"When Harry Met Sally" was released in theaters, July 14, 1989, the same day as "License to Kill." How could two people arguing about love compete with James Bond? Never underestimate Nora Ephron. After the screenwriter's romantic comedy earned almost a $100 million at the box office worldwide nobody ever did again.
Long before "Bridesmaids," Tina Fey or the endlessly profitable "Sex and the City" franchise, Ephron was Hollywood's stand-alone proof that women writers aren't just funny, they're financially viable.
Her string of box office hits changed the canvas of entertainment from the inside out. In the '70s, romantic comedies were as much a man's game as anything. "The Heartbreak Kid," "The Graduate," Phillip Roth's "Goodbye Columbus" and Woody Allen's string of critical hits reflected the anxiety of a generation of commitment-wary men in search of the perfect woman. Even breakthrough, relatable female characters like Annie Hall were given a voice by male writers.
Then in 1976, Ephron, a former print journalist married to Watergate investigative reporter Carl Bernstein joined her husband in revising the script for "All the President's Men." Their draft didn't make the final cut, but it earned Ephron the attention from Hollywood insiders. Not that it got much easier for her.
"They were women that the men felt comfortable putting in the one slot that they knew they had to have a woman in, they really didn't pay a huge amount of attention to them," Ephron once said of her early years as a screenwriter.
In 1983, Ephron's first film, "Silkwood," penned with friend Alice Arlen, followed the true story of a woman bravely exposing corrupt working conditions at a power plant. The character's war with a well-established male-dominated industry set the tone for future parallels in Ephron's life and work. It also earned both Ephron and Streep Oscar nominations.
Another Streep-led drama followed in 1986. "Heartburn" was Ephron's thinly veiled account of her ex, Bernstein's infidelity. Though a drama, Ephron's comic reflections on being a woman seeped into the script.
"I don't want to do it, honey. Can't we get somebody else to do it?" Streep's Rachel begged her husband during a labor.
The film made an impressive box office debut, ranking just behind the action horror "Aliens" on its opening weekend. It was the first sign that Ephron's voice spoke to a wider range of movie-goers than just grown women.
Enter Harry and Sally. According to legend, even Billy Crystal worried about the film's ability to compete with summer blockbusters. It was the year of "Batman" and Indiana Jones's third installment. Larger-than-life male heroes were the hallmarks of big movie business, until a food-phobic, quick-witted and highly emotional Sally entered the fray.
The infamous Katz' Deli scene epitomized a character who, despite her "high-maintenance" tendencies, didn't shy from a challenge, especially if it meant setting a guy straight.
But what made Ephron's film such a critical and financial success was her ability to write not only from a women's perspective but also from a man's perspective.
"It is so nice when you can sit with someone and not have to talk," says Crystal's Harry, who also famously broke down the consequences of driving a woman to the airport. ("It's clearly the beginning of the relationship.")
Director Rob Reiner saw himself in Ephron's portrayal of the male romantic journey. "It was about everything I'd been going through," Reiner recalled in a 2003 interview with the Washington Times.
Four years later, Ephron followed up with another box office hit, and a second Oscar nomination for "Sleepless in Seattle." Meg Ryan's Annie, much like the male characters of 1970's rom-coms, was afraid of committing to Mr. Right, or Mr. Right on paper. Meanwhile, Sam, a widower, was grappling with raising a child on his own. A classic cinematic love story with a more contemporary approach to gender politics, Seattle struck a cord with pretty much everyone, grossing over $227 million worldwide.
The secret to Ephron's success lay in her characters. The men were never classic super heroes or Prince Charmings. Instead, they were allowed to be just as complicated as women. They struggled with expectations of being a man pitched against their desire for more profound connections. They were also, unlike many male Hollywood characters, attracted to funny women.
At the same time, Ephron's women were speckled with autobiography: they were often professionals, largely writers, with a healthy dose of insecurity and a desire for something more. They were also always surrounded by funny, straight-shooting female friends.
True to life, Ephron kept a close-knit stable of female companions she both confided in and championed, including "Sleepless in Seattle" producer Linda Obst and sister Delia Ephron, her co-writer on "You've Got Mail," "This is My Life" and a later a series of monologues called "Live, Loss and What I Wore."
Longtime collaborator Streep also reunited with Ephron for her last film, "Julie and Julia." The adaptation of Julie Powell's best-selling book was about food, yes, but it was also about women leaping across generation gaps to inspire each other.
Again, Ephron's work rang true to life. Her legacy is to thank for entertainment's current female comic renaissance. More specifically, when Tina Fey announced plans to write a memoir (later to become the bestselling Bossypants) it was first described as a work "in the style of author, screenwriter and film director Nora Ephron." What better example of a comic screenwriter successfully bouncing from to film and TV to memoir and back again?
"Bridesmaids" writer Kristin Wiig and "Girls'" Lena Dunham, also have Ephron to thank for breaking through the male movie plexiglass. When the American Film Institute released its top ten romantic comedy picks of all time, two ("Sleepless" and "When Harry") were by Ephron. Seven others were written by men.
At their best, Ephron's films were financial juggernauts, critical darlings and most importantly, cinematic epiphanies not only for women, but for men and even kids. It's a rare combination Hollywood execs try and often fail at producing. But to Ephron, the secret was simple: "I try to write parts for women that are as complicated and interesting as women actually are."