(except for You’ve Got Mail – that’s totally a chick-flick)
Nora Ephron, the Queen of the modern rom-com, was also a life-long feminist. These views translated to the female characters Ephron put on screen. In an industry often dominated by men making movies for men, she created female leads that were smart, funny, and complex.
Ephron is often credited with inventing the “chick-flick” genre, though Ephron reportedly was ambivalent about the term. Chick-flicks or not, Ephron made hits – Sleepless in Seattle grossed $126 million in the U.S. alone on a budget of $22 million – and many of the moments she committed to celluloid remain cultural touchstones.
The key to Ephron’s success was her understanding of the way women live now – our fears and insecurities about ourselves, who we love, and how they love us.
“I try to write parts for women that are as complicated and interesting as women actually are.”
Here are some of my favorite Nora Ephron films and female leads:
Ephron’s first foray into writing for the big screen (she had previously penned two TV movies) stayed close to her journalistic roots. She kicked off her film career with the true story of whistleblower Karen Silkwood, who exposed the dangerous conditions at the Oklahoma plutonium plant where she worked and who was later killed in a suspicious one-car accident on her way to meet with a reporter from The New York Times.
The movie was nominated for five Academy Awards including Best Original Screenplay for Ephron, and Streep’s portrayal of Karen Silkwood became the first in a long line of strong female characters that Ephron would bring to the big screen. Also worth noting is the fact that Dolly, the character played by Cher in one of her first dramatic acting roles, is one the first representations of an LGBT character on film.
“It’s very confusing to know what you want from a man, given the women’s movement. I want to be independent and I am, and I want to be considered a person in my own right which I usually am, but I also have a lot of feelings about being taken care of by a man.
– Nora Ephron to Studs Terkel, from the same interview we featured in our latest episode.
Heartburn was based on Nora’s novel of the same name, a thinly-veiled fictional account of her second marriage to fellow journalist Carl Bernstein, which ended when she found out, while seven months pregnant, that Bernstein was having an affair with the wife of the former British Ambassador Peter Jay. With Heartburn, Nora gave us a character who could whip up a mean spaghetti carbonara but who had no intention of being anybody’s hausfrau. Meryl Streep played a New York food critic who reveled in motherhood but was still distressed to find her career taking a backseat, and who eventually discovered she was giving much more of herself than she was getting in return.
For me, the key to this film is the end. The moment Meryl’s character realizes that her marriage has changed and not for the better and that “you can either stick with it, which is unbearable, or you can just go off and dream another dream.” As she walks off the plane in the last scene you can feel that the tension has lifted and that whatever the future holds, she will be fine. We will all be fine.
Ephron always owned her story, and told women that it was ok to be complicated, to want contradictory things. “To be the heroine of your story, not the victim,” as she told the graduating class of Wellesley College in her 1996 commencement speech.
Vera said: “Why do you feel you have to turn everything into a story?”
So I told her why.
Because if I tell the story, I control the version.
Because if I tell the story, I can make you laugh, and I would rather have you laugh at me than feel sorry for me.
Because if I tell the story, it doesn’t hurt as much.
Because if I tell the story, I can get on with it.”
― Nora Ephron,
Sleepless in Seattle
“You don’t want to be in love, you want to be in love in a movie!”
Sometimes I wonder if Ephron was playing a joke on all of us with Sleepless in Seattle. It’s a very meta movie, essentially a romantic comedy about whether or not love can really be like it is in the movies. Ephron plays into our (women’s, at least) fantasies about romance and finding “the one,” and magic and sparks and all that other sappy shit, but she doesn’t make fun of us for believing in or wanting said fantasies. Nor does she wrap up the story with a tidy bow, instead choosing to roll the credits after Sam and Annie finally meet atop the Empire State Building, leaving their fate ambiguous.
It’s worth noting here, too, that Sleepless was a major success despite not following the official Hollywood Rules For Making A Chick Flick. The two protagonists spend most of the film apart, making it less about the relationship between two people and more a meditation on expectations of love.