Nora Ephron: queen of hearts

Nora Ephron made films that combined caustic wit with happy endings – and helped define the modern romantic comedy. Often overlooked during her lifetime, she forged an attitude of confessional intimacy that anticipated our online culture of disclosure and influenced a generation of female comics.

Hannah McGill
Updated:

from our January 2016 issue

Nora Ephron

Credit: Ruven Afanador/Corbis Outline

It’s little wonder that the sweet-and-sour flavours of the screwball romance – in which a couple must, at the commencement of the narrative, be active impediments to one another’s contentment or at the very least appear to be wholly unavailable to one another, only to find that their differences in fact render them an ideal match – appealed to Nora Ephron. The fame of this journalist, novelist, screenwriter and director fed on contradiction, and on a lucky combination of softness and sharps. That she made canonical mainstream romantic comedies but retained credibility as an edgy satirist and social commentator points to a management of words and ideas that was at once inclusive and rebellious – and that has turned her into the favoured reference point for comedy’s current household names.

“I kept a copy of Nora Ephron’s Heartburn next to me as a reminder of how to be funny and truthful,” writes Amy Poehler in the introduction to her memoir Yes Please (adding, “all I ended up doing was ignoring my writing and rereading Heartburn”). Lena Dunham dedicated her essay collection Not That Kind of Girl to Ephron, and eulogised her in the New Yorker when she died in 2012. Mindy Kaling calls her a “role model”; Tina Fey and Amy Schumer are habitually named as her inheritors. Ephron’s unfinished script for a film adaptation of the 2008 ITV miniseries Lost in Austen will be completed by Portlandia creator and Sleater-Kinney member Carrie Brownstein.

Although she may not be remembered as she once said she wished to be – “as the greatest nightclub singer ever” – Ephron might take solace in the frenzy of appreciation that followed her death. The reappearance of When Harry Met Sally… (1989) in UK cinemas as part of the BFI’s ‘LOVE’ season is just one manifestation. A documentary portrait, Everything Is Copy, directed by her son Jacob Bernstein, debuted at the 2015 New York Film Festival and is set to screen on HBO in spring. A new Amazon series, Good Girls Revolt, will feature the young Ephron as a character, played by Grace Gummer, daughter of her frequent collaborator Meryl Streep.

When Harry Met Sally (1989)

When Harry Met Sally (1989)

It isn’t only the success of When Harry Met Sally…, Sleepless in Seattle (1993) and You’ve Got Mail (1998) that will have contributed to the likes of Dunham, Poehler and Fey feeling the influence of Ephron through their formative years. Her influence got around, touching journalism, literature and television as well as cinema. It was after the success of When Harry Met Sally… (which was not wholly expected; the film opened against the summer blockbusters Batman, Ghostbusters II, Licence to Kill and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, and like many films not pitched squarely at teenage boys, was not seen as much of a commercial prospect) that the American sitcom developed its fascination with the will-they-won’t-they male-female friendship. Friends and its subsequent imitators – How I Met Your Mother, Happy Endings, The Big Bang Theory – all echo Ephron’s comedies, not only in their depiction of fitfully platonic partnership, but in their middle-class urban milieus and their preoccupation with the support structures and social neuroses of mildly dysfunctional people. While Seinfeld would never have included anything so soppy as the last-act declaration of love in When Harry Met Sally…, Ephron’s caustic wit and attention to minutiae was still in its DNA. And Ally McBeal and Sex and the City clearly channelled Ephron’s kind of romcom, even as they set it up as an unattainable romantic ideal. Hell, Ephron herself knew it was an unattainable romantic ideal. She once noted that when people confided to her that they were in situations comparable to the plot of When Harry Met Sally…, “I want to say to them, it’s probably not gonna work!”

Why the positive consensus? During her lifetime, after all, Ephron’s reputation had its ups and downs. The great fame she built over the 1960s and 1970s as a journalist, essayist and television personality brought with it the gossip and envy that great fame tends to bring; and marriage in 1976 to the Watergate superhero Carl Bernstein brought more. A long-form piece of snippiness from a 1983 issue of New York Magazine cites some friendly accounts of her, but reports that “when her name comes up in conversation, as it often does in New York literary circles, you are much more likely to hear it from someone who has been the target of one of her barbs… or someone who has been cut dead by her in the presence of her more celebrated friends, or someone who has been suddenly dropped by her after what seemed like years of friendship… As one of them once put it, ‘I want to see her crawl over broken glass.’”

Heartburn (1986)

Heartburn (1986)
Credit: Photofest NYC

The publication of her novel Heartburn, a very thinly veiled portrait of her separation from Bernstein in the wake of his infidelity, gave the world a classic of comic fiction and a model for the genre now known as chick-lit. But many thought it indiscreet and self-serving of her to make the private so public. And her career as a screenwriter and director, though studded with good, great and hugely influential works, also features films widely regarded as duds, such as the messy Christmas ensemble Mixed Nuts (1994), the gooey angel fantasy Michael (1996) and the reviled Bewitched (2005). “Even within a single movie,” wrote Matt Weinstock in the Paris Review soon after her death, “there are moments of rapturous sublimity and moments you feel like crossing the street to avoid.”

It may be that her inconsistency, as both a creative force and a hit-maker, is part of the reason Ephron’s stock is so high at present. Prominent in the current conversation about the film industry’s inadequate representation of female workers has been what Rebecca Keegan recently called in the Los Angeles Times the “Ishtar effect”: the phenomenon, named after Elaine May’s box-office disaster, whereby male directors survive flop after flop, but a high-stakes failure from a female director is an instant threat to her livelihood. Whether through the quality of her best work, or through sheer chutzpah, Ephron earned the right to fail, and that makes her an interesting anomaly among female directors.

Not that she was interested in being grouped thus. Her feminism was of a brusque, take-charge kind that eschewed special pleading. “I can’t stand people complaining,” she told Ariel Levy in the New Yorker in 2009. “So it’s not a conversation that interests me, do you know? Those endless women-in-film panels. It’s like, just do it! Just do it.”

Inside out

This unfashionable aversion to identity politics aside, the gaze that Ephron turned on relationships (the theme that dominated her oeuvre, though not, she claimed, by design: she once said her closet was “full of political scripts” and indeed the first theatrical feature she wrote was the nuclear whistleblower drama Silkwood in 1983) is extraordinarily compatible with current sensibilities. As a chronicler of her own life, she displayed an irreverent, confessional style and a whimsical eye for life’s small absurdities that precisely anticipated the online cult of self-revelation. As a celebrity, she was an insider-outsider, unabashedly enjoying her place in America’s intellectual and show-business glitterati even as she mocked the eccentricities and hypocrisies of those institutions in her writing.

And in all that she wrote and made, she balanced harshness and hope, ensuring that clever people didn’t have to feel compromised by reading her, and dumb people didn’t find her too artily nihilistic. Her smart observations cosseted her audiences into feeling special – part of the sharp set, allowed in on the bitchy joke – and yet she absolutely insisted upon happy endings. Look at Heartburn, filmed in 1986 by Mike Nichols with Streep in the Ephron role and Jack Nicholson as Bernstein. One of the most unsparing romans à clef in the history of American letters, it was derided by one columnist as “indecent exploitation” and “child abuse” for what it might do to the Bernstein children, one of whom was in utero at the time of his father’s affair. Yet it’s also warm, soothing, redemptive and includes instructions for the perfect mashed potatoes.

Sleepless in Seattle (1993)

Sleepless in Seattle (1993)

Unsurprisingly Ephron’s movie characters mimicked her spiky/cute style, and sometimes lifted lines from her personal writing wholesale. (Well, if you come up with weirdly resonant little quips like “Pesto is the quiche of the 80s” or “Thin. Pretty. Big tits. Your basic nightmare”, you may as well reuse them more than once.)

On the whole, however, her film work waxes considerably soppier than the writing she left on the page. Lines like When Harry Met Sally’s “I came here tonight because when you realise you want to spend the rest of your life with somebody, you want the rest of your life to start as soon as possible” allowed that film to mop up viewers for whom Woody Allen’s worldview remained a tad too cynical. In Meg Ryan, meanwhile, Ephron found an onscreen avatar able to embody jaded urban neurosis and all-American, button-nosed adorability at the same time. Her most successful films as a director, Sleepless in Seattle and You’ve Got Mail, would also utilise Ryan – and land the actress with a ditzy-cute persona she would struggle to shed.

If audiences embraced these films, critics kept Ephron at arm’s length, particularly when she directed. In the context of her current status as a legend in the making, it’s rather shocking to scan back over the opprobrium she attracted at the height of her box-office powers. Even positive reviews favoured the tack that Ephron somehow got you against your better judgement, critics straining to assure the reader that while she might warm the odd cockle, it wasn’t to be imagined that she was actually good. “It’s a stunt,” wrote Vincent Canby of Sleepless in Seattle in the New York Times, “but a stunt that works far more effectively than anybody in his right mind has reason to expect.” The right-minded would apply still less generosity to their treatment of You’ve Got Mail – and these are Ephron’s classics, her acclaimed films.

You’ve Got Mail (1998)

You’ve Got Mail (1998)

Even Ephron’s strongest defenders might concede that appreciation of her films must co-exist with an awareness that they shut out many of life’s inconveniences, make giant leaps of emotional logic and sometimes say things about men and women that seem a bit patronising to one or the other constituency. The idea that men are brainlessly oversexed and women ditzy, high-maintenance and marriage-crazed drives When Harry Met Sally… just as much as the pair’s delightful banter does; and even Ephron’s most ostensibly revealing work in essay and memoir has a certain sparkly evasiveness about it.

Yet the dismissal of her as a meaningful creator skips something astute and prescient in her oeuvre, which is illuminated in the way in which it continues to speak to fans, in particular female ones. It’s not only that she gave guilty pleasure a patina of cleverness. Her female characters were neither glossily idealised ‘strong women’, nor flamboyantly needy messes.

She had a particular skill for portraying two things frequently denied to women on screen: friendships and food. And in the phone calls of When Harry Met Sally…, the radio chat and letters of Sleepless in Seattle, the emails of You’ve Got Mail and the food bloggery of Julie & Julia (2009), she persistently found interesting ways to extend communication on screen – to scrape away the niceties of face-to-face dialogue in order to take us closer to her characters’ realities.

Julie & Julia (2009)

Julie & Julia (2009)

While few would credit her with a flawless CV, the impulse to denigrate Ephron for triviality or cutesiness must be scrutinised for tendencies identified by Emily Nussbaum in a recent New Yorker piece about the scorn now heaped on the once-respected Sex and the City: “It’s a classic misunderstanding, I think, stemming from an unexamined hierarchy: the assumption that anything stylized (or formulaic, or pleasurable, or funny, or feminine, or explicit about sex rather than about violence, or made collaboratively) must be inferior.” One might judge that this “misunderstanding” (a generous way of putting it) has reached its most extreme expression with the extraordinary level of criticism meted out to Lena Dunham for the self-exposure her work features.

Dunham has taken the Ephron style to much more exposing and uncomfortable places than Ephron ever did. But if the synthetic sweetness of her films appears unhip, Ephron’s other trademarks – introspection cut with self-deprecation; a merciless eye for the foibles of others; judicious deployment of schmaltz – seem to have set a precise blueprint for how to be a woman who entertains today. For her famous acolytes, an Ephron name-check communicates something specific. It says: I am outspoken and maybe a bit political, but I still have the common touch. I am clever, but not too clever to make millions. Sad things may have happened to me, but I can make them funny. I am weird – but I’m marketably weird.

Perhaps, indeed, it’s the strobe-light effect of Ephron’s insights – now you see me, now you don’t; now I capture a profundity, now I coast on cliché – that makes her such a totem for female creators working in the glare of intrusive and intensely critical media. Poehler learned from her study of Heartburn not how to tell all, but how not to: her own post-divorce memoir reveals precisely nothing about her divorce. Fey – the most oft-anointed “new Nora” – has become America’s sweetheart without either being very sweet or offering up her heart. In a showbiz milieu that likes women to crack, their admired and maligned predecessor controlled the story about herself, offering up exactly as much as she wanted to. After flop or hit film, good or bad review, miserable break-up or devastating diagnosis, composure was regained and a quip readied. Little wonder Ephron’s fans and followers remain hungry for some of what she was having.

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