It Had To Be You: A Love Affair with Nora Ephron
by Mandi Harrison
My sense of humor was formed from the Muppets and old reruns of Saturday Night Live. Billy Crystal was/is one of the great loves of my life; my family would walk around, saying “You look… MAHvalous dahling! Simply mahvalous!”, one of his catch phrases from SNL. I adored him in The Princess Bride, and so when my mom asked if I wanted to watch When Harry Met Sally when I was like 10, I was excited because of Billy. I instantly loved the movie. Billy was hilarious and charming. I was hooked.
When Harry Met Sally became a movie that I can and will watch anytime it’s playing. I can recite it line for line. But every time I watch it, I notice something new. Meg Ryan, the writing, the chemistry, the writing, the directing, New York, Carrie Fisher, Bruno Kirby, the writing, Meg Ryan AND Carrie Fisher. Billy may be ha-ha funny, but Meg’s performance is just so brilliant. Her humor is so subtle and smart and endearing. She is very matter of fact, and I think that is exactly how the writer, Nora Ephron was.
This was my introduction to Nora. Nora is one of those filmmakers whose work you recognize instantly. She is often imitated, rarely matched, and much revered and discussed. Other people have more eloquently written about who Nora was: as a person, as a writer, as a filmmaker. I’m going to write about what Nora means to me and has taught me about life and filmmaking.
Everything is copy.
Nora’s parents were playwrights and screen writers as well. Her mother had a saying, “Everything is copy”, meaning everything in your life is yours to use for a story. If you trip and fall and someone else tells the story, it’s a tragedy. If you tell the story, it’s a comedy. Nora used that in her work as a journalist, an essayist and definitely as a screenwriter. The screenplay for Heartburn (based of her book of the same name) is based off the real-life demise of her marriage from journalist Carl Bernstein. The story is so brutal- Carl’s only condition was that he not be portrayed as a bad father. He knew Nora would be honest to a fault, even if that meant she didn’t come out looking perfect.
The characters of Harry and Sally are loosely based on Rob Reiner and Nora. Harry is dark, sarcastic, quick-witted and full of nervous energy, like Rob. Sally is even-tempered, up-beat, and meticulous, which is totally Nora. She has said that Gabby Hoffman’s character in Sleepless in Seattle, Jessica, is the most like her out of all her characters. She uses people in her life, people that she’s met and observed and their stories and it has made her work so much richer for it. Use your story- use your pain- it’s yours, make it work for you.
I’ll have the balsamic vinaigrette, but only on the side.
In When Harry Met Sally, Sally had a very definite way of ordering. EVERYTHING was on the side. It deeply amused Harry. This was another character trait of Nora’s; she knew what she wanted and how she wanted it. This was a quality that served her well in life and in work.
Nora knew that every detail matters. Everything serves a purpose. In You’ve Got Mail, she wanted to film on a specific street- not a street that looked similar. For Sleepless in Seattle, the studio wanted the song When I Fall In Love for the final scene, with Nora insisting on Make Someone Happy by Jimmy Durante. She held her ground and the studio eventually agreed with her, using their choice as the credit music. She knew how each character should be dressed and wear their hair, how each room should look. She saw in her head how each shot should look, because she knew the story so deeply.
Most filmmakers, especially women, who are that particular about their work get the reputation of being difficult, but everyone loved working with Nora. She made everyone feel valued and a part of the team. She worked with her actors on understanding and creating their characters, and the crew members’ ideas were put into consideration. She gave every character a moment to shine, a moment to be remembered by. What Nora has taught me is to trust my instincts and stand firm in my beliefs, but to be open to others’ guidance.
“What do you like to do?” “Eat!”
Nora had a quote: “I have made many mistakes falling in love, and regretted most of them, but never the potatoes that went with them.” She knew that food was not just a part of life, it was one of the best parts of life. Gathering around the table was a way for her characters to come together and the best part is, they actually ate, they didn’t just movie-eat. When Harry Met Sally, Sleepless In Seattle, and You’ve Got Mail all have great moments involving eating and then of course there is her love letter to food itself, Julie & Julia. Just watching that movie makes your mouth drool. I love food. I love trying new things and watching Julie & Julia makes me want to explore more. I truly believe that Nora and I would’ve been kindred spirits, based on our mutual appreciation of food alone.
Don’t you just love New York in the fall? If I knew where you lived, I’d send you a bouquet of freshly sharpened pencils.”
Nora was raised in Los Angeles, but she loved New York as if she were a native. She truly got the feeling and mentality of the city, in a way that matches Woody Allen’s love of New York. It was romantic and smart and bustling and HOME. This was the place she belonged, and her characters were at home there as well. She took iconic places and made them seem normal and took everyday places and made them iconic. EVERY one knows the deli from When Harry Met Sally. The Empire State Building scene at the end of Sleepless in Seattle may have been inspired by the classic movies Love Affair and An Affair to Remember, but she made THAT scene into pop culture history. Now it’s been copied and redone by many movies and shows, including my personal favorite version on The Mindy Project. (If you need a laugh, look it up on YouTube. Or better yet, watch the show on Hulu.)
There is a scene in When Harry Met Sally where they are walking through Central Park and the trees are full of autumn leaves and there are leaves all on the ground where they walk. This scene is pretty much heaven to me; the first time I watched the movie, this was the exact moment that I fell in love with New York City. I just KNEW that I had to go there- it was my destiny. Other movies cemented my belief that NYC was the place for me, but Nora was my first introduction. Chris had always dreamed of going to New York City as well, so a few years ago, we made it happen. And guess what. It was even more magical then either of us had imagined. Walking up the stairs from the subway and seeing the high rises, I instantly felt I was at home. Nora had invited me into this world and I felt like I had been there many, many times before.
Nora wrote female characters that were as interesting as women actually are. She showed friendships that were realistic. She created magic with each scene. Nora’s movies have taught me that each detail matters to the story, that every person’s role contributes something pivotal, that you should have confidence in yourself and your beliefs, and that it’s never too late to try something new. As a viewer, she has shown me that magic does exist. That is what I want to bring to our movies and how I want to live my life: The heroine of my own life.
Movies to watch:
When Harry Met Sally (1989) Meg Ryan, Billy Crystal, Bruno Kirby, & Carrie Fisher in absolute perfection. I just love it.
Sleepless In Seattle (1993) Not to undermine Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks’ chemistry (which is amazing), but to me, this is a love story between father and son and how they deal with grief. When Harry Met Sally has brilliant dialogue, but the tone of this movie is just gorgeous. I watch this whenever I need some magic in my life.
You’ve Got Mail- (1998) Tom Hanks is charming, but Meg Ryan is just divine. Her Kathleen Kelly wears cute sweater sets, drinks tea and reads Pride & Prejudice and owns a children’s bookstore, aka MY DREAM. The music, the New York backdrop, and Parker Posey add to the charm.
Julie & Julia- (2009) Amy Adams stars as a woman blogging about cooking her way through Julia Child’s (Meryl Streep) cookbook, aka MY DREAM PART TWO. Meryl & Stanley Tucci are possibly the most adorable pair ever and the food looks delicious.
Everything Is Copy - 2015 documentary about Nora’s life & work. Her children, her sisters, her friends, her colleagues discuss her impact on film and in their lives.
Heartburn by Nora Ephron
I Feel Bad About My Neck: and Other Thoughts On Being A Woman by Nora Ephron
I Remember Nothing and Other Reflections by Nora Ephron
When Harry Met Sally (the screenplay) by Nora Ephron
I’ll Have What She’s Having: How’s Nora Ephron’s Three Iconic Films Saved The Romantic Comedy by Erin Carlson *
* I love this book for many reasons, namely it was about Nora and romantic comedies (my favorite genre) (It also has probably my favorite chapter title ever- Sleepless, Stressed, & Addicted to Starbucks. The title of MY autobiography) This book gave a lot of information on how Nora worked and what the process of getting her movies made, which was super fascinating to me. It went into a little detail about other projects she had done, and about how she kept working through her illness, until she passed. When I finished reading, I was incredibly sad, because I would never have the opportunity to work with her. But then I realized that her influence would be a part of my work for the rest of my life. Pretty magical if you ask me.