Who wouldn’t have wanted to be at Nora Ephron’s dinner table?
In I’ll Have What She’s Having: How Nora Ephron’s Three Iconic Films Saved the Romantic Comedy (Hachette, 296 pp., **½ out of four stars), author Erin Carlson works to place us there by unpacking Ephron’s gold-standard rom-coms: When Harry Met Sally, Sleepless in Seattle and You’ve Got Mail.
Ephron, argues Carlson, reinvigorated a dying genre, infusing the treacly tradition with wit, old-school sentimentality — and Meg Ryan.
It’s hard to argue with that, and I’ll Have What She’s Having makes hay of the details, marking Ephron’s journey from a New York journalist to a screenwriter/director who makes Heartburn out of heartbreak after a failed marriage to journalist Carl Bernstein.
Even Ephron devotees will discover new tidbits, like the origin of the name “Joe Fox,” Tom Hanks’ character from You’ve Got Mail (the name of her droll Random House editor beau); the fights she’d have on set (including the big speech Billy Crystal gives at the end of When Harry Met Sally); and how closely Ryan and Julia Roberts vied for plum roles at the start of their careers.
“Meg was supposed to play Sally Field’s chronically ill-daughter Shelby, in Steel Magnolias, a six-woman ensemble with an emotionally devastating, Oscar-bait death scene. Meg backed out of the movie and signed with (When Harry Met Sally),” writes Carlson, noting Roberts went on to win an Oscar nomination for Steel Magnolias.
The industry gossip is fun, and Carlson interviews famous faces like Hanks and Ryan. Yet too often in I’ll Have What She’s Having the retelling gets stuck in the weeds, with long passages on details like location scouting and costuming.
Carlson is at her best when she resurfaces Ephron’s own deadpan passages. “At first I thought he was charming and eccentric,” the famous scribe wrote about her first husband, Dan Greenberg. “And then I didn’t. Then I wanted to kill him. Every time he got on a plane, I would imagine the plane crash, and the funeral, and what I would wear to the funeral and flirting at the funeral, and how soon I could start dating at the funeral. “
This would later became a verbatim speech given by Stockard Channing to Meryl Streep in Heartburn.
It is, perhaps, too much to expect a biographer of sorts to capture Ephron’s voice paragraph by paragraph — and that surely isn’t the point of I’ll Have What She’s Having, which seeks to cement Ephron’s place in Hollywood history.
But with an author as strong as the late writer at its core, surrounding passages often fall short. Still, it’s an enjoyable ride through the years Ephron spent behind the camera.
One might even, say, read aloud lost passages from Sleepless in Seattle to see how they’d have landed, or Google “Princess Diana” and “When Harry Met Sally London premiere” after reading about the royal guffawing during Ryan’s famous orgasm scene.
Did Ephron save rom-coms? Despite slow-burning hits like this summer’s The Big Sick, the genre remains a low priority for Hollywood suits who prefer to pour money into superhero spectaculars.
But Ephron, who died in 2012 from complications resulting from leukemia, certainly resuscitated the idea that they could be smart.
What Carlson effectively creates is a persuasive time capsule of a filmmaker who believed a connection of the heart was born of a soulful, searing, satisfying tête-à-tête between two equals.
It was a lesson baked in from the story of Ephron’s screenwriter parents’ first date.
As Carlson writes, Nora’s father Henry asked her mother Phoebe: “Will you marry me?”
“Can I read your work?” Phoebe replied.