Non-Fiction: Affairs to Remember: Nora Ephron’s Classic Rom-Coms

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Tom Hanks and Nora Ephron on the set of “You’ve Got Mail” in 1998. Credit Warner Brothers, via Everett Collection

I’LL HAVE WHAT SHE’S HAVING
How Nora Ephron’s Three Iconic Films Saved the Romantic Comedy
By Erin Carlson
Illustrated. 341 pp. Hachette Books. $27.

Nora Ephron’s friends were lucky guys. They knew the total Ephron, a writer, filmmaker, hostess and maven of such forceful personality that even strangers felt the proprietary right to call her Nora. Those fortunate hundreds — she was a discerning collector — knew Nora the stinging commentator as well as Nora the productive romantic-comedy queen of the Upper West Side. And when she died in 2012, at the age of 71, following an illness she kept so secret that many of those closest to her were stunned, they were able to mourn Nora Ephron as a woman and artist in full.

The rest of us each embraced the kind of Nora we needed, based on our age and experience with romantic heartburn. And by “us” I of course invite men, but really, it’s women who have always considered Ephron family, allying with “My Nora” the way “Pride and Prejudice” devotees might claim “My Jane” Austen. Those of us who lived through the times she wrote about in her classic essay collections “Crazy Salad” (1975) and “Scribble Scribble” (1978) — indeed, who read the books when they were too new to qualify as “classic,” and who feel the melancholy that drives the mordant humor of her 2006 collection, “I Feel Bad About My Neck” — cherish Our Nora as a lively, opinionated sister who cut through crap.

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Meg Ryan in the 1989 film “When Harry Met Sally.” Credit Columbia Pictures

Those who weren’t around the first time are the audience for “I’ll Have What She’s Having,” written by Erin Carlson, a 30-something entertainment journalist who, through no fault of her own, wasn’t there either. Carlson has done her library research, conducted informational interviews and Googled her unfamiliar names. She is able to explain to her generation that the movie producer Ray Stark was “a towering Hollywood figure” whose “tactics were cutthroat, part of the legend,” and that Leona Helmsley, “nicknamed the Queen of Mean, was a very successful hotelier and real estate developer joined in marriage and business to self-made billionaire Harry Helmsley, her third husband.” She also assumes her readers will know what she means when she says that “Nora, like a proto-Taylor Swift, channeled heartbreak into pop art,” and that Tom Hanks’s emails in “You’ve Got Mail” are “the fantasy edition of what every woman hopes to find, and rarely does, on Tinder (where grammar goes to die).” Old-school Ephron ladies say, Say what?

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As any fan of any generation probably knows, the title “I’ll Have What She’s Having” comes from a defining verbal zinger in “When Harry Met Sally …,” the enduring 1989 romantic comedy written by Ephron, directed by Rob Reiner, and starring Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan as the title couple exploring the possibilities (and impossibilities) of nonsexual friendship between a man and a woman. What Sally is having is a fake orgasm, in a crowded deli, demonstrated for Harry to make a point about women and sex.

The movie won Ephron a screenwriting Oscar nomination and landed an entry of honor in modern cinema history as an unconventionally literate variation on the conventions of romantic comedy. It also set Ephron on an unexpected path to fame in a territory those of us who were around the first time would never have believed of My Nora who wrote the 1972 essay “On Never Having Been a Prom Queen.” Bringing tousled Ryan and her sparkle along with her, folding in reliably delightful Hanks, and learning her way on the job as director as well as co-screenwriter, Ephron went on to devise a twist on the 1957 Leo McCarey beaut “An Affair to Remember” with “Sleepless in Seattle” in 1993, and a variation on the peerless 1940 Ernst Lubitsch confection “The Shop Around the Corner” with “You’ve Got Mail” in 1998.

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Source: New York Times

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