Erin Carlson's I'll Have What She's Having: How Nora Ephron's Three Iconic Films Saved the Romantic Comedy
And I Hate You, Nora. I Really Hate You.
How Nora Ephron's Three Iconic Films Saved the Romantic Comedy
by Erin Carlson
“I lived in the Apthorp in a state of giddy delirium for about ten years,” wrote Nora Ephron, the much-adored screenwriter and director, in 2006, six years before her sudden death from leukemia. The Apthorp fills the entire block between Broadway and West End Avenue between West 78th and West 79th, and has been home to the likes of Al Pacino, Joseph Heller, and George Balanchine. In 1980, Ephron paid $1,500 in rent and $25,000 in key money to move into her five-bedroom apartment. “The water in the bathtub often ran brown, there was probably asbestos in the radiators, and the exterior of the building was encrusted with soot. Also, there were mice. Who cared?” She was in love. And so she stuck it out, even after the introduction of luxury-decontrol laws that ended stabilization on rentals above $2,000 a month occupied by tenants making more than $250,000 a year. Only when her rent soared to $12,000 would Ephron pack it in and purchase an apartment on the more rarefied Upper East Side. There’s plenty to like about it, she says, “But it’s not love. It’s just where I live.”
I feel it’s my duty as a millennial who pays 2019 rents with 2019 media wages to resent Ephron’s eulogy for subsidized luxury. But her sardonic humor, discerning eye and candor—characteristic of her best essays and screenplays—are intoxicating. “This, after all, is not a story about money,” she says with a knowing grin. “It’s a story about love. And all stories about love start with a certain amount of rationalization.”
And I am not alone in an Ephron-induced “giddy delirium.” In I’ll Have What She’s Having, entertainment reporter Erin Carlson embarks on what is surely a labor of love, endeavoring to tell the story of how Ephron and her collaborators redefined the romantic comedy and “led the revival of New York as America’s love capital in the popular imagination.” I’ll Have What She’s Having is closest to a biography, but is far from that—Ephron is an acclaimed essayist, Washington insider, and twice-divorced before the 30th page. The next 250 pages outline in often-gruelling detail the making of her three most famous films, with regular tangents dedicated to the professional and personal lives of Ephron’s associates.
“As an architect behind three beloved romantic comedies”—the Rob Reiner directed When Harry Met Sally, (1989) for which Ephron received a screenwriting Oscar nomination, and the saccharine Meg Ryan-Tom Hanks vehicles Sleepless in Seattle (1993) and You’ve Got Mail, (1998) directed by Nora and co-written with sister Delia—“Nora refreshed a stagnant film genre.” Classics like Broadcast News, Moonstruck, and The Princess Bride—all released in 1987—be damned; the romantic comedy was belly up before Nora came along. Perhaps a more palatable claim: Ephron “stamped [the genre] with her own image,” imbuing it with her wit and the earnest romanticism of which, in Ephron’s words, “only a cynic is truly capable.”
A well-researched, well-argued book could make the case that Ephron “reigned over a romcom golden age” that Carlson has dubbed, “After Nora, AN, an era when big, splashy, starry”—yes, starry—“romances found renewed success.” But no such case is made here. Carlson combed the web for any article containing Ephron’s name, interviewed a couple dozen collaborators, and watched every last second of DVD special features. But memoirs by the Ephron-adjacent far outnumber sources on the history of Hollywood and the romantic comedy, leaving Carlson ill-equipped to convincingly say anything about the golden and dark ages of romcoms.
But then, I’ll Have What She’s Having is only ostensibly meant to vindicate the declaration of After Nora. It seems Carlson’s real intent is to entertain Ephron devotees with behind-the-scenes anecdotes that satisfy their craving for anything having to do with Ephron, Hanks, and Ryan. The origin stories of famous scenes abound: it was Ryan’s idea to fake an orgasm in Katz’s Deli, and Billy Crystal came up with “I’ll have what she’s having,” the quip from which this book gets its name. Fans of Ephron’s films will find these and other stories inherently charming, but even the most impassioned will have their patience tested. When reading about the deal struck with AOL to use its logo and the version used in You’ve Got Mail—“4.0, then in beta testing”—you start to wonder what Carlson left on the cutting room floor.
The endless parade of anecdotes is intermittently entertaining and interesting. Ephron’s fantasies were painstakingly crafted; “Nora had to completely OK every single look, down to the cut of the shoes,” Tom Hanks recalls. Stories of deciding on certain minor details like Kathleen Kelley’s tousled hair or Harry’s chic bohemian loft provide a window into both Ephron’s vision—troublingly elitist—and her character as a filmmaker—collaborative, but self-assured and obdurate. Unfortunately, they do not get the commentary they deserve, and cumulatively these stories amount to neither a portrait of Ephron nor an appraisal of her legacy.
Rather, a starry-eyed Carlson delivers a sappy paean devoid of the wit that tempered Ephron’s schmaltz. And because I’m not spellbound by Ephron’s silver tongue, I’m nagged throughout by my resentment of her unchecked privilege and distaste for the fantasies she sold, like the scene in You’ve Got Mail when Kathleen attends a dinner party brimming with well-heeled journalists. Carlson writes of Ephron’s films, “These were the flip side to the reality-rooted romances…that explored messy gender relations in the wake of the second-wave women’s movement and the sexual revolution,” as if that’s a good thing, and I cringe. She’s right; I, too, was blinded by love.