Nora Ephron’s Potato-Chip Legacy
June 28, 2012 | by Matt Weinstock
In April The Believer declared Nora Ephron “the original Tina Fey.” This week, an obituary on The Daily Beast said that she was bigger than Twain. Both superlatives gloss over the fact that Ephron’s work was widely reviled (a Village Voice review of Bewitched even argued that “the Ephrons should have to sharecrop, for all the good they've done for the culture”) and that, even for Ephron devotees, part of the charm of seeing her latest flick was wondering whether it’d be typical Burbank dung (Mixed Nuts! Michael!) or a piece of deathless Hollywood legend.
Ephron kept dice in her purse, was willing to “teach almost anyone how to play craps at a moment’s notice,” and her writing had a gambler’s unevenness. The rambling digressiveness, along with the faint datedness, of her worldview only intensified your shock when Ephron arrived, seemingly by accident, at an incisive thought. Here she is in her 1983 roman à clef Heartburn, recounting a speech she often made while preparing Lillian Hellman’s pot roast recipe:
I have no problem with her political persona, or with her insistence on making herself the centerpiece of most of the historical conflicts of the twentieth century; but it seems to me that she invented a romantic fantasy about her involvement with Dashiell Hammett that is every bit as unrealistic as the Doris Day movies feminists prefer to blame for society’s unrealistic notions about romance … it occurred to me as I delivered [the speech] yet another time that I had always zipped through that part of the speech as if I had somehow managed to be invulnerable to the fantasy, as if I had somehow managed to escape from or rise above it simply as a result of having figured it out. I think you often have that sense when you write—that if you can spot something in yourself and set it down on paper, you’re free of it.
As someone who was corn-fed on her movies as a child, the passage seems eerily prophetic. Seeing Ephron gab about “unrealistic notions about romance” in 1983 is rather like hearing those reports that the young L. Ron Hubbard told friends, “If you want to get rich, you start a religion”—and it hints at the nagging contradictions of Nora Ephron’s life.
In 1993, Ephron scoffed when a Rolling Stone reporter suggested that she might gain a reputation as “some queen of romance.” Now it’s her undisputed legacy: When Harry Met Sally, Sleepless in Seattle, and You’ve Got Mail (the last of which Nora cowrote with her sister, Delia) have become little Bibles of love for my generation. They are starter romantic comedies—dense with children in bowl cuts, plots that bunny-hop from holiday to holiday, and sound tracks that plumb the depths of the American songbook without ever including a lyric about physical proximity. They were mercilessly effective propaganda films; Ephron herself complained about “the number of kids who come up to me, saying, I’m in this kind of Harry Met Sally situation, and I’m sort of hoping that—. I want to say to them, It’s probably not gonna work!”
In recent years, her command of romantic-comedy formula had grown so effortless that Ephron herself seemed unable to shake it off. In essays about apartment hunting, Hellman, and journalism, Ephron shoehorned each into the structure of a romance. On the first: “It’s a story about love”. On the second: “The story of love”. The third is actually called “Journalism: A Love Story.” This isn’t writing; it’s brand upkeep.
Of course, the impulse to refashion her peculiar impulses into a glossy commercial product was the defining tic of Ephron’s career. In interview after interview, she flogged the fact that her screenwriter mother taught her to manipulate her experiences: “If you came to her with a sad story, she had no interest in it whatsoever. ‘Turn it into a funny story. Get back to me. I will be interested.’” But Ephron didn’t really turn her experiences into “funny stories”; she mainstreamed them, made them frothy and palatable.
In 1990, Ephron dove at the opportunity to write a movie version of the Archie comics, telling the producers, “I’ve been waiting all my life.” It’s one of the most revealing things she’s ever done—for Ephron would have found a kindred spirit in Archie creator Bob Montana. Montana had a madcap showbiz childhood (his mother was a Ziegfeld girl; his father, a cowboy banjoist), and he reportedly engineered Archie's cornball love triangle out of a deep-seated desire for stability. Ephron was the child of Henry and Phoebe Ephron; the couple wrote films for Fred Astaire and Katharine Hepburn and once rather decadently took separate “his and hers” cabs home from a San Francisco party. Her mother eventually descended into alcoholism, and her father into manic depression. When Phoebe Ephron died in 1971, from an overdose of pills administered by Henry, Nora remembers it being “a moment of almost comic relief. It seemed entirely possible, in character, understandable, and I think we all filed it under Will I Ever Be Able to Use This in Anything?” She came close to using it: at one point in the semiautobiographical film Hanging Up, a Nora stand-in pretends that her mother has died. But Ephron—perhaps fearing that audiences would find her actual response to death callous—didn’t draw on her experience. Instead, the scene is played straight, with schlocky strings and a tactfully swiveling camera.
All of Ephron’s post-1989 work was marked by a seeming reluctance to present us with who she really was. In her 1970s heyday at Esquire and New York she was capable of ruthless reportage—from Israeli war coverage to an enthrallingly authoritative piece on the rise of the food-writing establishment—but in her last book, the 2010 essay collection I Remember Nothing, she professed to a sub-bimbo daffiness, writing, “I can’t remember which came first—wanting to be a journalist or wanting to date a journalist.” In Heartburn, Ephron presents herself as a compulsive renovator; by Sleepless, she’d fobbed that trait off on a narcissistic matron. In 1984, Ephron wrote that the invention of VCRs was a fallacy because “the whole point of going out is to miss what’s on television”; by You’ve Got Mail, she’d given the same line to a pretentious, hypocritical columnist. It’s as if Ephron focus-grouped her own personality and discovered she was unlikable.
But Ephron’s best movies are also about the populist impulse, the urge to attain one moment of blissful overlap with romanticized Hollywood ideals. When Meg Ryan’s jilted boyfriend in You’ve Got Mail asks if there’s someone else, she replies, “No. But there’s the dream of someone else.” I’ve never gotten over that line. How hateful, I think, and how applicable. I’ve wanted to say it to so many people (boyfriends, friends, immediate family members) but haven’t been able to pluck up the courage. Ephron’s characters are constantly forsaking reality in favor of pop-culture-dispensed dreams. The leads in her movies slavishly imitate their idols—from Julia Child to Deborah Kerr to Samantha Stevens—without realizing that they’re more complicated and charming than their role models (the one exception, of course, is Julie Powell: she is an irredeemable dud). Ephron heroines are frenzied, interesting people desperate to couple off so that they no longer have to be interesting. At the end of both Sleepless and Mail, Ephron’s characters suddenly seem to regress; their dialogue goes monosyllabic. It’s a bizarre drop-off, especially compared to Billy Wilder or Lubitsch movies, in which love always heightened the comedy: your love for someone manifested as an incentive to be funnier, to win your quarry over with a bouquet of prickly punch lines. In the waning minutes of Ephron’s movies, you feel that Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan are never going to make jokes, or be in conflict, ever again.
A few years ago Ephron said, “The really great thing about my life is that for the last thirty years it has had no plot.” As a storyteller, did she honestly believe this? When she became involved in the most minor of dry cleaner altercations, didn’t she have that sensation described by novelist Shelley Jackson: “I felt the tug of a plot line, and it felt like coming back to life”? Ephron felt it once. In Heartburn, she wrote about the tedium of happiness: “It seemed to me that the desire to get married—which, I regret to say, I believe is fundamental and primal in women—is followed almost immediately by an equally fundamental and primal urge, which is to be single again.” Maybe this is why the clinch appears only in the final minutes of Sleepless and Mail—Ephron is in a mad dash against reality. Sleepless ends with Hanks and Ryan taking the elevator down from the top of the Empire State Building; you wonder what floor they’re on when the swoon wears off.
Was Ephron’s heart in these movies? As she saw it, she produced a frivolous body of work almost against her will. She did When Harry Met Sally “for the money” and agreed to rewrite Sleepless in Seattle because “I was looking for a cash infusion”; You’ve Got Mail was foisted on her by producer Lauren Schuler-Donner. In 2006, Ephron said that romantic comedies were “almost all I’ve been able to get made. I’ve written other things, sad scripts that are on the shelf that are unbelievably serious, hard-hitting political things.” Seriousness is relative, of course. In 1961 her parents wrote Take Her, She’s Mine, a meandering, folksy Broadway play (later a Jimmy Stewart movie) that quoted liberally from Nora’s letters home from Wellesley, and her relationship with “hard-hitting political things” is already recognizable:
We just heard Norman Thomas speak on disarmament, which, naturally, he regards as absolutely necessary, and isn’t the world situation abysmal? Sometimes I think it won’t last another week, and here am I, still a virgin.
Reflecting on this period, Ephron said, “It was as if I could not sustain a serious thought in my head for more than one sentence.” I think that’s what rankles critics—the hectic inconsistency of her work. Even within a single movie, there are moments of rapturous sublimity and moments you feel like crossing the street to avoid.
I’m wary of giving Ephron too much credit (this is the woman who fell behind on the You’ve Got Mail sound mix because she became obsessed with Snood), but I suspect that the most insufferable bits of her movies represent Ephron’s calculated stabs at populism, at connecting with a demographic of viewers with which she had no familiarity. Indeed, in its very calculation Ephron’s work was tougher and nobler than anyone gave her credit for. Sure, You’ve Got Mail is full of cutesy excess and deploys “Over the Rainbow” about every fifteen minutes—but has there ever been a romantic comedy so ardently filled with scenes of people reading, and writing, and reading aloud what they’ve just written? In her last decade Ephron wrote Julie & Julia; unproduced screenplays about journalist Marguerite Higgins, jazz singer Peggy Lee, and Daily News columnist Mike McAlary; and Imaginary Friends, a wonderful, brickabracky Broadway play about Lillian Hellman and Mary McCarthy. (Imaginary Friends became a play when no studio would finance it; the same thing happened to the McAlary project, Lucky Guy, which may reach Broadway next January with Tom Hanks in the lead.)
Ephron was trying to keep these twentieth-century Pecos Bills alive, even if it meant glossing over their bodies of work in favor of gossipy minutiae. Imaginary Friends, for example, reduced the storied intellectual feud between Hellman and McCarthy to a catfight over “the same guy.” Ephron saw that our culture had grown gimpy to the point that Lillian Hellman’s body of work would be forgotten and she could only be kept alive via anecdote. In fact, Ephron saw this coming as far back as 1975, when she wrote a piece for Esquire about the newly minted People magazine. “It’s almost not worth getting upset about,” she wrote. “It’s a potato chip. A snack. Empty calories.” Then, in an endearingly ludicrous cross-cultural lunge, Ephron traced People’s origins to Kierkegaard, “who in 1846 said that in time, all anyone would be interested in was gossip … People is the future, and it works, and that makes me grouchiest of all.”
In a way, Ephron presided over this future. By I Remember Nothing she was reduced to fluffy, harmless conspiracy theories about earmuffs and chicken soup. She even contributed breathless quotes to People—helping to salt the potato chip! A 1993 Meg Ryan profile dubbed her marriage to Dennis Quaid “an arrangement so schmaltzy it makes even mush-meister Nora Ephron get misty. ‘When you hear that story, you feel completely humiliated about your own life,’ Ephron says, ‘because theirs is so fabulously great.’”
Ephron must have known even then that her own marriage would outlast Ryan’s. After all, Ryan and Quaid were basically just performing flashy, death-defying love stunts, while Ephron’s husband’s acts of love (the few we know about) have specificity. “[He] used to bring the silliest things home to me, like a bag of subway tokens because I was always losing them in my purse,” Ephron said in 2009. “It was so romantic.” This is what actually makes the mush-meister get misty. And while the end of When Harry Met Sally is flashy and overpowering, a Great Pyramid of schmaltz (like Sally, you hate yourself for succumbing to it), what really makes it “impossible to hate” Harry isn’t the fact that he loves Sally, or that he sprints the length of Manhattan to kiss her on New Year’s. It’s the fact that he can describe her with specificity. This is practically a litmus test of love for Ephron’s characters. In Sleepless in Seattle, whenever Ryan tries to rhapsodize about her milquetoast fiancée, she struggles and stalls:
Please, Becky, I’m madly in love with Walter. He did the craziest thing the other night—what was that? Oh, it was so funny, we were hysterical. What was that? (long pause) Hm.
Compare this to the moment in Sleepless when Hanks says of his wife (and, unknowingly, of Ryan): “She could peel an apple in one long, curly strip. The whole apple.” In Imaginary Friends, Ephron gives Mary McCarthy a glamorous Algonquin equivalent: “He could take a bow tie and turn it into a tiny mouse,” she says of Edmund Wilson.
A few years ago, to get the attention of an ex-boyfriend I’ll call Garth, I started throwing crackers at him from across a crowded banquet. He didn’t respond well (at first he didn’t respond at all, which I attributed to the puffiness of his jacket), but I had no regrets. I was supremely confident that it had been the right thing to do, that if Garth had been right for me he would have been charmed by getting crackers thrown at him. But is that a delusion? And are Nora Ephron’s fingerprints on that delusion? I used to argue that Sleepless and Mail were flawless, but what’s truer is that Ephron’s movies and I are flawed in exactly the same ways. Both films made relationships seem unnecessary; indefinite yearning (or hopping from meet-cute to meet-cute, while raking in as many "funny stories" as humanly possible) looked like more fun.
I suspect now that my actual motive in throwing crackers at Garth was to do something that could later be described. It was a meet-cute, one that perversely took place weeks after the relationship had ended, but a meet-cute all the same. Maybe on some subconscious level I was hoping it would send us plummeting back into courtship. We’d make a pattern of it: meeting cute, dating, and breaking up; meeting cute, dating, and breaking up, just as Ryan and Hanks would seem to do if you spliced their movies together. This is sick, and I know it is, and I know I should resolve not to throw crackers at exes at banquets in the future, but I doubt I’ll stop. I’ve spotted something in myself, true, and I’ve set it down on paper—but I’m not free of it. Nora Ephron, that schmaltzy, self-hating Pecos Bill, will ride forever.
Matt Weinstock lives in Brooklyn.