The Year of Nora & Nancy: New Beginnings

            I could write a whole paragraph about gender inequality in Hollywood, especially behind the camera. I could write about the women who are continually breaking the glass ceiling in the director’s chair, the editing room, or fighting for more diverse roles. I could write about the cost of harassment or assault since I’ve watched it unfold more than once with varying consequences (and what do we learn from this?). Instead, I’d like to talk about the magic of my grandmother’s VHS collection.

            I spent a lot of time devouring the movies at her house—often watching them over and over. The “kids” movies were kept in easy reach of the family room TV: classic Disney films, gems like A Little Princess and The Sound of Music, niche finds like Little Nemo: Adventures in Slumberland, and taped episodes and movies off of TV. There were more movies stored in a cradle in one of the bedrooms, and the ratings were all over the place. It was a good few years before I ventured beyond well-loved copies of Batman Forever and Now and Then to some of the more mature films and years beyond that before I discovered some of the true treasures. The real magic of the collection, of course, was the same kind of variety you might find in a Blockbuster Video. Even then, the amount of rom-coms was perfect for a budding hopeless romantic, and many of them were touched by the minds of Nora Ephron or Nancy Meyers.

            Nora Ephron and Nancy Meyers were and are just two of many talented women in Hollywood who have played many roles. They both started out as writers and producers before moving onto directing their own films. In many ways, they have their own styles and oeuvres and have given us so many classic films—not just “chick flicks” but films. Nora Ephron’s stories and writing may stick out a bit more while people may not know it’s her, and Nancy Meyer’s aesthetic is so well-honed that it’s easy to spot her presence on a set.

            Since I knew I enjoyed at least a handful of their well-known films, I wanted to delve into the full filmography for both women. This spans forty years, thirty-two films and one reunion special, and will take up an entire year of my life. The plan is to watch (or re-watch) a few films each month and write about them and the experience. Hopefully, in some way, Nora and Nancy have more than a few lessons to teach me about life, love, and working as a woman.

            I began the project shortly after midnight on New Year’s with the most obvious choice—Nora Ephron’s When Harry Met Sally (1989). This is a rare case where I’d actually read the screenplay before I saw the film—despite its ongoing presence at my grandmother’s—but, in that way, I was able to absorb Nora’s brilliant writing before any of the other elements came into play. This isn’t to downplay Rob Reiner’s direction or the acting by a stellar cast. Rather, it seems they were all able to take something that already stood so well on its own and bring it to life in a way that makes everything perfectly cohesive in true classic fashion. This has become one of my favorite films for good reason, because everything in its hits the right note. The opening sequence with Harry (Billy Crystal) and Sally (Meg Ryan) driving from Chicago to New York is based entirely on great dialogue and the chemistry of the leads since they’re stuck in a car for most of it. The pacing of the entire film is a masterwork as we get to see this relationship unravel over years rather than days or weeks as in so many other romances. The character development—not just for our leads—is fantastic. The comedic moments make me laugh (Sally crying about how she’ll be 40 in eight years, the famous diner orgasm scene, the relationship between Jess (Bruno Kirby) and Marie (Carrie Fisher)), and the right moments make me yearn or cry. And you can’t go wrong with one of the most iconic endings in rom-com history. This is absolutely a must-watch.

            Nancy Meyers’ Father of the Bride (1991), co-written with then husband and director Charles Shyer, is both an update and a time capsule. As a remake of the 1950 film, there’s additional credit to the previous writers and the same plot structure, but we can see how Meyers and Shyer adapted the film toward the current times’ trends in weddings, changed some of the humor (accommodating actor Steve Martin’s physical comedy usually works in your favor), and updated some of the sensibilities. I would say that even in some of the production design you can see a bit of Nancy’s tastes—especially in that kitchen. There’s enough about this film that still works and is entertaining as a family-friendly comedy. Steve Martin is entertaining as George Banks, the titular father, and the supporting cast do their varying best to keep up with him (notable exception being Martin Short who steals every scene he’s in). However, in some ways, Father of the Bride is a sign of its times as so many wedding “traditions” have been cast aside in the thirty years since. While George Banks panics at the ever-heightening costs of the wedding he’s responsible for paying for and tries to cut costs in increasingly funny and bizarre ways, most weddings of this decade aren’t left to the bride’s family to pay for (often that now falls to the couple themselves). So while much of the financial plot and typical “overprotective father” trope doesn’t work as well today, it’s still entertaining by virtue some of the comedy and the general relationship between father and daughter (Kimberly Williams). And what interesting updates there are—discussions about hyphenating the last name, gendered housewife expectations—are still pretty cool. It’s still a classic in my collection and great for a rainy day, and if it can keep making me smile then it hasn’t aged that much.

            Why did I start with these films? Well, When Harry Met Sally is kind of obvious. We have two New Year’s Eve scenes so I wanted it to be the first film I watched for the project and 2021. Father of the Bride was close to the same time period so I was interested to see if there was any correlation there and it was an odd coincidence that their wedding date was in January. However, like so many Ephron and Meyers films, they both combine romance and comedy in different ways. What gets me about Harry and Sally is that you can have a relationship that takes many forms over the years, depending on what you need, and how two people can find comfort in each other and confide in one another without necessarily being our standard definition of romantic. And you can fight against your feelings or what you think you should feel, but it won’t change the way you feel—not really. Father of the Bride, for its outdatedness, is a wedding film and I like those. And I love that you have Annie (Williams) and Bryan (George Newbern) who have had this whirlwind European romance and still have so much to learn about each other but, at heart, know one another. The conversation George and Bryan have about the blender is definitely a highlight of the film for me for that reason. Plus, in their own ways, both of these films highlight other loves besides romance—the love between friends and between family, and how those can often be just as powerful. And if I’ve learned anything in the past year it’s that those are the ones that really count.

            Generally, every month will have at least two films (but often more), so keep an eye on the blog for these updates. If you’re interested in what films I’ll be looking at you can find the whole list for The Year of Nora & Nancy on my Letterboxd. I can promise that February will bring lots of romance from these two fabulous women. Till next time!