Why Nora Ephron's Films Made Such an Impact: A Critic's Take

Nora Ephron at the "Julie & Julia" premiere
Nora Ephron at the "Julie & Julia" premiere
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NEW YORK -- National news and entertainment outlets this morning are full of Nora Ephron career assessments, personal testimonials and outpourings of fandom in readers’ comments sections. This is particularly so in New York, the city that Ephron called home and where her roots as a journalist and essayist stretch back to the 1960s.

Reading over those tributes, it strikes me that beyond the forgiving critical appraisals and selective memory that invariably follow a sudden celebrity death, Ephron’s contribution to contemporary film culture was far more significant than her uneven output would indicate.

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For many folks who met their partners around the time of When Harry Met Sally ..., for instance, or Sleepless in Seattle, those romantic comedies conjure potent memories of falling in love. They are nostalgic throwbacks to the verbal comedies of earlier decades -- grounded in chemistry, character and dialogue rather than in high concepts -- that allowed audiences to feel like grown-ups as they smiled and swooned.

Directed by Rob Reiner from Ephron’s screenplay, When Harry Met Sally ... was released in 1989 and dismissed by many of the more serious critics as Woody Allen lite. The 1993 Sleepless in Seattle was directed by Ephron from a script she co-wrote with David S. Ward and Jeff Arch, inspired by the 1957 Cary Grant-Deborah Kerr vehicle, An Affair to Remember. It also drew a blah response from many major critics, who objected to its transparent emotional manipulation.

But, call them cutesy or featherweight, those Ephron films -- with their central questions about whether friendship can spawn a couple or whether true love can surmount any obstacle -- struck a popular chord. Tapping into a hunger for old-fashioned romance and sophisticated wit, they acquired classic status for many in their generation.

And when measured today against the overwritten Hallmark porn of, say, Crazy, Stupid, Love, the ostentatious lifestyle marketing of It’s Complicated or the insufferably glossy treacle of those Garry Marshall holiday movies, Valentine’s Day and New Year’s Eve (What’s next? Rosh Hashanah?), Ephron’s best romantic comedies do hold up.

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I’m less inclined toward You’ve Got Mail, the strained 1998 Internet-age Ernst Lubitsch rehash that reteamed Ephron’s Sleepless leads Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan. But that film also has no shortage of admirers, and who’s to deny them that pleasure?

Not much can be said in defense of the twee John Travolta-as-angel fable Michael (1996), the mummified Steve Martin farce Mixed Nuts (1994) or the fun-deprived 2005 Bewitched redo that starred a mismatched Nicole Kidman and Will Ferrell. But for someone who delivered her share of clunkers, Ephron’s reputation has endured, perhaps also partly due to the popularity of her smart and acerbic nonscreen writing.

My personal debt to Ephron is that, together with Mike Nichols, she forced me to appreciate the protean gifts of Meryl Streep.

When Streep first blazed her trail from the New York stage into film -- in The Deer Hunter, Kramer vs. Kramer, The French Lieutenant’s Woman and Sophie’s Choice, among others -- there was much division over whether she was a natural screen actor or a virtuoso technician. I’m paraphrasing, but the British novelist and filmmaker Chris Petit famously compared watching Streep perform to being forced to study the mechanisms of a Swiss watch when you just want to know the time.

In Silkwood, the 1983 biodrama about the plutonium processing-plant whistle-blower Karen Silkwood, which Nichols directed from Ephron and Alice Arlen’s screenplay, Streep was humanized, relaxing fully into a flesh-and-blood character arguably for the first time. She was also vulnerable and funny in ways she hadn’t much shown onscreen up to that point.

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The same was true for Heartburn in 1986, again directed by Nichols from Ephron’s adaptation of her own roman à clef. That thinly veiled and wonderfully entertaining novel (with recipes!) chronicles the breakup of Ephron’s marriage to Washington reporter Carl Bernstein when she discovered he was cheating on her while she was expecting their second child. Playing Ephron stand-in Rachel Samstat opposite Jack Nicholson as the philandering writer, Streep was grounded, real, relatable -- even in an imperfect movie adaptation.

I’m less enamored of Streep in bravura impersonation mode, playing Julia Child in Ephron’s final film, Julie & Julia, in 2009. But there’s no disputing that Ephron’s writing -- and in this case also her direction -- coaxed something playful and liberating out of the woman now pretty much universally acknowledged as America’s greatest living screen actress.

At her best, Ephron brought droll observational skills to her view of relationships and a feel for female friendships that endeared her in particular to women viewers. Some of the standout moments of When Harry Met Sally ... involve the interplay between Ryan and Carrie Fisher. Likewise the prickly warmth that characterizes Streep’s scenes with Cher in Silkwood. The same goes for the girlfriend banter in Heartburn, with Stockard Channing as Rachel’s supportive pal and Catherine O’Hara as her gossiping conduit to bitchy revenge.

The bonds forged among women over their shared relationship scars and the significance of wardrobe in key chapters of their lives made a surprise hit out of the off-Broadway play Love, Loss, and What I Wore, adapted by Ephron and her sister Delia from the book by Ilene Beckerman.

Ephron’s other forays into the theater were limited, notably the short-lived 2002 Broadway play Imaginary Friends, about the rivalry between Lillian Hellman and Mary McCarthy. She was slated to return to Broadway early next year with Lucky Guy, about the colorful New York tabloid reporter and columnist Mike McAlary. George C. Wolfe had been confirmed as director of the play, with Hanks reportedly in talks to star; reps were unable to confirm the production’s status on Wednesday.

I found myself sitting directly behind an unaccompanied Ephron three years ago at a cozy West Village theater where David Cromer’s revelatory staging of Our Town was running. Petite and stylishly outfitted, she sat in what I read as riveted stillness throughout the emotionally charged production, in which the house lights were never fully dimmed and the audience became almost indistinguishable from the residents of Thornton Wilder’s fictional New Hampshire village, Grover’s Corners. As a chronic seat sloucher, I remember admiring her posture.

I was tempted to introduce myself and engage Ephron in conversation during intermission, curious to know how the writer and director was responding to this intimate and quite radical reinterpretation of an American classic. Now I’m sorry I didn’t.

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