Nora Ephron, Spaceballs and the Golden Age of Romantic Comedy

I’ve been busy these past few days prepping the latest Pegasus Pulp release (there should be an announcement tomorrow), hence the lack of posts. While I was otherwise occupied, Germany lost the Euro 2012 semi-finale to Italy 1:2 and the world of film and television lost two very talented women.

British actress Caroline John who played Liz Shaw in Doctor Who in the early 1970s has died aged 72. Caroline John actually appeared in the first full Doctor Who story I ever saw. I always liked her character, because she was a scientist and not just a pretty girl in a miniskirt. Indeed, I’d say that Liz Shaw who made her Doctor Who debut more than forty years ago now is still a more progressive female character than most female companions in the new series with the possible exception of Martha Jones.

Moreover, Screenwriter and director Nora Ephron died aged 71. Nora Ephron was the mind behind films like When Harry Met Sally and Sleepless in Seattle (and Silkwood, which I personally don’t like, though I agree that it’s an important film) and one of comparatively few women to make it into the top ranks of Hollywood. Here’s also a lovely tribute at the Huffington Post.

I just chanced to rewatch When Harry Met Sally lately. I originally saw the film back when it first came out. I must have been about 16 at the time and I specifically sought out the film after reading a review in a complimentary copy of Time on a plane. English language newspapers and magazines were windows into the wider world and rare treasures in those pre-internet times, so I always nabbed the complimentary of Time and Newsweek they handed out on planes in those days. Most of the time, I only read the film, TV and book reviews, because the political articles always made me angry, sometimes angry enough to write letters to the editors of those magazines to inform them how clueless they were. I only wrote to editors of American magazines and newspapers, probably because those letters mightily impressed my English teachers.

Anyway, in a complimentary copy of Time I read on a plane sometimes in 1989, I came across a lovely review of When Harry Met Sally. I was actually able to locate the review in the Time archive, though sadly it’s behind a paywall. A pity, because I would have loved to read it again, since it impressed me a lot at the time. I guess what I enticed was the idea that here was the story of two people who were friends, really good friends, before falling in love. And that – at least according to the review – those people talked a lot more than they had sex, which meant no icky and off-putting sex scenes (okay, so there is the diner scene). In short, it sounded like a movie which might make this whole love and romance thing almost palatable to my 16-year-old self. So I told my Mom, “I just read about this great movie that we must absolutely watch.” I even gave her the Time review, though I doubt that she read it.

So we went to see When Harry Met Sally and we both liked it. It was probably the most relatable mainstream love story I had come across up to that point, because it was obvious that Harry and Sally liked each other as people first. And considering that I tend to like and tend to write friends to lovers stories, it’s kind of obvious why When Harry Met Sally would strike a chord with me.

But upon rewatching When Harry Met Sally lately, it struck me how much of the movie had gone over my head when I was sixteen. Take for example, the famous fake orgasm scene in the diner (which Nora Ephron did not even write, by the way). I wasn’t completely innocent – I knew in theory what orgasms were supposed to be. But did people really make such horrible sounds when having them? Because I couldn’t ever imagining sounding like that. And why would you fake them anyway? Wouldn’t it be better to tell your partner right away, “Sorry, but that didn’t work out quite right. Maybe we should try something else.” (In retrospect, it’s probably for the best that I was a late bloomer).

And of course, I completely misunderstood what is probably the metaphorical cherry on top of that scene, namely the bit where the elderly woman at the next table (played by the mother of director Rob Reiner) says, “I want whatever she’s having.” At sixteen I thought, “What on Earth does it matter that she wants the same dish as Sally? And why would she want to order it, considering she probably thinks that it was the food that made Sally have a very noisy attack in a public place?” If anything, the scene reminded me of another diner scene in Mel Brooks’ Spaceballs (which came out the year before, I think), where John Hurt eats a dish that also makes him writhe and scream much like Sally. And then an alien bursts out of his chest, puts on a top hat and starts singing, while tap dancing on the bar. And after that, nobody wants to eat anything anymore. The Spaceballs diner scene is here by the way. Now Sally did not give birth to a singing and tap dancing alien, but she sure sounded like she was about to. And the old woman had no way of knowing that the noises Sally made were not due to the food. So why on Earth would she want to eat the same dish? It was only when rewatching the film for the first time in many years that I finally got the joke. It’s like Dinner for One, which you watch every year and still only get the final joke sometime in your twenties.

Besides – and this is something that Nora Ephron does not get enough credit for IMO – she almost single-handedly ushered in the brief flowering of the romantic comedy genre in the 1990s with When Harry Met Sally as well as her later contributions to the genre such as Sleepless in Seattle and You’ve got mail. I don’t know how many of you remember what women’s pictures were like in the 1980s, but trust me, they were dreadful. The pre-1989 idea of a film for women was something like Out of Africa or Terms of Endearment, very earnest, very long, about very serious issues and featuring actors and actresses who seemed ancient and singularily unattractive to my teenaged self. Meryl Streep was in a lot of these films, as were Debra Winger (whatever happened to her anyway?), Michelle Pfeifer and Kelly McGillis, while people like Robert Redford or Richard Gere at the best got to play the heroes. Not that it mattered, because none of those films ever ended happily anyway. Instead, they always ended with someone dying, mostly of cancer. And if you go back another ten years into the 1970s, you’re in the era of cheap emotional manipulation in the form of Love Story and The Champ. If you wanted to watch a filmic love story that was actually relatable pre-1989, you had to resort to John Hughes, because everything else was what I referred to as “old people with breast cancer” films.

When Harry Met Sally (along with Pretty Woman which came out at around the same time, but is not nearly as good IMO) changed all that, because here was finally a touching and relatable love story between two normal and youngish people, neither of whom had cancer. Plus, it showed that love could be funny at times and that people could get together and be happy and that nobody had to die of anything. In retrospect, it’s not surprising that the film was a big success, given what Hollywood had been dishing up for its female viewers up to that point. And since When Harry Met Sally and Pretty Woman were both huge success, they paved the way for other romantic comedies like Four Weddings and a Funeral or While You Were Sleeping and initiated a brief flowering of the romantic comedy genre, until it was killed off by the twin scourges of Sex and the City and gross-out comedies like American Pie that were aimed at a male audience and that replaced the woman-centered romantic comedy of the 1990s. It’s this brief golden age of the Hollywood romantic comedy that is the main legacy of Nora Ephron.

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6 Responses to Nora Ephron, Spaceballs and the Golden Age of Romantic Comedy

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  3. I LOVED Nora Ephron’s movie scripts. Absolute comic classics with a lot to say about the characters involved . . . all without getting preachy of condescending.

    When I lived in England, Tom Baker was The Doctor. I did manage to see a few of the Jon Pertwee/Caroline John episodes, and I thought they were vastly superior. You’re right about the Liz Shaw character—like Mrs. Emma Peel, she really broke the mold for female characters of that era.

    • Cora says:

      The Tom Baker era had a lot of great episodes and many great female characters such as Sarah Jane Smith, Leela and Romana. Have you ever seen the Tom Baker episode The Masque of Mandragora BTW? It was shot in Portmeirion, pretending to be Renaissance Italy.

      But Liz Shaw got there first and she was strikingly different from the teen girl companions that came before. Probably too different, considering that Jo Grant who replaced her was yet another ditzy girl character. The latter Pertwee years got a bit silly at times, but that first season was almost like a proto X-Files 25 years early.

      By contrast, the new series has disappointed me in its treatment of women. The female companions are probably more regressive than those of the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s. They are all young (Catherine Tate was considered too old at 39) and they all get married at the end. Okay, so we do have black companions now (Martha and Mickey) and we had the cheerfully pansexual Captain Jack Harkness, who was a real step forward, but in many other ways it’s worse than the old series.

      • I may have to rent The Masque of Mandragora, as I’m a huge Portmeirion fan (being an aficionado of The Prisoner and having stayed there for a visit back in the ’90s).

        • Cora says:

          Based on the Portmeirion photos on your blog, I thought you might be interested in that one.

          The Masque of Mandragora is a very good example of the gothic horror type stories popular in the early Tom Baker years and it makes very good use of Portmeirion as well. British TV used Portmeirion a lot in the 1960s and 1970s, usually standing in for Italy or the Mediterranean. I’ve also seen it on Simon Templar and I think The Persuaders as well.

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