At some point romantic comedies lost their feminist cred. None of us have enough time to truly analyze whether or not that loss of credibility is legit, but it suffices to say that, when you think rom-com, you don’t think feminist rebellion. Unless you’re talking about Nora Ephron.
The prolific screenwritter, essayist, director, and playwright died yesterday (June 26) of leukemia at the age of 71. Ephron leaves behind credits both terrific (having written Sleepless in Seattle and When Harry Met Sally just to name two) and not-so-terrific (having adapted Bewitched for the big screen). She leaves behind a legacy of infusing art with journalism–her Oscar-nominated screenplay for Silkwood tapped her early-goings at Newsweek–and infusing would-be-pap with brains. She leaves behind a model for filmmakers and writers of both genders to press on in the face of unfriendly statistics. And she reminded us to never lose our sense of humor or self in the process.
Okay, yes, Ephron did not just fall off a turnip truck and wander onto a soundstage in a Newsies cap, say, “I wanna be in pict-shahs!” and get famous. She came from well-to-do parents who were, themselves, screenwriters, and was moved to Beverly Hills at a young age. But she also had boobs and that, in the early days of Ephron’s career as reporter and writer, was the second leading cause of career failure, second only to being hit by a bus on your way to work.
Ephron faced some steep odds if she wanted to write, direct, and produce movies. And, quite simply, to defy convention the way she is, is rebellion. While the first woman to win a solo screenwriting Oscar, Francis Marion, had done so in 1930, the next winner, Sonya Levien, wouldn’t be until 1955. Another woman would not win the award until 1985; one of the co-writers of Witness was a woman named Pamela Wallace . The next solo female winner wasn’t until 1991 (Callie Khouri for Thelma and Louise). And if you scan through 77 years of Academy Award noms you won’t see many female names. Maybe a dozen across two categories. You will see Ephron’s name three times, the most-nominated female writer in Oscar history.
Even in 2006, when three female writers battled it out for the Oscar, the Writers Guild of America-West reported that women made up only 27 percent of TV writers and 19 percent of feature film writers. And it only takes a minute to glance across stats collected by USC Annenberg, Women Make Movies, and the Writers Guild to see that, in the last five years, women have made up about 15% of the workforce behind the scenes of the top-grossing American films. For the lower-earning films, women still only make up 24% of the writer/director/producer/cinematographer/editor pool.
And to think Nora Ephron decided to go into that female friendly field after a successful run as a leading female journalist in the 1960s, writing for The New York Post, The New York Times Magazine, New York, and Esquire. And you know how much journalism loves women.
Why did it matter that a woman wrote or directed or produced the movies? In 2011, Women Make Movies reported that male-helmed films had onscreen casts that were 29.3% female. With women in the director’s seat, that percentage is 44.6%. When all-male writing teams wrote the screenplay, 28.1% of the cast was women. At least one female writer bumped the percentage to 34.9%. When more women write, more women work.
So I guess what I’m saying is that I wish for my daughter to learn tenacity and spunk in the face of an unyielding worlds. Ephron seemed to boast that spunk in spades. But there’s more than that: I want my daughter to learn Ephron’s I-don’t-give-a-shit-but-I-still-care attitude. Ephron was a woman who was strong but not above raging when she’d been hurt. See 1983′s Heartburn, the novel and film based on her ugly failed marriage to Watergate hero Carl Bernstein. She believed that women were valuable for more than their bodies and faces, yet was still honest about the emotional toll aging can take. See 2007′s collection I Feel Bad About My Neck. This was a woman who cared about her female characters: wanted them to have careers and laugh lines and style and attitude…and a relationship if and when they wanted it. See…well, see everything she wrote [even You've Got Mail, which I loathe].
Most of all, consider Nora Ephron’s response to creating the much-maligned modern rom-com. To implict and explicit buzz that movies about women ending up with men and being annoyed along the way are quaint and, perhaps, anti-feminist. Nora’s respons? To keep working and writing what she wished, and eff off if you don’t like it. She rebelled against all who thought she wasn’t rebellious enough by not giving a damn.
Dear daughter, I’ll do my best to see that you’ll have what Nora was having.