Nora Ephron, who died Tuesday at 71, is rightfully being remembered and hailed for making smart movies about smart and vulnerable women. But part of her genius was creating smart films also featuring smart and vulnerable guys.
She reinvented the romantic comedy, turning out mini-classics that the Harrys in the audience, whether they'd admit it or not, loved just as much as the Sallys. That's largely because she created male characters as realistic and relatable as the strong women who populated her movie universe.
Ephron took her cue from 1930s to 1950s hey-day of romantic comedies that boasted wide appeal and snappy dialogue: the "Thin Man" flicks, the Hepburn-Tracy and the Hepburn-Grant films, among others. Her underrated "You've Got Mail" was an updated version of 1940's "The Shop Around The Corner," with Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan stepping into the Jimmy Stewart and Margaret Sullavan roles. The Empire State Building climax to "Sleepless in Seattle" proved a loving homage to 1957's "An Affair to Remember" with Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr.
But Ephron improved on her predecessors' output in crucial respects, giving us fully drawn figures on both sides of the battle of the sexes, with genuine stakes and emotional struggles underlying the witty banter.
In 1993’s "Sleepless in Seattle,” Hanks' widower Sam is afraid of love, afraid of taking a chance – and afraid of tiramisu, which he clearly never experienced: "Some woman is gonna want me to do it to her and I'm not gonna know what it is."
He shares with Billy Crystal's cynical Harry of "When Harry Met Sally" a fear of intimacy. For Harry, that fear manifests itself in constant proclamations that men and women can't be friends (“No man can be friends with a woman that he finds attractive. He always wants to have sex with her”).
The films use humor to build to the point where both men – and the distinct characters played Ryan in both movies – ultimately expose themselves to potential heartbreak.
Harry tries to give as good as he gets with Sally when it comes to one-liners – but can't outdo her phony, I’ll-have-what-she’s-having eruption at Katz’ Deli. Ephron handed Ryan one of moviedom’s funniest scenes, but gave Crystal one of the sweetest moments in rom-com history, when Harry’s mounting feelings for Sally trigger an eruption of another sort: "I love that you are the last person I want to talk to before I go to sleep at night. And it's not because I'm lonely, and it's not because it's New Year's Eve. I came here tonight because when you realize you want to spend the rest of your life with somebody, you want the rest of your life to start as soon as possible."
Ephron benefitted greatly from working with stellar performers, who brought to life her sparkling words, fleshing out characters we became deeply invested in – men and women trying hard to be friends, equals coming at the game of love from different angles.
Others have tried to imitate her style over the last quarter-century. But there's no faking your way through crafting a Nora Ephron movie. For men and women alike, she was the real deal.
Hester is founding director of the award-winning, multi-media NYCity News Service at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is the former City Editor of the New York Daily News, where he started as a reporter in 1992. Follow him on Twitter.