No discussion of contemporary chick flicks would be complete without a nod to the woman who came to personify them during the 1990s, Meg Ryan. During that decade, this blond-haired, button-nosed, former soap opera actress surged to stardom with roles in films such as French Kiss, When a Man Loves a Woman, Addicted to Love, Courage Under Fire, Joe Versus the Volcano, and City of Angels. But however successful these movies may have been, Ryan’s signature films remain the string of romantic comedies that paired her with writer-director Nora Ephron: When Harry Met Sally…, Sleepless in Seattle, and You’ve Got Mail.
Director/Star pairings of all stripes (von Sternberg/Dietrich, Kurosawa/Mifune, Hanks/Spielberg, Bergman/Ullman, Tarantino/Thurman, Ford/Wayne) have been fodder for discussion within critical circles, but the groupings at hand have rarely if ever constituted a pair of women. To be fair, it was Rob Reiner, not Ephron, that directed Ryan in what is arguably her most iconic performance—the eponymous female of When Harry Met Sally…—but it is noteworthy that Ephron’s ascension [she was the film’s screenwriter] to the ranks of Hollywood’s most powerful players parallels Ryan’s. While Reiner and Billy Crystal were both well-established in their respective fields at the time the film was made, Ephron was primarily known as a writer and Ryan had appeared in a small role in Top Gun but had yet to find breakout success with any of her subsequent movies, including Innerspace and D.O.A.. As soon as When Harry Met Sally… hit theaters, this balance shifted dramatically, with Ryan swiftly becoming a household name and Ephron sashaying off with the movie’s lone Academy Award nomination (Best Original Screenplay) and a deal to direct her first film, the 1992 feature This is My Life.
The formula for box-office success is a notoriously elusive one, so it stands to reason that the two women, having found a template that worked (indeed, many of the romantic comedies that would appear over the coming decade would bear more than a passing resemblance to When Harry Met Sally…), would try their hand at re-creating it, as they did with Sleepless in Seattle in 1993 and You’ve Got Mail in 1998. All three films are steeped heavily in nostalgia, not only for times past but also for movies of the classical Hollywood era.
By the late 1960s, the simmering sexual tension present in so many of the screwball and romantic comedies of the past three decades had all but evaporated, as most if not all of the barriers faced by onscreen couples of the earlier era had been effectively toppled. In a cultural landscape marked by feminism, sexual liberation, rising divorce rates, and, in the 1980s, AIDS, the romantic comedy looked as though it would be going the way of the Western, as it all but disappeared from the screen during the 1970s.
While Ephron was by no means the first person to “reinvent” the genre (Woody Allen did as much with Annie Hall, though its preoccupation with male neuroses—particularly Allen’s—precludes it from being considered a chick flick), she cleverly devised obstacles for her characters that made their eventual union seem less like a foregone conclusion. In When Harry Met Sally…, Harry posits early on that “men and women can’t be friends because the sex part always gets in the way.” Needless to say, he is proven right. In Sleepless in Seattle, Annie and Sam live thousands of miles apart and only come together at the very end of the movie, while in You’ve Got Mail, a loose remake of the Ernst Lubitsch 1940 comedy The Shop Around the Corner, Joe and Kathleen live in the same neighborhood but know each other only as business rivals, as they conduct their impassioned correspondence solely via anonymous e-mails.
With old standards by the likes of Frank Sinatra and Jimmy Durante playing on the soundtrack, all three films evoke a hazy nostalgia for an era in which relations between the sexes were ostensibly simpler. When Harry Met Sally… makes continual mention of Casablanca, with Harry holding up Ingrid Bergman as the ideal “low-maintenance” woman, while You’ve Got Mail plays homage to the Lubitsch film on which it was based while also alluding to Pride and Prejudice [Jane Austen references in romantic comedies became increasingly perfunctory during the 1990s] and poking fun at the male fondess for The Godfather. In the case of Sleepless in Seattle, the 1957 Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr weepie An Affair to Remember becomes a pivotal plot point, as film clips are shown throughout and Sam’s young son instructs Annie to meet his dad on top of the Empire State Building on Valentine’s Day.
In a crucial respect, however, Ephron gets her nostalgia wrong. In the screwball comedies of the 1930s and 1940s, men and women engaged in a frantic battle of the sexes marked by pratfalls and dramatic attempts to make the other one jealous. In Ephron’s films (especially the latter two), the characters behave in a muted fashion, something the distance she creates between them exemplifies. In You’ve Got Mail, after Kathleen finally works up the gumption to tell off Joe, the man who is trying to put her out of business, she is paralyzed by guilt and winds up inadvertently apologizing to him over e-mail. Joe, on the hand, experiences no such attack of conscience when his Barnes and Noble-like chain store drives her little shop into bankruptcy.
In addition, the class conflict inherent in some of the Depression-era comedies is nowhere to be seen in Ephron’s films, where the characters move about in an upper-middle class bubble. In You’ve Got Mail, the closing of Kathleen’s bookstore at the hands of a capitalist behemoth is treated not with outrage, but in a resigned, matter-of-fact manner. Even prior to discovering Joe’s identity as her online paramour, Kathleen comes to befriend him after the shuttering of her shop, betraying little of the hurt and anger that one might be expected to exhibit towards the person who responsible for the demise of a family business.
Interestingly, it is Ryan’s Sally, who was concocted in part by Ephron’s collaboration with Reiner and producer Andrew Scheinman, that is the writer’s least problematic character in feminist terms; Ephron’s solo creations do not fare quite as well. In the movie’s most famous scene, Sally does not shy away from informing Harry that his skills as a lover may not be as potent as he imagines. When Harry finally comes to the realization that he loves her, he makes an impassioned speech ticking off the qualities he most adores in her, many of which are behavioral quirks that others find off-putting. In the end, it is Harry, not Sally, who does most of the changing in order for them to come together as a couple.
In Sleepless in Seattle, on the other hand, the final shot places Annie, Sam, and Sam’s son Jonah together in an elevator, suggesting the family unit they will become, with Annie conveniently stepping into the role of Jonah’s mother (and, by implication, relocating from her successful career in Baltimore in order to do so). While When Harry Met Sally… makes the most of Ryan’s impeccable comic timing, Sleepless and You’ve Got Mail seem more intent on rendering her pluckiness and determination to find the perfect man. So while the Ryan/Ephron pairing may have represented something of a breakthrough in terms of female box office clout, the content of the films they collaborated on is as old-fashioned as the Frank Sinatra and Jimmy Durante tunes on their soundtracks.