Nora Ephron set the bar for the modern romantic comedy

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It’s difficult to sum up just how much Nora Ephron contributed to the film industry, the genre of the romantic comedy, and culture in general. Her writing was witty and layered, her directing smart and effective. She created some of the funniest and most touching moments in film history and her partnership with actress Meg Ryan was legendary. In a broader sense, her film When Harry Met Sally popularized the phrases “transitional person” and being “high-maintenance,” which now seem such a part of our modern lexicon that it is hard to believe they weren’t in use before the 1980s, and her work shaped the collective image of New York City. Ephron set the bar for the modern romantic comedy and some may say, myself included, that no one has yet surpassed her work. 

Ephron was born to a family of writers in New York City in 1941. She was the eldest of four girls, who grew up in Beverly Hills after their parents moved when Ephron was young. She studied political science at Wellesley College, during which time she interned at the White House. After graduation, she moved back to her birthplace, New York City, to become a journalist. Though she faced challenges early on due to sexist practices that kept women in lower positions, she was a writer for The Post, Esquire, and New York Magazine. Her wonderfully funny and distinctive voice delighted readers. In addition to writing and directing films, she wrote numerous essay collections, two plays, and many blog articles for the Huffington Post. Ephron married three times and was the mother to two sons. 

Ephron’s films like Sleepless in Seattle, When Harry Met Sally, and You’ve Got Mail have defined the romantic comedy and continue to be held up as sterling examples of the genre decades later. She often used her films to explore larger topics like grief, moving on from the wrong relationship, and forging a career. Ephron’s films rarely follow the classic “girl meets boy” formula and often have fresh and original premises. She also knew how to weave in references to beloved and well-respected works in a way that elevated the story she was telling. The characters of Sleepless in Seattle often reference the classic 1957 film An Affair to Remember, Harry and Sally discuss Casablanca, and You’ve Got Mail references Pride and Prejudice and The Godfather. Harkening back to these other stories both helps illustrate her characters to the audience and helps invoke a certain level of class. In fact, Ephron’s films in general helped prove that romantic comedies, though light, could be quality films. 

Ephron’s characters continue to feel authentic so many years later likely because she often based them on real people. Some of her films were literally about actual people like her first screenplay, Silkwood, in 1983 which she wrote with Alice Arlen. Silkwood tells the story of Karen Silkwood (played by Meryl Streep), a chemical technician, labor union activist, and whistleblower. Ephron’s last film, Julie & Julia in 2009, is similarly rooted in the lives of real women; it intertwines the lives of chef Julia Child and blogger Julie Powell. Even her films that were not telling true stories often found their basis in real life. Ephron wrote a novel based on her divorce from Carl Bernstein, who notably was one of the journalists involved in uncovering Watergate, which she later turned into the script for the film Heartburn. Meryl Streep’s character was based on Ephron herself, while Jack Nicholson played the Bernstein-based husband. 

WHEN HARRY MET SALLY

When Harry Met Sally found its inspiration in many people. The film was largely based on the friendship between director Rob Reiner and actor Billy Crystal, with Reiner inspiring the character that Crystal would play. It’s not difficult to grasp that Sally Albright, a young woman who moves to New York City to become a journalist, was inspired by Ephron herself. Even the older couples telling their love stories that are interspersed throughout the film are based on interviews that Ephron did while writing the film. Ephron’s characters are one of the greatest assets of her films, particularly the way that she is able to give the viewer a full sense of who a character is within minutes. The fact that they were often inspired by people that Ephron knew or read about, or even herself, can help explain just how human they feel. 

Ephron’s work is endlessly quotable and any fan of her movies will certainly have a plethora of lines that they say time and time again. The “I’ll have what she’s having” scene in When Harry Met Sally is one of the most iconic movie scenes of all time. But her humor is sprinkled across all of her films, from Tom Hanks’s character in Sleepless in Seattle questioning what tiramisu is to Julie Powell worrying about being a “lobster killer.” While she excels at situational humor, she also knew how to write the perfect quippy line that an actor could deliver in a way that made it hilarious. One of my personal favorites is “That caviar is a garnish!” from You’ve Got Mail.

Perhaps what really defines Ephron’s humor is that it fit perfectly into films that also tug on your heartstrings. Ephron’s were never simple comedies; she perfectly balanced sad moments and real struggles with lighter humor. The scene in which Sally finds out that her ex-boyfriend is getting married is a perfect example of how Ephron could craft a moment that was hilariously funny and yet also heartbreakingly honest. You’ve Got Mail is an interesting commentary on the shifting landscape of New York City in the 1990s as large brand stores overtook independent shops like Kathleen Kelly’s. Ephron’s movies are so poignant because in addition to the quotable lines and chemistry between the leads, they have a lot of heart. 

In 1992, Ephron directed her first of eight films. She said that she began directing to have more power over the stories that she wrote and because she felt Hollywood rarely made movies about women that were by women. Her parents were screenwriters who were upset in their later life at the way that directors had handled, and mangled, their scripts. That first film, This is My Life, flopped, as did some of her others. But Sleepless in Seattle, You’ve Got Mail, and Julie & Julia undoubtedly proved her skill as a director and her ability to bring a script she wrote to life. 

JULIE AND JULIA

Ephron consistently worked with some of the greatest talents in the business. The casts to her films often included all-star actors like Steve Martin, Carrie Fisher, and Nicole Kidman. Meg Ryan always seemed to be at her most charming in a Nora Ephron film; she appeared in four. Other frequent collaborators included Tom Hanks, Meryl Streep, and Rob Reiner, who directed When Harry Met Sally but also acted in two of Ephron’s other films. However, Ephron’s most frequent connection was with her own sister, Delia Ephron, with whom she co-wrote six screenplays (including You’ve Got Mail and Bewitched) and the play Love, Loss, and What I Wore. It’s not uncommon for writer-directors to have actors that they love to work with time and time again (here’s looking at Greta Gerwig and Saoirse Ronan), but Ephron certainly chose some of the best. 

Only now are we able to fully appreciate just how bold some of Ephron’s work really was. Sleepless in Seattle opens with a funeral scene and the film sells us on a romance despite the fact that the two leads have very little screen time together. Similarly, the leads of You’ve Got Mail spend two-thirds of the movie dating other people, which doesn’t seem like what you would want in a rom-com. The film also integrated the Internet into its plot in a way that was uncommon in 1998 when You’ve Got Mail was released. The older couples spliced throughout When Harry Met Sally are so endearing and hilarious, that it’s easy to forget that it’s actually a rather brave and original plot device. Ephron was trying new things in a way that has somewhat gone unappreciated. 

Even if not every Ephron film was a hit, it’s hard to deny that filmgoers owe her a lot. Many intelligent modern rom-coms seem to aspire to emulate her work (I would say Claire Scanlon’s “Set It Up” comes closest). She was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay three times, though she never won. The only thing that can explain how she never won an award seems to be the sexism within the Academy at the time and how romantic comedies are often not taken seriously. Despite that, her legacy will live on as one of the greatest film writers of the twentieth century. In Sleepless in Seattle, Rosie O’Donnell’s character Becky says, “That’s your problem. You don’t want to be in love, you want to be in love in a movie.” If I could choose, I’d like to fall in love in a Nora Ephron film.  

© Nicole Ackman (5/8/20) FF2 Media

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Nicole Ackman
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Nicole Ackman is an FF2 Media Contributor based in North Carolina, after living in London and New York. She graduated from Elon University with a Bachelors degree in History and Strategic Communication and from City University of London with a Masters degree in Culture, Policy, and Management. She is a theatre and film critic and is a member of the North Carolina Film Critics Association. Her taste in film tends towards period dramas, movie musicals, and anything starring Saoirse Ronan. In addition to film, she is passionate about history, theatre, Disney parks, and classic novels by female writers.
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