In Nora Ephron’s film Sleepless in Seattle, a colleague says to Meg Ryan and Rosie O’Donnell, “It’s easier to be killed by a terrorist than it is to find a husband over the age of 40.” Ryan responds immediately with “That statistic is not true!” O’Donnell agrees. “That’s right, it’s not true. But it feels true.”
These rueful truths gave Nora Ephron’s work its sparkle, the distillate clarity, accessible wisdom, wit and longevity of a great pop song. Ephron chronicled modern relationships, looking at how feminism, the new economy, and new technology were transforming — and being transformed by — love. She asked the questions that lurked in the hearts of all men and women in a world of changing gender relations, but which few voiced for fear of seeming dated, naïve, too frivolous or not liberated enough — can a man and a woman truly be just friends? Can you really fall in love over the Internet? Is romance just for foolish romantics or the key to finding your true self?
Ephron was the kind of feminist who maintained an intense conversation with the women’s movement but also dared to leave the ghetto of ideology and the Brahiminism of political correctness. Her funny, popular films like When Harry Met Sally, Sleepless in Seattle and You’ve Got Mail resonated with people’s realities while also acknowledging our fantasies without judgement.
She wrote parts for women equal to or greater than male roles in stories, where the woman’s experience was central, in a highly male dominated and male centric industry — and paved the way for many things, from Tina Fey to Sex and the City. In resuscitating the romcom genre in Hollywood she also redefined it through a contemporary lens and challenged the persistent prejudice that films about women’s experiences don’t have an audience and don’t make money.
But perhaps the most important thing about her was that she was funny. Humour may well be the most democratic of things, allowing no pomposities from either left or right, allowing the possibility of laughing at oneself, which is also the possibility of admitting you are wrong. Humour contains both, the desire to please, and the sharp eye that catches you out. Its playfulness both gives and demands equality and never allows you to become lazy. It’s the thing that allows Meg Ryan’s Sally to fake a fist-thumping orgasm in a deli that both teases men, and suggests to women, that if it were real, they’d like “to have what she’s having.”
This famous scene from When Harry Met Sally exemplifies how Ephron never fell into the facile declarations of so-called sexual liberation in which women were supposed to have sex like men. But she also never fell into the terribly dull formulations that sex is not about the body, or as she put it, “in my sex fantasy, no one ever loves me for my mind.” She did not need to attack the coy manipulations of books like The Rules. She simply embodied another, perfectly liveable way to navigate the confusions of love and intimacy.
As always, when someone who has had the courage to take risks leaves the world, we are reminded of how much we need people like them — that those best practices of existing will always be necessary to the world. Audiences like us certainly could use more artistes like Nora Ephron today who will muddle the unintelligent gender categorisations in our cinemas with a light hand and an elegant air and give us popular, commercial movies that will respect us and speak the truth of our lives.
Paromita Vohra is an award-winning Mumbai-based filmmaker, writer and curator working with fiction and non-fiction. Reach her at www.parodevi.com.
The views expressed in this column are the individual’s and don’t represent those of the paper.