Can we talk about Nora Ephron for a minute? Believe me, nothing makes me (or any writer for that matter, surely) feel as inarticulate as discussing one of a generation’s finest writers, but we’ll go there for the sake of the movies. I’ve been pleasantly, yet still curiously, surprised by the outpouring of sentiment regarding Ephron’s death at the age of 71. Surprised because I had assumed that the majority that make up “the voice of the internet” had long ago decided to dismiss her work as saccharine, sentimental mush made for few others than unhappy housewives and cooing girls with love issues. Whether it’s the immediate reflective afterglow after a celebrity’s death or a legitimate expression of fondness, the internet as an entity has seemingly paused to reflect positively on her career. For all of her faults – her career is as uneven as it is enviably rich. Bewitched, anyone? – it appears people have been able to put aside prejudices of genre and gender, and recognised Ephron’s work as some of the finest of her generation (or any other, for that matter).
That her earliest film success came in the guise of the small town crusader flick, Silkwood, starring Meryl Streep and Cher – think Erin Brockovich minus the push-up bras, but still just as brash – certainly strikes, in retrospect, as an anomaly. Ephron’s impact on the modern cinema landscape didn’t truly take hold until she decided to lend her distinctively Upper West Side Manhattan wit to the romantic comedy genre. I owe a lot of my fascination with New York to Nora Ephron, whose freakishly smart writing made the city a place of magical amazement in my impressionistic wonder years as a youngster with a growing affection for film. Woody Allen was a bit out of my grasp at that stage, but her impassioned pleas for love, the big city, and everything the two can achieve together made a grand impact on me. If I ever move to the Big Apple like I have dreamed of for so long, then I owe a little bit of that to Ms Ephron. Upon my duel visits to New York City I have visited many a location that she used to such great effect and I’d be lying if I said I hadn’t been swept up in the romance of it all.
The three films that inarguably gave Nora Ephron the cinematic cache that she had up until her death on Tuesday (and, inevitably, that cache will continue to live on in a land of dud Katherine Heigl vehicles and Valentine’s Day styled romcoms that lack both “rom” and “com” aspects) are the perfect fantasy friendship-turned-romance of When Harry Met Sally… (1989), the hopeful longing of Sleepless in Seattle (1993), and the new age discovery in You’ve Got Mail (1998). An unofficial trilogy of sorts – the connecting through lines are Ephron and star Meg Ryan – that examine three entirely different relationships, yet featuring characters that all yearn for the same thing. Sally takes the position of two people being friends for years only to then realise they’re in love; Seattle looks at two people who’ve never even met and then realise they’re in love; You’ve Got Mail is about two people who know, but also hate, each other, and then realise they’re in love. Ephron’s screenplays, two of which were nominated for Academy Awards, may share structural similarities in the sense that they adhere to certain genre rules, but what sets them apart is the effortless ease with which the character recites her sprightly springboard dialogue. If real humans said this stuff to one another you’d raise an eyebrow and wonder what the hell sort of behaviour modifying hallucinogens they were taking, but when these oh-so-NYC people spout poetry about “New York in the fall” or list off the ways they love another person in front of all their friends at a New Years Eve party it’s like the most romantic thing one can imagine. Where are the violins?
Of course, Ephron wasn’t just a screenwriter. She directed several films – including Seattle and Mail – and was also a renowned essayist and journalist. Much like how the television series The Golden Girls turned the issues of 50-something women into generation-bridging hilarity, Ephron’s books did much the same. I Feel Bad About My Neck, in which she discusses the greatest invention of all time (hair dye) and other anecdotes about being a woman, is an entertaining read for anybody with an interest in knowing more about the human race with more than a dash of witty charm. Her final film remains Julie & Julia, a look at famed cookbook author Julia Child and the New Yorker who set about cooking every recipe of her iconic French cuisine tome. For a film written by an affluent woman in her late 60s, it features some spot on observations about the life of a modern day writer and the world of the “blogosphere”, something that Ephron herself had waded into with her pieces appearing on The Huffington Post and elsewhere.
Ephron always had a keen eye on the expanding world, notably seen in You’ve Got Mail. It’s an unpopular opinion to hold, but that 1998 title – one that reconnected her Sleepless in Seattle stars, Ryan and Tom Hanks – is my personal favourite from her oeuvre. It is my number one go-to, never-fail bad mood cure and a solid gold example of what the genres current placeholders fail to grasp. The film is as much a love letter to the Upper West Side as it is the changing landscape of love and romance, although watching it in 2012 gives it a comical twist as Hanks’ massive book superstore would be out of business ala Borders and Ryan’s cute, niche children’s bookshop would be thriving. All part of the charm, really.
If you’re stuck for something to do on a cold, wintery night this weekend why not do yourself a favour and reacquaint yourselves with When Harry Met Sally…, Sleepless in Seattle and You’ve Got Mail. Make a night of it and bask in the unbridled joy and romance of it all. By the end, when Ryan utters those blessed words in Riverside Park to the swelling tune of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” in You’ve Got Mail you will surely be grinning ear to ear. And that, dear readers, is something to cherish.