a bed for me? Ask them if they have a bed.”
RELATED: Maureen Dowd plays Confirm or Deny with Sheila Nevins.
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