Brow Beat

Nora Ephron’s Sharp Wit

Nora Ephron, 1941-2012

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Nora Ephron, the celebrated filmmaker known for her romantic comedies, has passed away at the age of 71. With such films as When Harry Met Sally and Sleepless in Seattle, Ephron created indelible cinematic moments through lovable characters and witty dialogue, elevating the romantic comedy to new heights for a contemporary audience. Below, Slate highlights three prime examples of Ephron’s ability to handle comedy, romance, and many things in between.

When Harry Met Sally (1989)

Romantic comedy has long made a trope out of men and women who despise each other bickering until they finally realize they’re in love with one another—see The Philadelphia Story, It Happened One Night—but this film turns such familiar dalliances on its head by keeping the animosity to a minimum and eventually building a realistic friendship between its future lovers. Here, Sally’s disdain for her snarky traveling companion—“Harry, you might not believe this, but I never considered not sleeping with you a sacrifice”—and Harry’s self-assured insight into male-female interactions—“When you take someone to the airport, it’s clearly the beginning of the relationship”—brilliantly showcase Ephron’s knack for expressing the miscommunications that can sometimes arise between men and women. And thanks to the great chemistry between Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan, a charming rapport emerges here, laying the foundation for a memorable cinematic couple.

Sleepless in Seattle (1993)

Ephron plants references to the melodramatic classic An Affair to Remember throughout the plot of Sleepless in Seattle, and finds a way to poke fun at its emotional effects in this scene. Rita Wilson’s description of the plot of the Cary Grant film devolves into a bawling spectacle as Tom Hanks and Victor Garber grow increasingly uncomfortable, only to retort that The Dirty Dozen made them “weep” instead. Ephron’s recognition of the implausibility and utter treacle of both her own film and the one that came before it shows how astute and sharp the writer could be.

You’ve Got Mail (1998) 

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Ephron writes a remake of sorts of yet another romantic film, this time The Shop Around the Corner, and Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan play competing bookstore owners. Here, we see Kathleen’s sudden realization that Joe is the big businessman threatening her small enterprise, and a contentious relationship is born. Ephron makes use of the dinner party setting, where food is subtly used to bring out their tense interaction: Joe greedily puts all of the caviar on his plate, much to Kathleen’s chagrin, and she in turn angrily slices at a whole chicken.