Ephron's female protagonists put themselves first. Credit: IMDB

May 19, 2021   6 mins

“Very few people end up knowing who you are,” Nora Ephron told an interviewer in 2010, two years before she died. An odd thing for her to say, in some ways, given that lots and lots of people do in fact know who Nora Ephron is. But there’s knowing and then there’s knowing: there’s recognising and then there’s understanding. And I don’t think Nora Ephron, who would have been 80 today, ever expected to be understood.

Even if you don’t know her name, you’ve probably seen her movies; and even if you haven’t seen her movies, you know about that bit of When Harry Met Sally. And even if you absolutely insist that you live in a state of perfect Ephron-innocence, the incredible pervasiveness of her work means she’s still the author and the architect of a large chunk of the way we all think about women and men and love. Her sensibility is the sensibility of the modern romcom. It feeds into most of the sitcoms that have been filmed in New York since 1989: Friends and Seinfeld and 30 Rock.

When someone’s influence is so strong, their originality can be obscured. The three films Ephron made starring Meg Ryan between 1989 and 1998 — When Harry Met Sally, Sleepless in Seattle and You’ve Got Mail match screwball sensibility with a dash of therapised insight, and always a happy ending (“I insist on happy endings,” wrote Ephron in her 1983 novel Heartburn). There’s the meet-cute, followed by a flurry of very funny adversity between Meg Ryan’s character and the male lead. Finally, love wins.

If it sounds cliched now, it’s only fair to acknowledge that Ephron was rewriting the rules at the time. The release of When Harry Met Sally coincided with what Susan Faludi considered the height of the anti-feminist backlash in cinema, when movies offered “morality tales in which the ‘good mother’ wins and the independent woman gets punished”, and told women that they were “unhappy because they were too free”. The same year When Harry Met Sally came out, Disney released The Little Mermaid, and I watched and rewatched Ariel on VHS, learning the songs and learning the message that a handsome prince is worth giving up your family, your home and even your voice for.

When Harry Met Sally has none of that. Sally has a job, just like Harry has a job, and you see exactly the same amount of each of them at work. There’s not even a hint that Sally needs to be broken in and saved from her own unseemly ambition. Sally has friends, and Harry has friends, and they both complain to their friends about the opposite sex — which means that the film fails the Bechdel test, but it also fails the anti-Bechdel test, so it all evens out. It’s equality, of a kind.

It’s certainly not a morality tale. Sally’s best friend Marie (played by Carrie Fisher) starts the movie as the mistress of a never-seen married man: the running joke is that every conversation concludes with her saying “he’ll never leave her”. And is Marie punished for this assault on the institution of monogamy? Is she perhaps drowned in the bath and then shot in the chest by the wronged wife, Fatal Attraction-style?

No, she is not. Instead Marie meets and marries a perfectly nice man, and they’re very happy together. When Harry Met Sally’s diner scene giddily busted the omertà around men’s sexual incompetence and the way women cosset men’s egos; but on my last watch, the cool refusal of judgement towards the adulteress struck me as equally feminist in a quiet way.

But I’m watching as an Ephron fan. Not everybody was: in the less sympathetic reviews of her movies, which were often written by men, words like “saccharine” and “whimsy” were used. The spectre of the “soccer mom” was invoked damningly to represent the audience for these films because, ugh, what could be more repellent than something women like — and not even hot young women you might want to date, but the middle-aged kind who already have kids? Disgusting.

As angry as I am about the sexism here, it ought to be noted that Ephron was deeply sanguine about people who didn’t get her. “Very few people end up knowing who you are” wasn’t a complaint, it was an observation. She went on: “I just mean that most people are misunderstood in some way
 But I don’t really think about it a whole lot. And if I do think about it, I think I must do something to make them misunderstand me. But, what’s for dinner?”

There’s something arguably bleak about what Ephron says here, her insistence on piling responsibility on herself. But there’s also something freeing about deciding not to be at the mercy of other people: if she wanted to change, perhaps she could, but she’d rather think about dinner. And it’s possible that she didn’t seek total understanding: she disclosed a lot in her writing (the mess of her marriages, her dislike of her small breasts, her anxiety about ageing), but she did it on her own terms. When she received her terminal cancer diagnosis, she kept that to herself.

What can one do about other people anyway, besides carry on despite them? It was an attitude that served her well as woman in male-dominated businesses — first journalism, then filmmaking. Regardless of the unfairness, you simply had to work ferociously and be very good. In her very last interview, given in 2011, she said: “It’s a weird thing because it’s a fact, and yet you have to behave as if it’s not a fact. Here’s the given: It’s really hard for women.” And what made it hard wasn’t just the men, but the women too.

In the 1960s, when Ephron started her career as a journalist, forward-thinking publications accepted that a woman could be a writer; what many struggled with was the idea that more than one woman could be a writer. In a generously critical piece about Dorothy Parker from 1973 — generous towards the woman, critical about the self-pickling one-of-the-guys myth — Ephron wrote: “One no longer wants to be the only woman at the table.” But when the men refused to budge up, regardless of what you wanted, the women were left scrapping over that single spot.

Ephron knew the strength of sisterhood, as in the Sally-Marie kind, without naively expecting it to be women’s default state. Marie is, after all, hurting another woman by having her affair, and Ephron knew perfectly well the pain of being the betrayed party: Heartburn is a lightly fictionalised account of finding herself in that position when she was married to Carl Bernstein. Ephron’s feminism starts from the understanding that women are individuals, with their own baggage, their own interests.

This would have made her a brilliant commentator on today’s feminist splits over gender identity, prostitution and sex. She firmly denied being in the radical camp of feminism, although her scathing assessment of Jan Morris’s transition memoir Conundrum would have her labelled as one now (it’s fair to say that Ephron did not think trans women are women, and she was fortunate in a way to die before that could be held against her). But I think she would have been quick to grasp that many of these splits spring from women fighting proxy wars — for seniority over each other, for the approval of men.

She urged younger women to use the freedoms that had been won for them. “I hope you will find some way to break the rules and make a little trouble out there,” she said when she gave the 1996 commencement address to all-female college Wellesley. “And I also hope that you will choose to make some of that trouble on behalf of women.” It’s stirring stuff, and pay attention to the order: doing something for women as a whole is the highest ambition, but it comes last. First, make your own trouble. A man would.

Maybe it seems impossible to reconcile Nora Ephron, romcom queen, with the rabble-rouser of the commencement address. Does any genre seem less likely to be disruptive than the one that moves, with the elegant logic of a snare, to the moment the two leads are yoked together in heterosexual happiness? But think of it this way: the Ephron romcom isn’t propaganda for love, it’s propaganda for women wanting. Food is an Ephron obsession (Heartburn’s main character Rachel is a cookery writer), and appetite is the ruling principle.

“In case you are wondering, of course you can have it all,” she told the Wellesley students. “What are you going to do? Everything, is my guess.” It’s a prospect that’s as intimidating as it is inspiring, but why shouldn’t you do everything? She did. No wonder those male reviewers worried that soccer moms would catch seditious ideas about, for example, wanting to love and be loved, and to have good sex where they didn’t have to fake it, and enjoy an interesting professional life as well. I don’t think Nora Ephron expected to be understood by the boys. I think she was too busy making trouble to care about that.

Sarah Ditum is a columnist, critic and feature writer.