Nora Ephron, the rare writer who transitioned into a successful filmmaker, showcased a generation’s romance in all its passionate, prickly glory.
Nora Ephron wrote a great number of highly regarded long-form essays, many of which acquired new readers when dredged up in the fond remembrances that appeared after the writer-filmmaker’s passing, but the piece I keep revisiting most often comes up to barely 600 words, including the title, The Girl Who Fixed the Umlaut. This devastatingly funny article, published in The New Yorker, is a pitch-perfect parody of Stieg Larsson’s trilogy that kicked off with The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, and it begins with Kalle Blomkvist landing on the doorstep of Lisbeth Salander. “Salander opened the door a crack and spent several paragraphs trying to decide whether to let Blomkvist in. Many italic thoughts flew through her mind. Go away. Perhaps. So what. Etc.” Reminiscing about Ephron in Time, Tom Hanks remembers sending her a piece he was trying to write, and her response was three words: “Voice! Voice! Voice!” The Girl Who Fixed the Umlaut, though, it isn’t so much about voice as ventriloquism.
If you’ve read the trilogy, you’ll cotton on at once to how expertly (and cruelly) Ephron mimics Larsson: “Please,” Blomkvist said. “I must see you. The umlaut on my computer isn’t working.” He was cradling an iBook in his arms. She looked at him. He looked at her. She looked at him. He looked at her. And then she did what she usually did when she had run out of italic thoughts: she shook her head… “I need my umlaut,” Blomkvist said. “What if I want to go to Svavelsjö? Or Strängnäs? Or Södertälje? What if I want to write to Wadensjö? Or Ekström or Nyström?” By this time, the reader has collapsed on the floor, feeling more than a little ridiculous about being sucked in by Larsson’s storytelling when it first appeared. Nora Ephron, for a brief moment after this article was published in 2010, gained repute as The Girl who Kicked Larsson in the Solar Plexus.
I did not know Ephron was capable of such civilised savagery. I knew her primarily from the gooey films she made, audience-pleasers like Sleepless in Seattle, Michael, You’ve Got Mail and Julie & Julia – and I mean “gooey” in a good way, like that warm-chocolate centre in your dessert. Like Nancy Meyers, the high-profile director of What Women Want, Something’s Gotta Give and It’s Complicated, Ephron made big-screen entertainments that generously doled out screen time to the women in them (and these women weren’t young and hot and pin-up-fantasy material). I suppose you could call these films “chick flicks,” but only if you admit that they are of interest to men too. (Besides, in India, we don’t really care for the concept of “chick flicks.” If we began ghettoizing our romances as movies only women would want to watch, Shah Rukh Khan would have no career.) Ephron wrote for her heroines roles that were tough but not tragic – even Meryl Streep loosened up in her films. There is the galumphing kitchen goddess of Julie & Julia, of course, but even as the cheated-upon wife in Heartburn, which Ephron wrote, Streep sheathed her quivering soul in an armour of wit.
Ephron’s talent bloomed brightest in When Harry Met Sally… (she wrote, Rob Reiner directed), a zeitgeist-defining Mars-Venus romantic comedy that has one of the greatest come-back-to-me lines ever committed to film. ”I love that you get cold when it’s 71 degrees out. I love that it takes you an hour and a half to order a sandwich. I love that you get a little crinkle above your nose when you’re looking at me like I’m nuts. I love that after I spend the day with you, I can still smell your perfume on my clothes. And I love that you are the last person I want to talk to before I go to sleep at night. And it’s not because I’m lonely, and it’s not because it’s New Year’s Eve. I came here tonight because when you realize you want to spend the rest of your life with somebody, you want the rest of your life to start as soon as possible.” If you didn’t mist up at least a little, on reading that, I don’t want to know you.
When Harry Met Sally… was released in 1989, and it’s as fresh, as timely, as wise today as it was then. Mary Pols wrote in Time, “As a writer-director, Nora Ephron was not Ingmar Bergman, which is to say, you might never discuss her films in a graduate seminar on identity in cinema. On the other hand, you never worried that, should fate deposit her at your house, she’d sit in a corner being Swedish and dour. Also, while a Netflix copy of The Seventh Seal might remain in your possession for months, while you wait for the right (or dutiful) mood to watch it, When Harry Met Sally… requires no emotional preparation beyond being human.” If Ephron’s beautifully human writing seems ageless, it’s because we may have changed the ways in which we communicate, but what we communicate about as we flounder about and fall in love is still the same, and will probably always be the same.
Lights, Camera, Conversation… is a weekly dose of cud-chewing over what Satyajit Ray called Our Films Their Films. An edited version of this piece can be found here.
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