In a lovely gesture, the Tribeca Film Festival and Vogue.com have teamed up to offer a $25,000 award to the woman director or screenwriter whose work, debuting at the festival, best embodies Nora Ephron’s legacy. The money may not be enough to finance an entire film, or to support a writer during the entire process of completing a script. But it’s a substantial cushion, an updated version of Virginia Woolf’s “money and a room of her own.” And unlike lots of people who are honored by Hollywood, Ephron’s a genuinely great role model, someone who made movies about and for women—but not only for women—and whose movies made an enormous amount of money in part by betting on the intelligence of American audiences.
As Tribeca considers who’s the most fitting inaugural recipient of The Nora, it’s worth considering some of what made Ephron’s work so distinct. In Ephron’s best romcoms, she created indelible portraits of women for whom love took its place alongside other interests. To give just one example, You’ve Got Mail, her contemporary adaptation of Miklos Laszlo’s Parfumerie, brought together its main characters, Meg Ryan’s independent bookstore owner and Tom Hanks’ heir to a giant book chain, through heated competition. Careers in Ephron movies aren’t sideshows, the kind of throwaway gigs so many female characters in television and romantic comedies are given, presumably so that they can have coworkers to discuss their relationships with and offices at which to receive flowers.
And her men weren’t placeholders either. They had nonromantic relationships, with children (think Sleepless in Seattle) and friends who were not traditional dude-bros (think Dave Chappelle in You’ve Got Mail and Bruno Kirby in When Harry Met Sally). Ephron heroes were grown-ups with jobs and complex personalities. (The exception here is Heartburn, based on Ephron’s own novel about her failed marriage to Carl Bernstein, whom she depicted as a sociopathic riff on an Judd Apatow-style manchild.)
That doesn’t mean her work was perfect. Ephron’s characters tended to be white and well-off, and it would be terrific to see Tribeca honor a filmmaker who knows that intellectual engagement, high-level banter, and quality men aren’t limited to one milieu. It would also be nice if the award’s criteria acknowledged Ephron’s essays and journalism, which included the kind of social critique that wasn’t often at the center of her films. Ephron lived a big life, and had more than one big career. The best way to honor her memory would be to recognize a filmmaker who’s expanding what kind of women end up on screen, and what they do once they get there.