When Candace Bushnell was writing the original “Sex and the City” column about a girl’s love affair(s) in New York, with New York (on which the award willing HBO series was based), she was writing in Nora Ephron’s New York. It was NY of the mid 90’s, just after the release of Sleepless in Seattle (1993) and before You’ve Got Mail (1998), qualified by writers and business people who loved fashion and metropolis. While Bushnell’s crew chose cosmos over cappuccinos, both writers capture a sense of belonging in American’s signature metropolis, of being at home in a city that doesn’t sleep.
Of her New York trilogy (which also includes the 1989 When Harry Met Sally), Sleepless had the largest impact on my 1)attention to storytelling 2)understanding of characters and 3)self-reference to classic Hollywood. What struck me most was how I, and many other viewers, seemed to know and belong with the characters, and just how classy a love story can be. Nora Ephron (and her sister and writing partner Delia) writes scintillating dialog with cleverness and sentimental savoir faire. They are comedies that can be taken seriously. They are heightened fiction that has emotional truth.
Sleepless is the story of journalist Annie Reed, her perfect but passionless romance with Walter, and her attraction to a man she’d never met, Sam (Tom Hanks). Sam is the kind of guy, who, well, is friends with Rob Reiner. The couple never kisses, and doesn’t actually meet until the last scene of the film (a lesson well learned from the Studio era: what’s more romantic is not seeing affection). Whether or not the plot is plausible is completely beside the point. The story serves a different purpose. It is entertainment. Diversion. Company. And as such, it is about people who care about each other.
The genius of Ephron’s storytelling is in her ability to craft moments. What I learned from watching Sleepless was a gut instinct about what emotional moments worked, and what did not. Take for instance the scene where Annie (Meg Ryan) tries on her mother’s wedding dress. We can see early in the film that Annie is a sensible person who relies on reason to make decisions. But she is prone to–in fact she wants to–give in to sentiment. She discusses her fiancee Walter (Bill Pullman)’s redeeming qualities while trying on the dress. Walter is perfect for her, just like the dress. Then her mother describes how one moment in her father’s arms was enough for he to know she would love him forever. Suddenly Annie puts her arms down and the sleeve rips away from the bodice. Annie looks at her mother in the mirror and exclaims “It’s a sign!” (To which her mother responds “You don’t believe in signs.”)
What could be more indicative of New York, and by reflection, America, than the war between sentiment and reason? America and New York were founded and shaped by children of the Enlightenment, people of great reason. But the further you move from each coast, the closer you get to the heart of the country. New York is only sentimental when no one is looking, but the Midwest is prosaic and sentimental without consciousness. Now finish your green beans (which is Midwestern code for “I care about you” although a Midwestern mother would be embarrassed to show that much outright affection).
Similar in classy style and witty grace, Bonnie Hunt’s Return to Me (2000) is set in Chicago, the Metropolis of the Midwest. Hunt is known for her warmth and wit. Return to Me is part melodrama (the plot could have turned very quickly into something worthy of Joan Crawford), part situation comedy (see the scenes with Carol O’Connor, Robert Loggia, Eddie Jones, and William Bronder sitting around the table playing cards), and all heart. In it, Bob (David Duchovney) falls in love with the Grace (Minnie Driver) who received his dead wife’s heart as a transplant. That kind of plot could quickly slip into soap opera, but Hunt (and cowriter Don Lake, whose dual commentary is perhaps my favorite film accompaniment of all time) give the drama a comic accent, and old school style. They know how to craft the moments and make the most of them. The film is old fashioned in ideals, tone, and pace. In these respects, it dovetails nicely with Sleepless.
One film reviewer once said romantic comedies “give us back our innocence” but I don’t think that’s true. By definition, I don’t think innocence can be regained. What I think romantic comedies give us is hope. And while the cliche thing to say is that they give us romantic hope, that’s only one small part of each story. Both of these films have terrific supporting casts. The main characters are constantly surrounded by people who speak the same language (see the scene in Return To Me where Bob calls a former set up “water lady”, a response to Grace’s snide comments to the ill fated blind date), making them a community, a family.
When Rita Wilson’s Suzy tears up describing An Affair to Remember, you know that Annie’s comment “She wasn’t a ho, she looked like someone we would be friends with” is true. The connection to Annie and Becky (Rosie O’Donnell)’s earlier discussion of the film is indicative of Ephron’s writing style. It is an homage to a classic film, it comments on the plot (and informs it), and it helps define the characters as the kind of people who love old movies and are MFAO (watch the film again to understand that reference). Therefore, Annie is correct, she probably would be friends with Suzy.
Similarly, when Bob plays poker with Grace’s restaurant family, you know he belongs with them. These are romantic comedies about family and about belonging. They give us hope that we too can belong with those we see on screen. That for a couple of hours, they are our family too. They remind us we are not alone.
So with style (musically, Dean Martin and Jimmy Durante) and, literally, with Grace, these stories taught me that plot was heightened reality, and that you could write fiction that felt real. These were the kind of conversations I had, and have. These were the kind of people I knew. They taught me movies could be like conversations with old friends. And those were the kinds of movies I wanted someday to make.