The plain fact is that women writer-producer-directors are a very rare breed in Hollywood. Nora Ephron is an important example of this rare type and her fifteen feature films offer a legacy which moves from docudrama to romantic comedy. It is for the latter genre of films that Ephron is probably the most well known. Although her first feature film Silkwood (1983) was inspired by the true story of a union activist, her directorial debut showcased her comedic talent. Ephron’s first feature as a director was This is My Life (1992). This film blended the story of a family in distress with the character study of Dottie Ingels, a cosmetics salesperson who aspires to be a comedian. For most people, Ephron is known as a wrier and director of films that tell stories about regular people who fall into spectacular situations.
This basic premise applies equally to dramas, such as Silkwood and outright farces such as Lucky Numbers (2000). Whether as a screenwriter, producer, or director, Ephron stands out among other Hollywood creators in that she never relies on big budgets and special effects for her movies. instead, she is able to combine drama and comedy in such a way as to create films that a great number of people enjoy. Her talent is for characterization, dialogue, and story. This approach may seem daring to some and hopelessly old fashioned to others. One thing that is inarguable is that all of Ephron’s films are attempts at telling cultural relevant stories while remaining entertaining for audiences.
The following examination of Ephron’s style and characteristics will focus on three specific films: When Harry Met Sally (1989), Sleepless in Seattle (1993) and You’ve Got Mail (1998). These three are arguably Ephron’s most popular films and they also show a reliable representation of the basic themes and techniques that are part of Ephron’s style. One important thing about Ephron is that she functioned in three key roles in film-making: writer, producer, and director. In the movie You’ve Got Mail she took on all three roles simultaneously. The fact that Ephron was able to excel in all three roles indicates her tremendous talent and business savvy. In order to start to understand her work, it is probably best to explore her style as a writer because this underlies all of her other roles.
In fact, because Ephron started out as a screenwriter and only later turned to producing and directing, it would be fair to suggest that her orientation toward film was primarily that as a writer. This explains in some ways her ability to concentrate on stories and characters to take the place of big budget special effects or explicit sex and violence. It is a common enough assertion in the modern world to suggest that movies are the “new” way that stories are told, while novels are the old way. If this is the case, then Ephron is a filmmaker who tires to remain rooted in the traditional strengths of storytelling. Her movies embrace traditional elements such as comprehensible plots and engaging characters, with a strong element of romance and a strong dash of humor.
What really makes Ephron special as a writer is her ability to blend the traditional elements of storytelling as described above with themes that actually matter to people. For example, in the film When Harry Met Sally Ephron tackles a theme that is relatively unexplored in modern films and that is the idea that various kinds of love can exist between a man and a woman. Exploring the nature of friendship and love and human romantic impulse is one of Ephron’s trademark characteristics and this is shown very clearly in When Harry Met Sally. The basic question that the film poses is whether or not all deep relationships between men and women are rooted in sexual and romantic love or whether warmth and friendship are sustaining enough. The film is a gentle exploration of a difficult and complicated theme. By using humor and romance to offset her profound ideas, Ephron is able to make films about ordinary people that touch on deep themes but are not too intellectual to be understood by the average viewer.
This is not to suggest that Ephron is “dumbing down” in her films. Rather she is writing films that subtly challenge the conventional viewpoints of her audience while remaining comfortably familiar in other ways. For example, although When Harry Met Sally features the aforementioned theme of friendship and love between the sexes, it also incorporates those themes into a late eighties vernacular and vision that was quite accessible to audiences at the time of the film’s release. This observation brings up the relevant question as to whether or not Ephron’s films are “disposable” by nature, or meant to speak only to the immediate contemporary audiences of their time. The answer to that question is fairly complex because Ephron’s works are are meant to speak to her contemporary audiences — and in fact to redefine certain cultural assumptions and understanding. At the same time, her films are meant to address the “eternal” questions and themes that are associated with love, humor, and individuality.
When Harry Met Sally effectively demonstrates Ephron’s key characteristics as a screenwriter. These characteristics are, as mentioned: the use of average or ordinary characters, a blending of drama and comedy, a contemporary style and focus, and a thought-provoking theme. Additionally, Ephron places characterization over special effects and story over spectacle. The easiest way to characterize Ephron’s style as a screenwriter is to say she is a contemporary “novelist” who works in screenplays and who always tries to be substantive as well as entertaining. Another very important aspect of Ephron’s style and characteristics as a writer is that she favors uplifting stories. That means, in essence, she is celebrating what it means to be human. This shows that Ephron is a romantic filmmaker.
Of course, what Ephron is most well-known for are romantic comedies. There is a difference between “romantic” vision and “romance” as a genre of movies. In Ephron’s case, she is both a romantic filmmaker and a filmmaker who makes romantic movies. This combination makes her romantic comedies unique and memorable. A good example of this is the movie Sleepless in Seattle. Ephron served as both co-writer and director of this film, which shows the re-emergence of romance and love after the experiencing of loss and tragedy. The story concerns Sam Baldwin, an architect from Chicago, who becomes a widower and moves with his son, Jonah, to Seattle hoping to put his life back together. After over a year, Jonah decides that his father would be happier if he had a new wife, so he calls a radio station. When Sam ultimately tells his story on air, he receives many responses from women around the country.
One of the letters he gets is from a woman named Annie who offers to meet Sam at the empire State Building on Valentine’s Day. By the end of the film both Sam and Annie have left other unfulfilling relationships just in time to meet at the Empire State Building and — perhaps — to find new love and a new life together. The film is daringly optimistic in the way it portrays the nature of grief and the way that life always offers a chance at rebirth and reinvention. Another very interesting aspect of the film is the way it portrays luck or accidents. For example, when Annie originally writes her letter to Same she does not intend to actually mail the letter. However, her editor mails it for her. This eventually leads to a major change in her life. Similarly, if not for the “accident” of Annie hearing Sam speak on the radio, she would never have written the letter to being with. The proliferation of luck and chance in the film is a sneaky way of showing the Ephron believes that life is basically opportunity and its goal is love and happiness.
That is the reason why it is so important that Sleepless in Seattle is actually grounded in tragedy, because Ephron wants to show how it is possible through luck and love to recover from life’s hard knocks. this is a very profound message because almost all of us experience tragedy in our lives. The film, while being ‘light” and highly entertaining, actually hold another purpose and that is to inspire people to belive in their lives and to belive in love and opportunity. By extension, it is probable that Ephron is attempting to relate this philosophy not only to the characters in the film and to her immediate audience, but also to society as a whole. This could be the symbolic significance of staging the climactic scene of Sleepless in Seattle at the top of the Empire State Building. the implication is that the human spirit is capable powerful of not only having love and dreams but of creating entire cities and societies.
Therefore it is safe to suggest that it si the themes of Ephron’s films, along with her everyday characters, that accounts for the enormous popularity of her films. At a time when most filmmakers were looking for big-budget epics with pessimistic or “dark” themes, Ephron readily embraced positivism and gave people a reason to feel good about themselves, as well as their society and culture. This latter aspect of Ephron’s films may, in fact, be one of their most most powerful characteristics. It is very provocative to suggest to audiences that, despite the antagonisms and disappointments in their everyday lives, that society as a whole is basically strong and functioning. Also, that modern society still makes room for romance, love, and true interpersonal connection and understanding.
Nowhere in Ephron’s body of work are these ideas more evident than in her film You’ve Got Mail. Ephron served as producer, co-writer, and director of this work. It is, like many of her other films, steeped in the contemporary trappings and style of its era. Set in the late1990’s, the movie tackles the way in which technology exerts an influence on modern romance and dating. It also shows the way in which professional and personal lives can be intertwined in the modern world. these two aspects of the film are meant to set the film up as an investigation into what it means to e a man or a woman in love in the technologically driven and urban landscape of late twentieth century America.
Again, while many filmmakers at this time were busy making films to decry the “end of the world” and the dissolution of human love, Ephron takes the whiplash impact of technology and modern life in stride. She shows that, despite the changing nature of love and romance, these realities are still a vital and necessary part of human existence. in fact, what Ephron actually seems to be saying in You’ve Got Mail is that love and romance are the means by which modern society and its complex challenges can be successfully navigated.
The fact the Ephron’s films are affirmative at heart in no way suggests that she is “pie eyed” or innocent about the nature of human life. In fact, as the brief discussion of her films above has demonstrated, Ephron is fixated on making films that address some of the most difficult challenges of life. these challenges include but are not limited to: grief, loneliness, economic injustice, technological intrusion and even oppression, and political anger. The fact is that Ephron not only refuses to shy away from tough issues,she wholeheartedly embraces them, but she does so with a firm grip on the power of love, hope, romance, and luck to persevere where pure rationality might often turn to cynicism. In this light, she should be regarded as one of the most successful optimistic filmmakers in America during the late twentieth-century .