Nora Ephron knew how to make me cry. Or at least she knew how to spark those first pinpricks of tears in the corners of my eye, and transform my upper chest region to the consistency of caramelly goo, a feeling akin to what I assume would happen if somebody randomly handed me a puppy. (Do people do that? They should.)
Those are the feelings we get at the moment of revelation in a truly great romantic comedy, when it becomes clear that the seemingly insurmountable obstacles in the path of true happiness will be removed, and our newfound pals on the screen will be together forever.
In a great rom-com, the audience ends up investing so much in the characters’ happiness that we wish we had confetti to throw at the end. And Nora Ephron wrote a stack of them, including the best one I’ve ever seen, When Harry Met Sally. (Annie Hall comes second, largely because the ending made me sad, and Some Like It Hot third.) Harry and Sally’s cultural impact when they arrived back in 1989 is hard to overstate – so many of its scenes have become iconic.
To this day, if you visit Katz’s Deli on the Lower East Side, you’ll see an arrow suspended from the ceiling, pointing down at the very seat on which Meg Ryan faked that “I’ll have what she’s having” orgasm. And yes, you can order the same thing Sally Albright ordered, if you insist.
(I’ve just remembered that the film’s director, Rob Reiner, asked his mother Estelle to perform that line. Which makes me appreciate the scene all the more.)
Even if she’d only written that film, I’d still be mourning Ephron today. Like all great narrative writing, it both captures a precise moment in time, and touches upon the universal. The famous debate about whether men and women can be friends, or whether “sex gets in the way” as Harry Burns postulated, rages on to this day.
Wikipedia also reminds me that the “transitional person” and the term “high-maintenance” had their origins in the film, and it’s worth remembering that for Harry and Sally to have so many other relationships on the way to getting together was a fairly edgy thing back in 1989. In particular, Sally was no princess waiting in an ivory tower for her prince. Even when we first met her, upon leaving college, she proved she was no less sexually experienced than the boastful Harry – that was ultimately the point of the orgasm scene. It’s unsurprising that Sally’s character was created by a female writer, and it’s often said that she was based on Ephron herself.
The way Harry and Sally lived in New York, supported by enduring friendships while they navigated through a series of non-enduring relationships before they found the right person, is how many of us went onto live over the following decades. Whereas comedy had previously revolved around the nuclear family, When Harry Met Sally blazed something of a trail for smart, inner-city thirtysomething comedy. In particular, Friends owes Nora Ephron an enormous debt, particularly when Chandler and Monica – in many respects a second wisecracking Harry Burns and endearingly neurotic Sally Albright – got together.
Her other big hit, Sleepless in Seattle, was almost too schmaltzy for me, what with the widower and his son and everything, but the payoff still worked on me. I haven’t seen Heartburn, though I’ll make sure I do, having read a great deal about it since Ephron’s death. With Jack Nicholson and Meryl Streep, it’s almost certain to be excellent.
Romantic comedy is my favourite genre, bringing engaging characters together through satisfying banter and then peeling back their fast-talkin’ exteriors to expose their inner vulnerability, creating the opportunity for tenderness and ultimately happiness. It’s a narrative trick that’s worked since at least Much Ado About Nothing, where Beatrice and Benedick spar wittily before winding up together. And two characters in one another’s arms is perhaps the most satisfying of all narrative endings – in a rom-com, love is a redemptive force which heals all narrative ills. In fiction, it truly is all you need, as the Beatles put it – it’s never necessary to explore exactly how the Harrys and Sallys of this world will function after their clinch on that rooftop on New Year’s Eve. We just know that it’s going to work out.
Life’s more complicated than that, of course – in reality, the two lovers have to wake up the morning after their fairytale wedding, and figure out how to co-exist, and age together. Ephron gave us a sense of that challenge through the mini-interviews that she sprinkled throughout When Harry Met Sally, culminating in the titular couple’s own. It seems that Heartburn deals more explicitly with this theme.
To be honest, I’m such a sucker for rom-coms that I even found myself on the verge of tears in You’ve Got Mail, an Ephron effort that time has remembered somewhat less fondly. I watched it again a few months ago, and I hate to admit it, but the romance still worked on me, even though the premise of the huge chain bookshop destroying the smaller independent one now feels extremely dated – today, Tom Hanks’ megastore would had been ground into dust by the internet, while the smaller, friendlier bookshops like Meg Ryan’s have in many cases survived.
While I’ve only watched half a dozen of Nora Ephron’s movies, it’s more than enough to say this: she’s a one-woman contradiction of those chauvinist who doubts that women can be funny. (I expect when Christopher Hitchens called her, Ephron was being polite.) It’s sad to reflect that decades after she began writing hugely successful screenplays, there still aren’t many female screenwriters in Hollywood – but that at least allows us to appreciate what a trailblazer she was.
And now that she’s gone, she has us blinking our tears away again. The best way to remember Nora Ephron is to re-experience her work, of course, and to discover new aspects of her writing – I had never read any of her New Yorker pieces before now, for instance, and I’ve no doubt her autobiography will be worth reading as well, especially judging by the taster of this piece on Deep Throat.
And whenever I want to watch a movie that makes me laugh as well as imagine, even if just for one brief, delightful moment, that love can solve all the problems in the world, I’ll have what Nora Ephron gave us.