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Not a Hollywood Happy Ending

The book lightly skirts the gender politics of the standard upon which Nora’s own films are held. Is it bittersweet that her most acclaimed film, When Harry Met Sally, is deemed worthy of classic status because it is directed by a man, Rob Reiner? Even then, When Harry Met Sally was called Woody Allen lite, as Carlson recounts — with Ephron forever being compared and deemed lesser to her male peers.

But by becoming the Queen of Romantic Comedy, Ephron did, by extension, make it better for women directors. “Surely a male director of Nora’s promise would have been allowed second and third chances following a disastrous outing, but as any female filmmaker would tell you, it’s harder for women than men to regain footing after a failed directorial effort,” Carlson writes. “So often they’ve got one shot to prove themselves, and if they blow it, or don’t add to the bottom line off the jump, their time is up.”

It’s after Ephron that rom-coms become a safe space for female directors, with directors like Nancy Meyers, Penny Marshall, and Amy Heckerling following her example. While this grew to be limiting years later when female directors would be deemed only suited toward rom-coms, it made it somewhat easier for women to break into the movie industry.

Unlike the fantasies that Nora created in her rom-coms, there’s not much of a happy ending in this book. I’ll Have What She’s Having paints a bittersweet portrait of how merciless Hollywood can be to former America’s sweethearts, with Meg Ryan never escaping the ingenue roles while Tom Hanks’ career reached new heights. And while Ephron flourished long after she made the influential New York Trilogy, coming back with Julie and Julia, which earned star Meryl Streep a variety of acting nominations, her legacy was cut short due to complications from acute myeloid leukemia.

i'll have what she's having

Conclusion

Ephron lives on in the Sallies, Annies, and Kathleens of the world — adult women in romantic comedies made for adults. Beneath the cynicism and acidity that Ephron brings to her dialogue and characters, there’s a rawness and vulnerability to her movies that make her films stand the test of time. At least, that’s what I wish Carlson had said.

Carlson loads her book with small details of industry insight that are entertaining for avid movie industry followers and are explained in a way that feels both secretive and accessible. The incredibly minute details range from interesting to irreverent — there’s a full page dedicated guy Nora dated who became the basis for half of the name of Greg Kinnear’s character in You’ve Got Mail — but I’ll Have What She’s Having feels like it’s missing that “eyes lock across the room” moment, that “faked orgasm in a deli” scene. The theme that brings this whole book together. I’ll Have What She’s Having is so focused on the details that it loses sight of the bigger picture.

It is with a deep abiding love for the genre that I wish Carlson had more greatly explored rom-coms themselves. The book lives up to the first part of the title but falls short of the second part. Did Nora Ephron’s three great rom-coms save the genre? Like her films’ questions about friendship, destiny, and conflict, perhaps we’ll never know. But finding out sure is fun.

***

I’ll Have What She’s Having: How Nora Ephron’s Three Iconic Films Saved the Romantic Comedy is available on Amazon.

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