It's been two weeks since screenwriting goddess Nora Ephron passed away. In an era where our news is almost fleeting to the point of disposability, it's easy to forget yesterday's headlines, let alone last month’s. And yet I find that I still want to devote a few words to Ms. Ephron - Nora - can I call her Nora? - in my little corner of the internet. At the same time, I also find that I'm still not quite sure what I want to say - or can say. I was not friends with this woman, nor did I ever meet her at any point in my life. (Sadly, for me.) I'd like to boast that I tracked her career carefully and with the attention and fervor of a true and devoted fan. Unfortunately, it's not quite true. I can't speak specifically to her traits, as so many memorials have intended to: how she lived unapologetically, how she loved good food and good company, how she spoke with trenchant wit, and profound but nonchalant wisdom.
What I can speak to, however, are Nora Ephron's ladies, because her ladies? Those, I know. Specifically, her romcom ladies: Sally Albright, Annie Reid, and Kathleen Kelly, all portrayed by Meg Ryan. These three fictional women each earn a place in the Lady Character Pantheon (which, by the way, has a limitless seating capacity) for their individual and shared traits, bestowed to them by Nora's sharp wit and casual but spot-on understanding of the modern woman. There are three trademarks unique to Ephron's heroines: she is not only the heroine of her own story, but also beloved in it, she is specific, and she is real. Together, these intersecting attributes could easily be considered the Canon of Writing Ladies - particularly in romantic comedies, where she is so often and easily set adrift.
The first characteristic of a Nora Ephron lady is simple, and self-explanatory: she is the heroine of her own story. Sally, Annie, and Kathleen are all in charge of their own lives and the decisions in them, and while there are certainly outside forces exerting power over their lives, never once is she not in the driver’s seat. This is a basic rule of storytelling and main characters: good characters make choices, and good stories present good characters with hard choices. But beyond this, Nora takes it a step further: her heroines are never the punchline to their own narrative’s joke. These ladies never become the butt of a gag, and are never meant to be laughed at. While there is certainly comedy in the way Sally orders food, or proclaims with dread that she’s going to be 40 in eight years, we are never meant to laugh at her more than we relate to her. None of these “quirky” traits are ever used against her by the storytelling - the storyteller is Our Lady Lead’s friend, and never makes her the fool against her will. Even the breakups in Sleepless in Seattle and You’ve Got Mail, despite both being initiated against Annie and Kathleen by their significant others, end peaceably. Both women are shown to have made mistakes, but neither are shamed, blamed, or harangued for their transgressions. In all, this means that each lady is allowed to maneuver through her film, and emerge from it, with her dignity intact.
Even if this is a growing rarity for romcom ladies, handling the writerly execution of a Lady Heroine is fairly straightforward. But concept and content for the character? It’s a bit more nebulous. Often, romantic comedies endeavor to portray the "Everywoman," when in fact, this concept is a myth. Even more ironic, the best way to achieve what filmmakers are going for with this "Everywoman" - mass relatability - is to give her specific characteristics that a variety of women might identify with. And I'm not talking "every woman wants a fairy tale wedding!" or "every woman is a klutz!" or "every woman cries at romantic movies!" These inferred suggestions about an "Everywoman" have been painted and repainted so many times that near every romcom lady has deteriorated into a one-dimensional stereotype, which, go figure, is actually pretty alienating. (Some Everywoman.) We're at a point now where even the "specific" versions of these attempts to create relatability are becoming trite: "Career women are uptight and lonely!" "The quiet ones are actually party animals!" Generalizations are a death sentence to strong characters, but especially to female characters, who are already susceptible to being casually categorized, boxed, and labeled for mass consumption and easy understanding. But specificity is the best way to reroute expectation - and stereotype.
Neither Sally, nor Annie, nor Kathleen are "Career Women" nor are they "Unlucky in Love," or even "Lonely Girls," despite the fact that they all have jobs, are unmarried at movie's beginning, and hitched to a dude by movie's end. Of the three, only Kathleen's job is explored at length, simply because it's important to the film - but she certainly doesn't fit the paradigm of "Career Woman." She inherited her shop from her mother, and it's less a job so much as an emotional fulfillment for the character... perhaps helping Kathleen to steer clear of the "Lonely Girl" stereotype as well. She's incredibly fulfilled by her job, and there's no suggestion that it might prevent her from having a love life. Sally describes herself as a basically happy person, and while much of hers and Harry’s conversations involve relationships, it’s never communicated that something - a man - is somehow missing from Sally’s life. (After all, it’s hard to argue that Sally needs a man when Harry spends nearly the entire film by her side. She got one in the first minute, whether she wanted it or not.)
But even though Nora Ephron sidesteps these tropes, she does so without condemning the more innocuous root of the stereotypes. These are not women dressed up with the boastful trappings of manhood, nor limited by the inferred (and insulting) “weakness” associated with womanhood. Sally breaks down and cries when her ex, who had sworn off marriage, gets engaged to another woman. Annie watches An Affair to Remember, cries, and quotes the dialogue, lamenting that people “know how to be in love” in the movies. Kathleen, a compassionate businesswoman, is perhaps too nice for the impersonal business world. And, though it’s mentioned in passing, both Sally and Kathleen state that they want to have kids someday. These are all realities of womanhood, and achieve relatability without forcing these women into stereotype. Not only that, but these standards of “femininity” abide by Rule #1: they are not used to make fun of the Lady Lead. She is respected for her “feminine” traits - crying, enjoying romantic films, creating personal relationships, and wanting children - and they are not purposefully exaggerated for a joke.
It’s possible that Nora Ephron penned these three women so well that all subsequent romcom endeavors aim to achieve the same effect, and only result in aped imitation. For example, nowadays, we get one scene where Our Lady Lead does one thing that Sally/Annie/Kathleen did, and suddenly, we know them. We get her. But that’s all there is to know about Lucy/Sarah/Katie/Jane. If she orders a meal like Sally, we know immediately that she’s Control Freak Uptight Girl (and that she will meet a Relaxed Free Spirit Dude and fall in love, even though he drives her crazy). If she claims to love Pride and Prejudice, as Kathleen does, we know she’s Overly Romantic Girl (and will meet an Unsentimental Cynic Guy, and fall in love, even though he drives her crazy). And if, like Annie, she’s seemingly happy, sensible, and chatty, we know that she’s Cute and Normal Neurotic Girl (and she will meet Non-Threateningly Handsome Average Guy, and fall in love - he probably won’t drive her crazy, though the process of falling in love with him will).
But Sally, Annie, and Kathleen are all set apart through specificity, which in turn gives them a greater maneuverability of characteristics. They are not just One Thing, and are therefore allowed to manifest onscreen in varied and ultimately real ways. While Sally breaks down and cries over Joe, she is actually the more practical of the two leads - Harry is by far the more emotional of the pair, and more prone to unhappiness. And even with the emotional reaction to Joe’s engagement, Sally’s cheery nature despite her singledom is not mere delusion: the script is very specific in identifying the cause of Sally’s distress. It’s not because an ex is getting married and she isn’t. It’s because her ex never wanted to get married, and now that he is, it means that he didn’t want to marry her. She’s not obsessed with marriage; she’s a human being whose self-worth is capable of breaking just like anyone else’s. When Harry accidentally insinuates that their hookup was pity sex, she slaps him and says, “Fuck you!” She swears, but she’s not a Wild Girl. She works, but she’s not a Lonely Career Woman. She purposefully lays on the horn to get Harry to stop kissing that girl and GET IN THE CAR, but she’s not a Bitch. She is allowed, by the narrative, a full range of emotions and characteristics that combine to create a well-developed main character, and a very real human being.
Perhaps the best thing Nora Ephron does to imbue her ladies with realism is to give them something other than just a love story. When the love story between a man and a woman is the only story told onscreen, it’s difficult to provide content for the woman that doesn’t directly relate back to the man. Inevitably, core pieces of her identity are therefore given over to construct her “development,” and without any other story to interact with, fall into the hands of the man she’s meant to fall in love with. What results is a sticky portrayal of what it means to be in a relationship with someone, and how that might affect - or should affect - how a woman behaves, how she identifies herself, and what she values. Good characters change, and if a character is in a love story only, then she or he is changing at the hands of, or for, the love story. The message seems to be: a woman can only get her happy ending when she changes part of herself, or has some epiphany about her existence that leads her down the altar, at long last. Single means unhappy, and something is wrong. Wedding means happy, with a man, and everything is right. More often than not, Our Lady Lead is the thing that’s changed in the middle, and that change is the inferred ticket to happiness.
But, with other material supplementing the Love Story, Lady Lead has the opportunity to develop and find change in areas of her life that don’t have to do with her relationship status. Take, for example, You’ve Got Mail. Yes, the film tells the love story of Joe Fox and Kathleen Kelly. However, you could strongly argue that the real love story in the movie belongs to Kathleen and her deceased mother, or Kathleen and the world of books. The film’s most emotional moment happens when Kathleen is forced to close her store, and, upon looking into the dark and empty space for the last time, sees her own image as a little girl, dancing happily with her mother. As mentioned previously, Kathleen’s entire emotional fulfillment comes from her job, which is rare for most Working Lady romcom leads. She may fall in love with Joe Fox, but the beating heart of the film is actually her love for her mother, and what her mother left to her: a bookshop, and the love of reading.
In When Harry Met Sally, the two fall in love quite accidentally, and even the film’s Big Moment, where Harry runs through the streets of New York City to confess his love on New Year’s Eve, plays out with restraint. Harry arrives at the party, out of breath, and rattles off a list of things he loves about Sally, and in return, she tells him that he’s making it impossible for her to hate him - and she really, really hates him. Cue kiss, and end movie. It’s the most delightful subversion of a love story: she tells him she hates him, and then they agree that they’re old friends, as the tune of Auld Lang Syne plays over their kiss and cut to credits.
Even in Sleepless in Seattle, which is arguably one of the most romantically-constructed romcoms of all time, Nora handles the sentimentality with an honest realism. The whole theme of the film is “love in the movies,” but neither Annie nor Sam know they’re in a movie. Each of them are reliably dubious about the possibility of falling in love with someone they’ve never met. Annie in particular firmly states that destiny is something humans created because they can’t deal with the fact that everything is accidental, and then spends the entire movie fraught with doubt over the possibility that maybe she’s wrong. So ultimately, while Sleepless in Seattle is a love story from an almost cosmic perspective, it plays out in these characters’ lives as simply and realistically as possible - which makes the fact that it does happen all the more magical. When Dr. Marcia asks Sam about how he knew he loved his wife, he replies simply: he took her hand, helping her out a car, and he knew. Annie’s grandmother relays the same basic idea about falling in love with her husband. It’s as simple as taking someone’s hand. That’s it. And in the end, that’s all it takes for Annie and Sam: they shake hands, and we know they’re in love. They don’t have to kiss, or embrace, or even have a conversation - that would oversell it. This is a couple that has fallen in love in a single moment: all we need is hands, and we believe it, and it’s all the more romantic for it.
What’s perhaps interesting, then, is that these atypical expressions of romance actually help to sell the stories as more romantic. Between this nonromantic path to romance, and the measures of specificity taken to achieve mass relatability, Nora Ephron seems to understand something that most screenwriters don’t: telling a story is not like taking a picture and showing it to the audience, but rather, putting paint strokes on canvas and letting the audience watch the image come together. Not every smear of paint has to be romantic, or widely relatable, or even terribly pertinent to the plot. But, when you step back, those overtones can still be seen in the bigger picture.
Ultimately, it’s this approach that helps put Sally Albright, Annie Reid, and Kathleen Kelly in the Pantheon of Lady Characters, as well as Nora Ephron in the Pantheon of Lady Writers. Each character is her own heroine, beloved by the narrative. She subverts stereotype through specificity, and evokes relatability not through generalization but through realism. In the bigger picture, these attributes come together to portray a strong female character who is not only well-developed and well-written, but who resonates with a wide audience of women. In that sense, it’s easy to consider that, though I may never have known Nora Ephron, it felt very much like she knew me, and I will probably always want to be just like her.
Rest in peace, Our Lady Lead.