Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Why We Should Take Nora Ephron Seriously

Yesterday, writer, director, and producer Nora Ephron died at 71. My first thought: Nora Ephron was 71? My second: What a loss. Though her chosen genre--the romcom chick flick--is habitually disregarded and belittled in discussions of "real" cinema (oftentimes by me), the way she wrote about women, and the very fact that she wrote, directed, and produced films centering on a certain sort of female experience at all, makes her a significant figure in recent cinematic history.

Ephron seemed drawn to stories about women whose careers, not merely their jobs, shaped and complicated their inner lives and relationships. This impulse is most disturbingly, and politically, apparent in her Oscar-nominated screenplay for Silkwood, in which Meryl Streep plays a real-life whistleblower at a plutonium plant. In Ephron's telling, Silkwood's decision to become an advocate for herself and her co-workers reverberates through her marriage and her relationship with her best friend. But the way the professional and the personal intersect in female lives is also explored in Heartburn (a deeply autobiographical look at a failing marriage between two successful writers, based on her relationship with Carl Bernstein); Sleepless in Seattle (in which Meg Ryan's columnist character is equally attracted to Tom Hanks's both as a story and as a man); You've Got Mail (Ryan and Hanks again, with Ryan's career as a small bookshop owner in a Barnes & Noble world informing her attraction to Hanks and her current boyfriend); and Julie and Julia, which is at heart about two women finding their calling. Even her (rightly) maligned adaptation of Bewitched hinges on Nicole Kidman's Isabel (the witch) rage at not being taken seriously as an actress. These films take it as a given that what a woman does and how a woman feels are and should be intimately connected.

Additionally, unlike a writer-director like Nancy Meyers, Ephron's heroines are more likely to be situated in a world that is somewhat recognizable to middle-class women. Sure, the apartments are huge and the economic stakes are not desperate, but there is a more reliable connection between the world of the movie and the world of the world. The plot of You've Got Mail depends upon a certain moment in consumer capitalism, and its consequences for small business owners (which is a major element that distinguishes Ephron's script from its source material, The Shop Around the Corner). Hanging Up presciently explored an element of human experience that was unthinkable two generations ago, and is currently, twelve years later, a major sociological concern: children parenting their parents through old age and extended illness. And Julie Powell's economic uncertainty is a constant concern for her in Julie and Julia.

To be sure, Ephron women (and their friends, and their lovers) are white, straight, and relatively rich. Though "can men and women be friends," the question posed by my favorite film of hers, When Harry Met Sally . . ., is still a guaranteed conversation starter, her screenplays don't tend towards the philosophically complex. However, Ephron managed to become a Hollywood triple-threat over the past thirty years in a business that still imagines the default cinematic audience as male. Whatever one feels about the romcom chick flick as a movie fan, I believe there is no Kathryn Bigelow or Kelly Reichardt without the work of Nora Ephron. And if nothing else, she wrote this scene:

Rest in peace, Ms. Ephron.

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