By Oliver Lyttelton | www.oliverlyttelton.com June 27, 2012 at 9:56AM
When filmmakers or actors talk up a new romantic comedy -- "Five-Year Engagement" or "Celeste & Jesse Forever" being recent examples -- there's normally one of two films that come up as a point of inspiration. One is "Annie Hall" and the other, invariably, is "When Harry Met Sally..." And so it should be. Twenty-four hours before Ephron passed, this writer had a conversation the conclusion of which was that the film (directed in the midst of his extraordinary 1980s run by Rob Reiner), is essentially perfect, one of those cases where the stars align with all the elements delivering including the performances (unforgettably charming, winning, hilarious turns by Meg Ryan and Billy Crystal obviously first among them), the jazzy soundtrack, Reiner's sharp direction and the glorious photography by Barry Sonnenfeld. But above all else, the film soars because of Ephron's screenplay. Arguably the biggest single influence on every romantic comedy that's followed since (let alone the undeniable effect it's had on the way people date -- or don't date -- each other), it's that rarest of films that you love the first time you see it, but only strikes more of a chord as you grow with it; every time you watch it, you find new insights into love, marriage, friendship, divorce, sex, men, woman and hieroglyphs. It's almost as if the current dismal state of the genre is because Ephron said everything that could be said in her screenplay here (it feels like something of a travesty that it lost out at the Oscars to "Dead Poet's Society," even if it was a tough year in the category that also included "Do The Right Thing" and "Sex, Lies & Videotape"). And even more rare for the rom-com, it doesn't skimp on the com part -- everyone remembers the uproarious (and at the time, incredibly shocking) "I'll have what she's having" scene, but the script is stuffed to the brim with great lines, gags and exchanges, without ever sacrificing character integrity for a laugh. In short, if Ephron had only ever written "When Harry Met Sally...," her place in cinema history would be guaranteed.
Fortunately, Ephron didn't stop there. After making her directorial debut in 1992 with "This Is My Life," she reteamed with Ryan, and delivered a second romantic comedy classic with "Sleepless In Seattle." A riff on "An Affair To Remember" (which features heavily into the plot), it sees young Jonah Baldwin (Ross Malinger) persuading his widower father, Sam (Tom Hanks) to go on a Seattle talk radio show in the hopes of finding a new wife. One of the listeners is Baltimore reporter Annie, engaged to nice-but-dull Walter (Bill Pullman), and pining for a little more in life; she writers a letter to Sam, which is accidentally mailed, and catches the attention of Jonah. It's a touch more sentimental than "When Harry Met Sally...," but always deftly kept this side of saccharine (indeed the absence of irony and cynicism is refreshing more than anything else), and still contains many of the same insights into dating and relationships -- Hanks being tutored by Rob Reiner on the ins and outs of 1990s dating is both touching and funny, even nowl. Perhaps the most impressive trick is how Ephron manages to make her two leads seem so clearly perfect for each other despite them only tangentially meeting -- in part thanks to Ryan's performance, still one of her best. Ephron also toes the line tonally with an expertise that belies this only being her second film behind the camera; Hanks' grief never overwhelms the picture, but gives it a weight lacking in many rom-coms. It's a fairy-tale, certainly, but as potent and memorable as any in the genre. We'd be remiss if we didn't mention "You've Got Mail," which reteamed Hanks and Ryan with a little more screen time -- the film hasn't dated terribly well, but it's a touch sharper than 'Seattle,' if less moving, and it's just as entertaining.
It's no secret that Ephron's screen output in the 2000s mostly was made up of misfires -- "Lucky Numbers" was a somewhat ill-fitting crime caper, and "Bewitched" took an interesting approach to the sitcom remake that never quite paid off. But it's rather pleasing that what sadly turned out to be her final film (although she'd been working on a biopic of Peggy Lee, to star Reese Witherspoon, and only last October it was announced she'd write and direct the Sam Mendes-produced time-travel rom-com "Lost In Austen") might be her most accomplished directorial effort. Based on the blog and book by Julie Powell, a young writer who set out to recreate all 524 recipes in "Mastering The Art of French Cooking," the seminal cookbook by TV chef Julia Child, Ephron's script ingeniously entwines Julie's (Amy Adams) struggles in New York with Julia's (Streep, reunited with Ephron for the first time in two decades) time learning to cook in Paris. The writer-director's sense of young married life is still firmly intact in the modern-day segments, with Adams and Chris Messina depicting a relationship more authentic than in movies made by filmmakers half Ephron's age, but the real heart is in the Julia Child segments, in part thanks to Streep's wonderful Oscar-nominated performance, which manages to be a pitch-perfect impersonation without descending into caricature. The look at the creation of "Mastering The Art Of French Cooking" is compelling for foodies (Ephron had a long interest in the culinary arts, which really comes out to play here -- God help you if you don't eat before seeing the film), and Child's marriage to Paul (Stanley Tucci, as top-flight as ever) is particularly touching. It was sneered at a little by bloggers, principally because it's the kind of film that belies how difficult it is to pull off, but it absolutely reinforces that Ephron was one of the finest writers, and directors, of women that Hollywood's ever seen.