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Why Nora Ephron Is Still the Queen of the Romantic Comedy

A lot of people might argue that February is the best time of year for watching romantic comedies. Valentine’s Day may prompt some people to crack open a box of chocolates and have a romcom marathon, but not me. I believe that fall is the true season of romantic comedy. Crisp weather and falling leaves make me want to light a candle, bake a loaf of pumpkin bread, and watch all the feel good movies possible. 

No romcom binge session would be complete without my all time favorite movie, the 1989 hit film When Harry Met Sally. Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan play Harry and Sally, two long time friends who end up falling in love (duh, it’s a romcom). Filled with scenes of characters strolling through Central Park amidst a backdrop of fall foliage while wearing chunky oversized sweaters, this movie has immaculate fall vibes. 

However, sweaters and scenery are not what make this movie one of the most iconic romcoms of all time, or why it grossed over a million dollars at the box office on its opening weekend. A movie that centers primarily on conversation between two people somehow captured the attention of millions – and continues to do so today. Why? Look to the woman behind the script. 

Nora Ephron was a wearer of many hats – journalist, novelist, essayist, screenwriter, and director. Although her influence still persists in each of these arenas today, her main legacy no doubt lies in the realm of romantic comedy. When Harry Met Sally, Sleepless in Seattle, and You’ve Got Mail are the three films that likely come to mind when we think of Nora Ephron. With this trinity, she redefined the genre and set a new standard for romantic comedies. 

Ephron was the daughter of two screenwriters, so it was only a matter of time before she took her turn to excel at the craft. When she was young, Ephron’s mother famously said to her, “Everything is copy,” meaning that every experience in life is possible material for writing. Throughout her work, whether it be her novels, essays, or films, it’s clear that Ephron took these words to heart. Ephron is the master of repurposing real life into fiction. Her novel, Heartburn, was based on her own marriage to Carl Bernstein. Her powerful essays often featured her own personal experiences at their center. So it only makes sense that her romantic comedies would also be born out of real people and events. Ephron has stated that the character of Sally in When Harry Met Sally is loosely based on herself, and the character of Harry is loosely based on Rob Reiner, the director of the film. It’s easy to draw similarities between her life and her other films as well – the main character in Sleepless in Seattle is a scrappy young journalist, not unlike a young Nora Ephron herself. 

Perhaps it is this element of realism that adds the depth and sincerity to Ephron’s romantic comedies that can often be rare in this genre. Romantic comedies are usually written off as silly, cheesy, or stupid – and unfortunately, many of them are. However, Ephron offered an alternative. Romantic comedies can be serious, thoughtful, and intelligent, while still holding onto the other endearing elements we expect from them, like their witty punchlines and steamy romances. Ephron proved that romantic comedies can be quality films that stand the test of time. 

While Sleepless in Seattle and You’ve Got Mail are shining examples of Ephron’s best work, I believe When Harry Met Sally shines the brightest. Ephron didn’t direct When Harry Met Sally as she did the other two. However, she didn’t need to. Ephron’s writing alone was enough to elevate the film to timelessness. The dialogue between the characters is raw, real, and hilarious. It’s endlessly quotable, but in a way that still feels like these conversations could happen between two ordinary people, not just on the silver screen. Ephron’s romantic comedies stand apart from the rest because they feel grounded in reality. The characters seem like people you might know in real life, and the romances feel tender yet solid. It’s been 30 years since When Harry Met Sally was released, and I don’t think any romcom has surpassed it yet. Nora Ephron still holds the throne for the queen of the romantic comedy.  

Haley is a sophomore at James Madison University double majoring in Media Arts and English.
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