With so many assaults on the boundaries of governance and sovereignty in the news lately, reflecting on the career of writer and Hollywood director Nora Ephron, who died this week at 71, may seem off-topic. But upon reading through many glowing Ephron appreciations, I realize that in her work lies another broken boundary. It is a cultural one, and every bit as significant as lines on the map or in the Constitution.
In a scene from her most famous movie, "When Harry Met Sally" (1989), Ephron brought to mainstream, predominantly female audiences the spectacle of a professional actress (Meg Ryan), not a porn prop, performing an extended impression of an orgasm in a crowded delicatessen. It was supposed to be the ultimate put-down of her crass male companion (Billy Crystal). Was this merely a smart update of the onscreen battle of the sexes once famously waged by Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy? Or had we become party to something darker? Either way, America laughed, and Ephron is today eulogized for this unforgettable display.
It was a first, all right, but maybe not so funny, since it was also a milestone in the pornification of the American middle class. This has been a long process in which increasingly voyeuristic audiences watch as increasingly untrammeled moviemakers rob human sexuality of intimacy and consequence. "When Harry Met Sally" took us over the top, cauterizing audiences to a new convention of shamelessness – the ideal of Betty Friedan feminism.
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And then what happened? Ever since, as a Salon.com critic approvingly wrote, "rom-coms have gotten increasingly raunchy and foulmouthed, often desperately so. But whatever supposed new twists writers dream up – make the lovers casual-sex partners or bisexual polyamorists or ex-lovers of each other's parents – they're just spraying Cool Whip on a cake that Ephron baked."
This must make Ephron the mother of the transgressive "gross-out" comedy, even if she is more politely celebrated as the queen of romantic comedy. To be sure, two subsequent Ephron "rom-coms," "Sleepless in Seattle" (1993) and "You've Got Mail" (1998), were more conventional entertainments. But the lines had blurred.
Such was the crowning achievement of a wonderfully successful career cocooned amid the entertainment left. There was the short marriage to Watergate-famous Carl Bernstein and the early movie "Silkwood" (1983), directed by Mike Nichols and starring Meryl Streep battling an Evil Corporation. Ephron's divorce from Bernstein was novelized in the best-selling "Heartburn" (1983), which in 1986 became another Streep and Nichols collaboration that also starred Jack Nicholson. Even after Ephron's segue into comedy, the odd political barb poked through. In "Julie & Julia" (2009), Ephron's final movie with Streep as Julia Child, Julia's discordant character of a father is a rich, Republican McCarthyite. The character of Julie, meanwhile, is admonished by her Democrat boss that a Republican would have fired her.
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Such is the lingo of the entertainment left, for whom invoking McCarthyism, mean-spirited Republicans and other stock villains is like breathing. "I forget how white they are, and mean-spirited, and thin-lipped," Ephron wrote of Republicans in 2008 at Huffington Post. In a 2010 list of things she would not miss (dry skin, bad dinners), Ephron included: "polls showing that 32 percent of Americans believe in creationism" and Clarence Thomas.
Clarence Thomas? In 1996, Ephron warned Wellesley graduates: "Understand: Every attack on Hillary Clinton for not knowing her place is an attack on you. Underneath almost all those attacks are the words: Get back, get back to where you (women) once belonged. ... Any move to limit abortion rights is an attack on you – whether or not you believe in abortion. The fact that Clarence Thomas is sitting on the Supreme Court today is an attack on you." The world that crowned Ephron with laurels was a dark, dark place – if only these college-educated young women could see it: "What I'm saying is, don't delude yourself that the powerful cultural values that wrecked the lives of so many of my classmates have vanished from the earth. Don't let the New York Times article about the brilliant success of Wellesley graduates in the business world fool you – there's still a glass ceiling. Don't let the number of women in the workforce trick you – there are still lots of magazines devoted almost exclusively to making perfect casseroles."
Aha! In Ephron World, there was no place for the nonfeminist female. Rom-coms were fine, so long as the female lead was sufficiently "liberated" from Republicans, Clarence Thomas and abortion hang-ups. In fact, maybe such re-education was what was really behind Meg Ryan's big moment in the deli, in front of all those people.
And America laughed.