Thursday, June 28, 2012

I'll Have What She Had

The trick to Nora Ephron's work was that it was written from a woman's perspective but it didn't make fools of the men.

Ephron, the screenwriter/director/producer who passed away on Tuesday (age 71) after a bout with leukemia, wrote some of the best romantic comedies of her generation. She wrote them as a woman, for women, but the male characters were some of the best on screen as well.

An Ephron film, at its best, drew gobs of men to the theater, and not just as polite dates.

But for all of Ephron's notoriety as a master of the rom-com, it was a decidedly different type of story that opened up doors for her.

That would be Silkwood (1983), the adaptation of the true story of Karen Silkwood, the whistle-blowing worker for a plutonium plant who died in a mysterious car accident. Ephron wrote the screenplay and turned the directing over to no less than Mike Nichols. A writer could do worse.

After the success of Silkwood, things got less serious and more funny in Ephron's words and screen direction.

There was 1986's Heartburn, which, like Silkwood, starred Meryl Streep, who paired with Jack Nicholson. Again, Ephron wrote and Nichols directed.

But Ephron will probably forever be tied to When Harry Met Sally.., a smash hit starring Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan. The pairing of Crystal and Ryan, who had on-screen chemistry to the nth degree, plus Ephron's writing and Rob Reiner's direction, was a lethal box office combination.

Among the most famous scenes in cinematic history has Ryan faking an orgasm in a diner, after which an older woman (Reiner's mother in real life) deadpans to her waiter, "I'll have what she's having."

One of the funniest lines ever, right? But someone had to write it. That would be Nora Ephron.

Ryan popped up in another Ephron vehicle (this one she directed as well), Sleepless in Seattle, in which Ryan shared billing, but precious little screen time, with Tom Hanks.

That lack of shared screen time would be more than rectified in 1998's You've Got Mail, among one of the first movies to acknowledge the power of the burgeoning Internet. Ryan and Hanks demonstrated the same sparks together as Ryan and Crystal did nine years earlier in Harry.

Ephron, by this time, was done being just a writer; she was now producing and directing everything she wrote, and thus became one of the few female filmmakers who wielded some genuine power in Hollywood.


Nora Ephron: 1941-2012


Her most recent work was 2009's Julie and Julia, a foodie rom-com in which the Julia in the title was famed chef Julia Child.

But the common thread that ran through her romantic comedies, and I can't emphasize this enough, was Ephron's ability, as both writer and director, to prop up women without downgrading men. Yes, there were some muted villains in some of Ephron's films (Old man Fox in You've Got Mail, who revels in putting other bookstores out of business), but for the most part, the men in her movies weren't dunderheads with bubbles coming out of the seat of their pants.

She wrote and directed movies that got both sexes to the theater willingly and with something for both genders. An Ephron film could be laughed at by the women without making their male dates squirm with shame.

Ephron once wrote a six-word biography for herself thusly, "Secret to life: marry an Italian."

But on a more serious level, she made no secret of her support for the female cause.

"Maybe young women don't wonder whether they can have it all any longer," she once said, "but in case any of you are wondering, of course you can have it all."

Takes one to know one.

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