It couldn't have been more than six months ago that a male friend and I were engaged in an uncharacteristically earnest Gchat conversation about the genius of "When Harry Met Sally..." And as philosophical discussions of that sort often go, we couldn't help but wonder why they don't make romantic comedies like they used to. (Oh, the loathsome they: such a handy scapegoat!)
Of course, each generation is wont to think theirs did it best, but it was probably a curious conversation for us to be having considering we hadn't even finished the second grade when the film debuted in 1989. But our belated affinity for the film speaks volumes to the timelessness of a screenplay written by filmmaker Nora Ephron, who died Tuesday at the age of 71.
Ephron wasn't the first to ponder the oft-fraught friendships that develop between men and women, but her commentary on the subject remains among the most true. More than 20 years after Harry (Billy Crystal) and Sally (Meg Ryan) met and road-tripped from Chicago to New York City, the question of whether the "sex part" always gets in the way continues to be a favorite cinematic trope (see: "Friends With Benefits," "No Strings Attached"). But those efforts seem superfluous in the shadow of Ephron's Oscar-nominated achievement.
The New York-born writer was a journalist by trade, who made her foray into feature films with 1983's "Silkwood," which starred Meryl Streep, Kurt Russell and Cher. Ephron (along with co-screenwriter Alice Arlen) received her first of three Oscar noms for the biopic's script based on the life of Karen Silkwood, who died under suspicious circumstances while investigating the processing plant where she worked. Ephron penned a handful of dramatic screenplays (including a a few politically charged scripts that never saw the light of day), but it is her earnest romantic comedies that Ephron will always be remembered for.
To wit, today's mostly treacly romantic romps make Ephron's films seem a revelation— and, thankfully, never once a rescue mission. Her female characters were never sad-sack spinsters whose only aim was to find a man. In fact, oftentimes, such as in "Sleepless in Seattle" and "You've Got Mail," the female protagonist was already in a relationship when a new one began to blossom with the real Mr. Right.
But if an Ephron heroine were ever to be considered in need of salvation, so too were her heroes: both equally formidable and equally flawed. In "Sleepless in Seattle," Meg Ryan's Annie, stuck in a lackluster relationship with Bill Pullman's Walter, was as much rescued by Tom Hanks' widowed Sam as she rescued him, bringing him back to life atop the twinkling Empire State Building.
Much of what made Ephron's characters so indelible was what came out of their mouths. The screenwriter excelled at witty, quippy dialogue that often beat with the quickened pulse of New York City (a frequent setting for her films). I mean, "I'll have what she's having"? Come on! And don't even get me started on Harry's proclamation of love to Sally. To this day, I can't even read the monologue without getting a little misty-eyed: "... 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 realize you want to spend the rest of your life with somebody, you want the rest of your life to start as soon as possible." (Do yourself a favor and read her entire quotes page on Goodreads.)
Of course, Ephron wasn't just a scribe but a keen director, who got the best out of her actors and understood the power of a Meg Ryan-Tom Hanks one-two punch. And in the end, she had no delusions about what her career was and wasn't, telling MTV News in a 2009 interview while promoting her final film, "Julie & Julia," that she never felt penned in by the romantic-comedy genre.
"I'm not complaining about any box that I'm in, because I can write whatever I want," Ephron said. "Fortunately, I'm not just in the movie business, so I don't feel that the only way I can express myself is by the movies I make."
Fortunately for us, she was in the movie business, and she never once faked it.
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