The Queen of Romantic Comedy

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I’ll Have What She’s Having: How Nora Ephron’s Three Iconic Films Saved the Romantic Comedy by Erin Carlson, Hachette Books, US $27.00, Pp 352, August 2017, ISBN 978-0316353885

Filmmaker and scriptwriter Nora Ephron faced a real dilemma in the summer of 1992. If Nora really wanted to keep making movies, she really needed to pull off Sleepless in Seattle’s high-stakes last scene: a fantastical encounter between her stars that defied Hollywood convention. They don’t meet until the end. In I’ll Have What She’s HavingErin Carlson says that the studio executives quivered at the thought. The questions they faced were whether the audience will accept the gimmick and sit through 90 minutes without a proper meet-cute? And, can Nora Ephron, a neophyte director with one failed film under her belt, even be trusted to get away with this?

However, when the camera started rolling, it made cinematic history as the most romantic moment she ever filmed, anointing Tom and Meg as America’s Sweethearts – a label at which they winced — and Nora the Queen of Romantic Comedy. Carlson says that getting there was a battle for Nora. At one point, Tom got cold feet — could he portray a wussy dad without committing career suicide? – forcing Nora, anxious about keeping him happy, to persuade a fellow skeptic and know-it-all (and therefore a kindred spirit) to take a chance on her.

Sleepless is the second in a trilogy of Ephron-scripted romantic comedies that combined old-fashioned romance with hilarious truths about contemporary relationships to shape idea and expectations about love, however pie-in-the-sky. According to When Harry met Sally, you could get lucky and marry your best friend. Or, given the arcs of Sleepless and You’ve got mail, you might break your commitment to a blah suitor and delay marriage until Mr. Soulmate arrives to pledge his undying affection… as long as you both shall live. Like the great Manhattan-set rom-coms of old times, from The Apartment to Breakfast at Tiffany’s to Annie Hall, these romances test the time: We get to experience the vicarious thrill of falling in love, a feeling at once intoxicating, addictive, and comforting, over and over again. But if you consider Nora a sentimentalist, you’re mistaken: The mastermind yanking the heartstrings did not always sample the cherry-flavored Kool-Aid She served up.

Carlson says Nora continues to set a high standard for excellence in romantic comedy even in death, serving as a twinkly fairy godmother figure – a Julia Child of love – who had found the perfect husband for her and nurtured the hope that something good, somebody great, was out there somewhere. Carlson says that Nora’s optimism and her belief in second and third chances trickled into the You’ve got mail character of Kathleen Kelly, whose clean break with the character of Frank Navasky freed the resilient bookstore pixie to start over and seek a new life.

I’ll Have What She’s Having is the story of how Nora Ephron rose to be the romantic comedy queen. Carlson shows how Nora’s confidence in herself and optimism, and belief in second and third chances led to her success. I’ll Have What She’s Having is veritably as much a story of cinema and Hollywood as the iconic filmmaker. Based on interviews with Meg Ryan, Tom Hanks, Delia Ephron, Greg Kinnear, Rob Reiner, and Parker Posey, it is very well-researched and -written and reflects Carlson’s unmatched knowledge of Nora and the cinema. Carlson takes the reader behind the scenes in Hollywood and helps them live the same time as Nora. It is a necessary read for film lovers.