Nora Ephron is a singular filmmaker whose body of work is rather famously romantic. Her writing is characteristically possessed of a whimsy and naïveté that lends her films an elevated romanticism universally felt, our preconceptions about love shaped by the stories we tell one another and the films that move us to love in kind. For many, the seminal romantic comedies When Harry Met Sally, Sleepless in Seattle, and You’ve Got Mail are what we picture when we envision romantic intimacy as an ideal. The witty repartee between Ephron’s wayward lovers is fantastically entertaining, their relationships with one another made more fun and funny than those experienced in real life. Ergo, Rosie O’Donnell’s chastisement of the Meg Ryan character, “You don’t want to be in love. You want to be in love in the movies.”
Echoing that sentiment, Ephron’s films perhaps feel less than honest in hindsight, their reductionism of human passion necessitated by a genre that aspires to little more than the tropes of situation comedy. In the films of this great American filmmaker, the love story is secondary to the delivery of a characteristically self-conscious display, a lampoon of the very notion of love, only to capitulate to the narrative cliché of marital bliss by the end, the characters victims of a patently false vehicle of emotional manipulation.
We know that Harry and Sally will end up together from the moment they make eye contact. We know that Tom Hanks’ grieving widower will eventually fall for Meg Ryan’s loveless ditherer. We know that Tom Hanks will, additionally, break down the self-aware, narrative pretentions of Meg Ryan’s mousy intellectual.
In this way, each film becomes an exercise in cathartic repetition, comfort through familiarity a large part of Ephron’s lasting appeal as a filmmaker. And yet we still want that feeling of being in love, the semblance of intimacy that those films provide, easy avenues into relationships in real life made complicated by human interaction. The reductionism of being in love in the movies is immediately gratifying, a fact that Ephron knew and understood all too well. Her films are guilty pleasures made bearable in their openness to cliché, a respectful engagement with the irony of the genre their shining virtue.
Since Ephron’s passing in 2012 (a death precipitated by complications arising from a leukemia diagnosis dating back to 2006), the romantic comedy genre has felt strangely amiss of an emotional anchor. If Ephron was the patron saint of love, wrested from the mortal plain to rejoin a choir of celestial beings in an eternal elsewhere, her films are the vestigial reminders of what love can strive to resemble through the temerity of our own devotion, an engagement with the conception of love as an ideal projected back to us via the silver screen an experience worth returning to.
When Harry Met Sally is still one of the best films of its genre, prodding at a deep undercurrent of cultural cynicism while simultaneously possessing a moral center that allows its stereotypes to transcend their form and echo the sentiments of the viewer’s reflected romanticism. Likewise, in both Sleepless in Seattle and You’ve Got Mail, Ephron subverts the basic tenets of the romantic comedy without satirizing them outright, her films as indebted to their melodramatic structure as they are self-aware. The characters are always seemingly complicit in enacting their own individual stories simultaneously pre-existent and well known, their singular magic conjured through the retelling itself, making Ephron a veritable cupid and cinematic matchmaker.
Despite her redundancy as a storyteller, Ephron’s impeccable comedic timing and empathetically drawn caricatures ensure our initial attention and subsequent re-viewing, “I’ll have what she’s having” a more than fitting calling card for an entire career. Regrettably, the torch that was lit over the course of Ephron’s career has necessitated new tenders of the flame, and a slew of usurpers to her throne have come with the dawn of the 21st century, ushering in an era of pastiche Rom-Coms that have been recognizably self-aware, albeit lacking the heart of their cinematic forebear and matron of the art of the assemblage of love.
Perhaps most notably, Richard Curtis’ 2003 film Love Actually stands as a truly contemporary engagement with the genre of the romantic comedy. Largely critical and possessed of a post-modern plot structure, Love Actually’s characters and individual love stories intersect in the fashion of Robert Altman. In Curtis’ film, each relationship is seen largely through the lens of the tangentially related narrative arcs. In turn, each arc destabilizes and defuses any true emotional catharsis or manipulation through their proximity and simultaneous juxtaposition. And yet, the facetiousness on display in many of Love Actually’s individual narrative segments (born less out of intentional satire than gender stereotypes) ensures that the unemotional quality of Curtis’ film on the passions that make Ephron’s comparatively moving will be consistently easier to watch.
More succinctly put, Love Actually’s emotional detachment is contemporaneously freeing from its capitulations to convention. Where Ephron was ever a romantic herself, Curtis is more of a pragmatist, his own assemblage of love less about the naïveté of young lovers than it is about making fun of an inherently irrational state of mind. While Love Actually is invariably about love, it is so by way of ridicule and condescension; any warm-heartedness felt by the viewer is supplied by the viewer in turn. The film skates just left of center in terms of actually accepting sentimentality as somehow a part of the human condition, its self-consciousness a flaw in formalism to the genre that it purports to celebrate.
The idea that Curtis might take the reins of the romantic comedy going forward is a frightening one. His own dissociative callousness indicates a lack of feeling utterly incongruous with his chosen material, which leaves Ephron still standing as the last great spinner of romantic stories for the masses. Through the self-conscious consent to her work’s conceptual redundancy, Ephron lends warmth to her humor and intimacy to her engagement in the construction of an ideal admittedly ephemeral and unrealistic.
Perhaps what gives Ephron her lasting significance, and no doubt the most unifying aspect of her engagement with the ephemeral, is her particular utilization of romantic melodrama. In her films, the characters are manifestations of a tradition in storytelling already passé, each individual film’s relevance generated from their indebtedness to what’s come before. Through their acknowledgement of narrative recursion, they are allowed access to our own subjective sentimentality, itself a mere echo of a socially constructed self.
When Meg Ryan laments the state of her love life, or lack thereof, her character becomes secondary to the evocation of the state of mind that Ephron is attempting to personify. Accordingly, in Ryan’s ability to play the same basic role three times over, the three characters become thematically interchangeable. In these three films, the individual performances are less about the nuances of characterization than they are about the timelessness of caricature, broad schmaltz made comical through familiarity. The Meg Ryan character is personally identifiable as a global condition of one human soul in torment over a shared fantasy of mythological proportions, just as the Tom Hanks’ character can be seen as a further manifestation of Sally’s Harry. Furthermore, any differentiation between individual characters is less vital than the situation in which the characters consistently find themselves, comedy arising from the pervasiveness of romanticism and its many fostered malcontents.
In the similarity of construction between films, Nora Ephron’s triumvirate cycle of romantic comedies become mere reflections of one another, each subsequent feature updated for the time and place in which it was written, a linear narrative of the American dating scene of the 1990’s set to the rhythm of Nora Ephron’s effervescent heart. When Rosie O’Donnell’s character from Sleepless in Seattle delivers perhaps the most infamous line of the contemporary romantic comedy, Ephron simultaneously encapsulates the thesis and the antithesis of what her films purport to subversively celebrate. Moreover, she brings attention to the romantic comedy’s irrelevance while articulating a more personally felt necessity.
As Valentine’s Day rolls around once more, there are plenty of begrudging comments to be made about the most infamous of Hallmark Holidays, and in many ways, Ephron’s films fit quite nicely into such a post-modern and reductionist take on the holiday. Seemingly, her films promote the kind of faux-romanticism that is generated within such a larger social construction of passion; in a holiday less about love and more about our own branding of what love should, could, or can look like, the actual content of our feelings is secondary to the mythology of marketing human emotions.
And yet, unlike the cold satire of Richard Curtis’ Love Actually and its ilk (2010’s Valentines Day or 2011’s New Year’s Eve), the romantic comedies of Nora Ephron are never overtly fabricated. Ephron’s sentimentalism is more personally felt, platitudinous only in its association with melodrama, genre filmmaking at its very best via an unabashed embrace of the form. Where Love Actually is reluctantly romantic, When Harry Met Sally is passionately so, Ephron’s own appreciation and love for melodramatic narrative cliché the very reason why Harry and Sally are so lovable themselves. In direct opposition, Curtis’ menagerie of self-aware paramours are alienating, lacking an essential empathy for themselves, one another, and, most importantly, the viewer.
When selecting the perfect date night movie, one could do worse than selecting an old favorite. A film with which one is as intimately acquainted as an old lover, foreplay rendered unnecessary through personal familiarity, the individually selected picture like a fond memory, warmly remembered through nostalgic longing already romantic. Rewatching When Harry Met Sally is thusly akin to spending time with old friends, their story one that we want to return to, and hear told to us over and over again, Meg Ryan and Billy Crystal iconographic impositions on our collective subconscious as the personification of domestic bliss.
Like Valentine’s Day, Nora Ephron’s legacy as a disseminator of the romantic comedy is consequently wrapped up in a certain engagement with an illusory contentment, hers cinematically rendered. Her paramours will ever be easy made avenues into feeling without the emotional baggage of intimacy, their comedic disengagement negating the hardships of interpersonal relationships.
And yet, films like Sleepless in Seattle and You’ve Got Mail still feel immediately compelling. Tom Hanks’ broad interpretation of the mourning widower is still vital in its conception of our own ability to love and be loved in kind, however digressively short-hand such a characterization of grief, loss, and love may be, the Meg Ryan character a caricature to be called upon when wishing to generate love as a faceless commercial facsimile of our own more irrationally felt passions.
The films of Nora Ephron will always be fondly remembered for their general feelings of good will and sympathy towards their target audience, and her intimate engagement with the idealistically romantic will forever be an integral facet of their continuing popularity and cultural cache. As a legacy, her films will continue to reverberate with the intensity of that most infamous of scenes of orgasmic delight, the seminal trilogy of Nora Ephron Rom-Coms starring the perpetually optimistic Meg Ryan a more than worthy cineamatic staple to include in your own home video collection, the perfect match for the stereotypical conceptions of love to be bandied about on Valentine’s Day.
Featured Image: Sleepless in Seattle, Tristar Pictures