Nora was one of two directors that have had tremendous influence on my formation. If Woody Allen formed my humor, Nora Ephron formed my heart, my value system. I am ever grateful to have learned from her stories while growing up on a culture that confuses love with sex, power with success, and femininity with weakness.
I call her films "comfort movies," not because they're indulgent, but because they remind me of who I am and what I value. They are redemptive, compassionate, kind movies, who look out for even the dopiest of characters ("'Cause it makes my apartment smell mossy!"). They are largely responsible for my own relationships (“You realize of course, that we could never be friends”). They gave me an appropriate set of deal-breakers (“I could never be with someone who has a boat”). In a surprisingly real way, these movies helped raise me.
A few things I learned from the cinematic canon of Madam Ephron:
1. How to be empowered in a romantic relationship. Nora's romantic comedies were unique in many ways, not the least of which is that the two characters involved were successful, independent, and empowered. They knew their own self-worth, they knew what they wanted, and they made considerate decisions for themselves and others.
Harry and Sally both have important careers, but the movie is about their friendship. It might seem silly for the focus to be placed on their budding romance on not at all on their jobs, but it was an important lesson for me to learn at an early age that career is not always the most important thing in life. I grew up in a liberal, feminist community and was very often told by teachers and media never to put a man before career, or even beside it. But Nora had a more nuanced view of this modern dilemma. Your job is important, and love is important. Treat them both with thought and reflection, and make sacrifices when needed.
2. "All I'm saying is that somewhere out there is the man you are supposed to marry. And if you don't get him first, somebody else will, and you'll have to spend the rest of your life knowing that somebody else is married to your husband."
3. How and when to leave a romantic relationship. I think of Sleepless in Seattle every time that moment happens in a relationship—you know the one—where you suddenly take yourself out of it and, for a second, reconsider.
For Annie Reed in Sleepless in Seattle, this moment is when her mother says, “Walter. It’s quite a formal name, isn’t it?”
Annie later asks Walter if he has any nicknames, and the answer is no. It’s the same feeling you got when he told you “I just really don’t like Motown,” or “I guess I’ve just never thought Seinfeld was funny.” Those are the moments that will inevitably end in a really bad Valentine’s Day at the Rainbow Room.
Then, there is the art of leaving.
"Is there someone else?" asked Frank.
"No, but there is the dream of someone else," said Kathleen.
I have used these exact same words while breaking up, actually on more than one occasion. Kathleen knew that she wasn't guaranteed the love of Joe, but she knew that she was not where she wanted to be with Frank. She cared for her neurotic Frank and part of that care was leaving when she knew she wanted to.
Then, there's Sally, who explained her break-up with Joe thusly: “I said, ‘This is what I want,’ and he said ‘Well I don’t.’”
If there is ever a reason to break up with anybody, that’s it. Sally, with her funny outfits and closer-to-God curls, was a successful career woman who also wanted a husband and a baby. Joe didn't. End of story. It is so hard to realize that you and your lovebunny want different things, but the moment you do, it's time to let it go, no matter how good his hair is. Nora is still teaching me that.
Furthermore, Nora’s characters know when they’re being treated unfairly. “I’m not your consolation prize, Harry” has been quoted and misquoted in a thousand movies since When Harry Met Sally, because it’s something we’ve all experienced and it’s something that takes guts to acknowledge.
4. There are limited nicknames for Walter.
5. How to age. When I was in 7th grade and saw "You've Got Mail" for the first (out of eight million) times, I thought, "I want to be Birdie when I grow up." Birdie is my ideal future self. She is eccentric, stylish, confident, and she has mind-boggling stories to tell over tea.
"It wasn't meant to be," she mused about a former lover. "He ran Spain. The country, he ran it." These are the tales I want to tell about my young self when I'm old and elegant. Sometimes, when I'm deciding whether or not to do something that's probably nuts, I think, "This will make a great story when I'm 80." I think of myself in my scarlet living room, be-scarfed and be-earringed to the nines, short red hair and hot red lipstick, telling my 30-year-old co-workers about the time I dated the man who ran Spain.
6. "That caviar is a garnish."
7. How to have friends. Leah used to say, "If you want to be Mari's friend, write her a letter."
Letter-writing has been integral to every one of my meaningful relationships, romantic and otherwise. I have friends whom I rarely see (one I saw once in 11 years of faithful letter-writing), but feel entirely connected with through epistolary communication. Correspondence is more important to me than just about anything in this world, and Nora understood that very special interaction and made beautiful stories out of it. The pen-pal-ship between Joe and Kathleen, Sam and Annie, and Julia and Avis, are ones with which I very much identify. I have fallen in love over letters, I’ve made best friendships over letters. I get the feeling that Nora has too.
I also love that Nora always put female relationships at the heart of her romantic movies. Would Annie have gone to Seattle if Becky hadn't encouraged her? Would Kathleen have the strength to close her shop if not for the strength of her mother, and her adopted mother Birdie? Nora knew that behind every great romance there are many even greater female frienships. Because of her, I remember not to let them slip away when I’m swept away by a man.
By the by, I mostly relate to the friendship between Sally and Marie, though I regret to say I am almost always The Marie, the desperate realist Marie. “The point is, he just spent $120 on a nightgown for his wife. He's never going to leave her. You're right, you’re right, I know you're right.”
8. How to quit a job. I paraphrased Kathleen Kelly when I quit a job I hated: “No one will ever remember you, Joe Fox. And maybe no one will remember me, either, but plenty of people remember my mother, and they think she was fine, and they think her store was something special. You are nothing but a suit.”
9. "You’re the worst kind. You’re high-maintenance, but you think you’re low-maintenance."
10. How to be sensitive. Nora taught women that it’s okay to be very sensitive, to very deeply feel, to miss, to hurt, to cry.
I took great comfort in the scenes of You’ve Got Mail where Kathleen is missing her mother. I’ve always had an extraordinarily close relationship with my mom, and feel anxious about what my life will be like when she’s not in it (sorry I’m blogging about your death, Mom). I love Kathleen Kelly’s relationship with her mother and I love how it affects and changes her, how much she still gets from it even though her mom isn’t living. I love that she misses her mother at Christmas and during times of change, but she doesn’t let it consume her. She feels, she misses, she hurts, she cries, and then she keeps hanging up the ornaments on her sweet, studio apartment miniature Christmas tree.
Sally Albright falls apart when she hears Joe is getting married, but we all know it won’t be the end of her. She still looks amazing even while she’s sobbing, and we know she has a great job and good friends to fall back on.
We don’t worry about Nora’s characters, because we know they are strong, self-assured, and interesting enough to carry on. In my dreams, I am a Nora Ephron character: strong, self-assured, and interesting enough to carry on. And with a few more annual viewings of her life-affirming movies, I’m well on my way.