ABSTRACT

By the time of her death in 2012, screenwriter and director Nora Ephron was routinely described as a Hollywood ‘legend’. Despite the rarity of successful, high-profile Hollywood women writers and directors, tributes tended to side-step the issue of industry sexism, focusing instead on Ephron’s reputation as a commentator on contemporary life and her key role in the emergence of the female-orientated, ‘single girl in the city’ romantic comedy form in the late 1980s. Ephron is rightly credited with writing some of the more complex and sophisticated examples of this much derided form, such as When Harry Met Sally (Rob Reiner, United States, 1989) and Sleepless in Seattle (Nora Ephron, United States, 1993), but she also proved remarkably versatile in working within and contributing to the evolution of a range of different genres prior to and since the height of her ‘romcom’ success in the late 1980s and 1990s. More significantly in terms of the topic of this chapter, much of this work touched on issues that were viewed as troubling to the US national psyche, such as Silkwood (Mike Nichols, United States, 1983), the biopic on the life and suspicious death of anti-nuclear campaigner Karen Silkwood, and Heartburn (Mike Nichols, United States, 1986), an autobiographical account of the demise of Ephron’s marriage to famous Washington post reporter Carl Berstein. Silkwood (co-written with Alice Arlen) was one of the last hard-hitting, ‘social issue’ films to come out of the 1960s-early 1980s, New Hollywood era. It was also one of the boldest in terms of its treatment of class, gender and corporate malpractice. Written in a docu-drama style, Silkwood not only exposed the dangerous practices of the nuclear power industry at the time, but was also one of a handful of Hollywood films that depicted the lives of blue-collar workers – a union activist mother who had lost custody of her children and her lesbian best friend – in a generous and sympathetic light. While Heartburn was essentially a comedy of social manners, it irked many leading liberal critics by apparently revealing the poor behaviour of Ephron’s arrogant, philandering husband, Bernstein, a man who was regarded at the time as a hero for his role in exposing the Watergate scandal (Kael 1986). Now widely praised, on release Heartburn was condemned as bitter and subjective 73in its treatment of Bernstein’s betrayal and Ephron’s reluctant journey to single motherhood. Even Ephron’s lighter works, such as When Harry Met Sally, shifted the generic codes of the sex comedy strongly in favour of the female protagonist, exposing the sexual double standard and poking fun at male sexual vanity in landmark scenes such as that in which Sally Albright (Meg Ryan) demonstrates the ease with which women fake orgasms to a stunned and amused Harry Burns (Billy Crystal).