Does Nora Ephron’s Take on Love and Sex Hold Up 30 Years On?

On the 30th anniversary of When Harry Met Sally, Annie Fell wonders whether Nora Ephron’s idiosyncratic perspective on romance, fantasy, and sexuality is still #relatable.

When Harry Met Sally, the last mainstream rom-com to truly be good, is based on the simple premise: What if two friends choose to not have sex to avoid ruining said friendship, but then they do and it does? Because it’s a movie, they eventually make up over one of film history’s most iconic romantic monologues and presumably live happily ever after. But as Nora Ephron said in a conversation with the movie’s director, Rob Reiner, “I have people come up to me and say ‘Ugh, I’m in this When Harry Met Sally thing,’ and I say, ‘Don’t let the movie fool you — those people don’t get together in real life’… If two people meet each other and they don’t do it, it’s because something’s missing.”

This month, the movie celebrates its 30th anniversary. It catapulted Ephron — who was a reporter, essayist, and novelist before becoming the screenwriter and filmmaker she’s now mostly known as — to her throne as the reigning queen of rom-coms. It should go without saying that the title is well-deserved: with When Harry Met Sally, she illustrated the intricacies of modern love with a balance of humor and vulnerability that’s been emulated by so many and actually achieved by so, so few (Gillian Robespierre may be the only potential successor I’ll even begin to consider).  

Ephron was the Deep Throat of women’s sexuality, spilling the secrets of our faked orgasms and our complicated sexual desires. There’s a moment in When Harry Met Sally where Sally tells Harry her ultimate sex fantasy — an interpolation of a bit from one of Ephron’s Esquire columns, an essay from July 1972 simply called “Fantasies” — the gist of which is, a faceless guy rips off her clothes, “and that’s it.” 

Sally: Sometimes I vary it a little.

Harry: Which part?

Sally: What I’m wearing.

In the Esquire piece, Ephron writes, “That’s just about all they have to do. Stare at me in this faceless way, go mad with desire, and rip my clothes off.” The essay attempts to reconcile women’s liberation with her (and so many others’) fantasy of being dominated, and she reckons with feminism’s effects on (hetero) romance. For a woman told she can have thriving professional and personal lives (as they say, “it all”), a totally egalitarian relationship is a lovely idea, but it doesn’t take into account the reality of sexual desire. Quoth Ephron, “In my sex fantasy, nobody ever loves me for my mind.”

Meg Ryan in When Harry Met Sally

Ephron’s movies kneel at the altar of fantasy, but are imbued with just enough realism to really make you believe. Her leading men are affable and attractive in an accessible way — Billy Crystal and Tom Hanks seem like men you could feasibly meet, but with better dialogue and better jobs. Speaking of which: When Harry Met Sally seems to exist in an alternate middle class universe in which everyone has a great job, but no one talks about work or money. Sally was a journalist, but as far as we ever saw, only nominally; Harry’s job was never clearly specified, but whatever he did, he made enough to live alone in a decent-sized apartment. 

I can’t imagine dating a man who has his own apartment — I can’t imagine myself having my own apartment — let alone one uptown. Per Ephron and Reiner, the decision to ignore this aspect was a conscious one, so as not to distract from what we all came to see: their relationship. But taking that sort of artistic liberty in 2019 would be tone-deaf. Capital — specifically the lack thereof — permeates all aspects of contemporary life. It’s probably why young people are allegedly having less sex. Feeling trapped in a seemingly permanent gig economy is degrading, and not in a hot way!

In her writing, Ephron was able to parse both her personal life and modern relationships at large in real time. When Harry Met Sally explores the age-old question, can men and women really just be friends?, and while the dilemma is heteronormative, there is still some value in examining the egalitarianism of platonic relationships between men and women. Can we compartmentalize our basest sexual desires for the greater social good? Do the millennia of sexual fascism — of violence or, at best, objectification — need to loom in the background of every interaction between straight men and women? Against our own best interest, how can it not?

The central conflict addressed in Ephron’s work, throughout the entirety of her career, was the conundrum of hating so much of what Society expects women  to want — a husband, kids, a well-kept home — and still sort of wanting it despite yourself. It’s embarrassing to actively want a boyfriend, to essentially admit that even as an Independent Woman you still crave the affection, attention, and companionship of a man. Ephron was operating from the front lines of the Second Wave, but her greatest contribution to the movement may have been her willingness to admit that, sometimes, our feminist ideals are not compliant with the reality of hetero relationships.

Ephron’s subsequent rom-coms, like Sleepless in Seattle and You’ve Got Mail, are good in the way that a warm buttered roll is good; there’s essentially no nutritional value, but the emotional comfort they provide make them necessary all the same. A healthy dose of fantasy won’t hurt me, whether that’s allowing myself to believe for an hour and 30 minutes that anyone could possibly “have it all,” or to dream that America’s economy will ever be strong enough for me to afford my own apartment and not have to worry about work once I’m in it. Ephron knew that’s the point of The Movies, that adhering to realism would be missing it.

The most PG-rated kiss of all time, courtesy of You’ve Got Mail

Ephron’s movies don’t need to explicitly tell it like it is. She did enough of that in her nonfiction that those familiar with it can read between the lines and know that even her cheesiest stories were told with a wink. Reading her essays or watching Meg Ryan or Meryl Streep act as her celluloid surrogate, it’s easy to imagine Ephron as the gabby girl in your middle school locker room; the snarky girl sitting in the front row of your high school English class who’s too funny for you to actually hate; the woman you’re seated next to at a dinner party who you immediately know can be trusted with your best gossip, she’s already told you hers. 

Ephron is one of those pop cultural figures who’s been in my life for so long that she might as well be a great aunt, or something; maybe that’s because a love for her work has been passed down through, at this point, generations plural on my mother’s side. I refuse to be one of those people who talks about their elderly grandparents like they’re these cute, guileless creatures (as opposed to people who have survived myriad wars and have absolutely decimated our ozone layer), but I have to share that when I was watching Sleepless in Seattle at my parents’ house last Thanksgiving, my 94-year-old grandfather walked into the room and asked, “Is this our friend Nora?” My heart still swells — yes, it is!

Annie Fell is a boy about town. You can follow her on Twitter.



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