I have never been embarrassed about my love of rom-coms. From as early as I can remember, I have enjoyed watching the cliché true love story. From Bridget Jones to Notting Hill, romantic comedies are the one genre I can re-watch again and again and again. But I’ll be the first to admit that they don’t always quite hit the mark, especially the newer Netflix attempts. Whilst I’ll still watch them, they are always just that bit too cringey. And whilst I am not one to judge people who genuinely enjoy The Kissing Booth or The Perfect Date (okay maybe just a bit), I find myself always going back to the same few movies. Three in particular actually: Sleepless in Seattle, When Harry met Sally, and You’ve Got Mail. Whilst these movies are in no way under the radar or unheard of, I still believe they don’t get quite as much credit as they deserve. Especially considering all three came from the brain of one person—Nora Ephron.
Nora Ephron was a woman of many skills, she was a journalist, writer, and filmmaker who was nominated for three Oscars throughout her career. After graduating college, she was an intern at the White House during John F. Kennedy’s presidency. She was part of a class-action lawsuit against the Newsweek magazine for sexual discrimination after they refused to hire women writers (she was offered the position of mail girl instead). Ephron wrote a novel about her deteriorating marriage which she then adapted into a screenplay for the movie Heartburn (1986) in which Meryl Streep played her – because who wouldn’t want Meryl Streep to play them in a movie? And was even entwined with the infamous Watergate scandal after correctly identifying the anonymous informer ‘Deep Throat’ for articles written by her journalist ex-husband.
Whilst Ephron worked on a number of films and screenplays throughout the ‘80s, her script for When Harry Met Sally was the real standout. Released in 1989, the film follows the decade-long relationship between Harry (Billy Crystal) and Sally (Meg Ryan). Starting with a chance encounter as recent graduates, the film follows Harry and Sally after they accidentally reunite years later. When Harry Met Sally tackles the big question – can women and men be friends, or does sex get in the way? I like to believe that this is the start of what I call the holy trinity of Nora Ephron movies – sure she had other films that were great and notable, but these three in particular just work.
The second of this trinity is Sleepless in Seattle, of which Ephron both wrote the script and directed. Released in 1993, the film follows Annie Reed (Meg Ryan) who becomes infatuated with recently widowed father Sam Baldwin (Tom Hanks) after his son calls into a radio talk show to help his father find love. As I try to explain the plot I know it sounds kind of creepy, but trust me, it is romantic – it even includes a cliché will-they-or-won’t-they meet at the top of the Empire State Building scene which is very An Affair To Remember. Sam and his very cute son Jonah also live on a houseboat, which means that after watching this film you too will want to live on the water.
Rounding out this rom-com holy trinity is You’ve Got Mail, which follows Kathleen Kelly (yes, Meg Ryan again), the owner of a small children’s bookshop – ‘The Shop Around the Corner.’ Throughout the film, Kathleen’s life is turned upside down by the arrival of a Barnes & Noble-esque bookstore chain ‘Fox Books.’ But don’t fear, to distract her, she has an anonymous email pal ‘NY152’ who she met in an over-30’s chat room. Opposite to Kathleen in this 1998 film is Joe Fox (and Tom Hanks again!) and whilst the storyline is definitely outdated (independent book shops? Emails? Dial-up internet?), this written and directed by Ephron film is surprisingly relevant in today’s online dating world. You’ve Got Mail again utilises the cliché yet perfect backdrop of NYC, and includes a cute dog named Brinkley.
Yes, they are old. And yes, they are slightly outdated, but these movies really do have it all, in my very biased opinion. They have the envious wardrobes, cliché New York City backdrops, and funny sidekicks every good rom-com needs. They don’t necessarily have the hottest or best good-looking male leads that tend to dominate the genre, but they do have real chemistry between characters, which not a lot of rom-coms always manage to capture. Ephron’s dialogue is genuine and authentic; the movies are, for the most part, not dependent on looks or physical attraction, and love is never a sudden blinding spectacle. The characters slowly fall in love after meaningful connections which is slightly more realistic than some other films and if you don’t believe me just see what Harry says to Sally:
“I love that you get cold when it's 71 degrees out. I love that it takes you an hour and a half to order a sandwich. I love that you get a little crinkle above your nose when you're looking at me like I'm nuts. I love that after I spend the day with you, I can still smell your perfume on my clothes. And I love that you are the last person I want to talk to before I go to sleep at night. And it's not because I'm lonely, and it's not because it's New Year's Eve. 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.”
Meg Ryan’s characters in these films are not the annoyingly-desperate-and-alone type of heroine either. Ephron created strong female lead characters who were independent and successful in their own right – they have jobs, and friends, and most of the time are in relationships already. They aren’t looking for love, it just happens. The female characters are independent and not afraid to say what they think, nor are they damsels in distress. Ephron once stated that she tried to “write parts for women that are as complicated and interesting as women actually are,” and I think that’s why her movies resonate with so many. Sure her movies always end with love conquering all, but Ephron created stories where couples who were clearly meant for each other, but just don’t know it yet, reconcile in a happy ending. Surprisingly, these picture-perfect endings never seem overly manufactured or foolish. Journalist Jessie Wright-Mendoza summed it up perfectly, explaining that “Ephron plays into our (women’s, at least) fantasies about romance and finding ‘the one,’ and magic and sparks and all that other sappy shit, but she doesn’t make fun of us for believing in or wanting said fantasies.”
Whilst Ephron is in essence the blueprint of the quintessential chick flick, she manages to challenge the genre at the same time. Throughout Sleepless in Seattle, the two protagonists spend most of the film apart, and their fate is ambiguous thanks to the rolling of the credits just as they meet. When Harry Met Sally’s memorable fake orgasm scene in the middle of a deli was ground-breaking at the time, with people still quoting the diner’s response, “I’ll have what she’s having,” almost 32 years later.
And it wasn’t just the films that made Nora Ephron a pioneer for women in the film industry, she herself was a feminist and profound essayist whose quotes are still impactful today. Her collection of essays, I Feel Bad About My Neck: And Other Thoughts on Being a Woman, was listed at #1 on The New York Times Non-Fiction Best Seller list, revealed her comedic style and rambling yet intimate inner thoughts. Whilst her witty commencement address to Wellesley College in 1996 is still surprisingly relevant – “Understand: Every attack on Hillary Clinton for not knowing her place is an attack on you.”
Nora Ephron’s far-reaching impacts are evident throughout the countless references to her and her work in pop culture today. In The Bold Type, Sutton yells “I’m Nora Ephron, Bitch,” after successfully negotiating a new job position. Mindy Lahiri’s favourite movie When Harry Met Sally is repeatedly mentioned throughout The Mindy Project, and even shapes the friends to more-than-friends relationship between Mindy and Danny (her obsession with the Empire State Building is also strongly shaped by her love of Sleepless in Seattle). Waiting for Tom Hanks, a book by Kerry Winfrey follows Annie Cassidy who dreams of being the next Nora Ephron and is filled with countless nods towards Ephron’s work.
Ephron’s movies were not without their faults though, and there are valid critiques about the very narrow perspectives that dominate her movies. However, the impact she had on female journalism and the film industry is undeniable. With so many writers highlighting her impact on their own work after her death in 2011. Yet the importance of her work is still frequently overlooked thanks to the chick flick label that many judge, but when looking past the problems of the rom-com genre it is evident just how smart, relatable, and authentic Ephron’s work was.