Nora Ephron’s death made me unexpectedly sad. Not because I expected to feel some other way when she died – it wasn’t something I thought about. Though I had some inkling she was ill, I didn’t know how ill and honestly I felt ambivalent about her work. For the most part I associate her with rom-coms – the girly, ingratiating kind that I’m not particularly fond of. But upon reading several obits, I reconsidered. Nora Ephron was much more than a “women’s author”; she was capable of complex, deeply personal work that presented a female point of view on film and on the page without apology. She was among a select group of women who could write, direct, or produce a film with A-list actors that was backed by a major studio. In that respect Nora Ephron was a household name; she not only paved the way for an entire generation of female humorists, she also ushered in the trend of chatty, observational comedy that popularized Seinfeld and Will & Grace, which in turn yielded huge influence over American popular culture.
But in the scope of my own life, her most important contribution was When Harry Met Sally…, a movie I fell in love with so hard as a teenager that I wanted to be in it. I watched it over and over with my best friend, we quoted it endlessly in every context, and on any given day I could identify with Harry or Sally or Jess or even Mr. Zero. The characters’ experience served as a backdrop to understanding relationships, and the plot was my blueprint for what I thought being an adult would be like. I wanted to have a funny, cute, close male friend like Harry who appreciated my quirks and shared my vocabulary, and who maaaaaybe would develop into something more as the years rolled by. I wanted to have a long-term marriage – or at least a successful living-in-sin arrangement – with a guy like the ones in the couples interviews peppered throughout WHMS, who finished my sentences and thought I was just as beautiful 50 years in as the day we met. And despite the “Can men and women really be friends?” debate that provides a key plot thread, it was one of the first films I ever saw that presented male-female relationships as an even playing field, one in which men could be needy and emotional and women could be witty and independent.
So in spite of my eye-rolling dismissal of most of the “women’s entertainment” that emerged from Nora’s influence, for me her legacy will always include some of the most treasured moments I ever spent in a cinema – moments in which I inevitably wished that life would imitate art.