For a certain generation of women, particularly those with a proclivity towards romantic comedies, it can be difficult to accurately belabor how heavy Nora Ephron and her oeuvre weighs on us. For large swaths of the population, even years after her death, she continues to loom so large, the feeling like what she managed to accomplish — the life she lived — was nothing short of a miracle.
It wasn’t just that Nora Ephron made romantic comedies. It’s that she did it all. She was a reporter. She wrote funny essays. She wrote movies, then directed them. She wrote plays. She blogged. When she got her heart broken by an awful, narcissistic man (whom amongst us can’t say the same), she got the upper hand by using the experience to enter into a new phase in her career and subsequently found a third marriage that lasted until her death — with someone who let her be the star in the relationship. She got the upper hand in a way most of us can only dream of. And she did all of this with a sense of humor about herself, with an openness about her insecurities, and, as a member of every irresistibly chic and intellectual crowd there was, from 1960s New York City and onward, with a sense of style.
Everything about her career feels deeply aspirational — which makes sense, too, when you consider that Ephron was born and bred within old Hollywood; the road to achieving her career milestones would be a far more uphill one for anyone who isn’t similarly well-connected, white, or wealthy.
Her death in 2012 created a vacuum that has felt difficult to fill; film critics everywhere spent the years that followed decrying the death of the romantic comedy, desperate for a harkening back to the Ephron heyday. Which is perhaps why it’s not surprising that every single time there’s a new romantic comedy premiering — be it in theaters or on one of our endless streaming services — her name is invoked. Nine times out of 10, if the movie is good, it’s Ephron-esque. If it’s not, well then, it simply was not Ephron-esque.
A similar phenomenon happens pretty much every single time a witty, sardonic woman (and yes, often Jewish, although not exclusively) puts out her debut book of essays, or writes and directs a romantic comedy that really says something about who we are and how we love today. She is, for a moment of time, crowned “The Next Nora Ephron.” Most recently, it was Cazzie David. But before that, it was Caitlin Moran. And also Gillian Robespierre. And who could forget all the way back in 2012, when it felt like, for a moment, Lena Dunham’s position as “the next Nora Ephron” was all but sacrosanct?
On the occasion of what would have been Ephron’s 80th birthday this month, I’d like to make the appeal that we once and for all retire the phrase “the next Nora Ephron.”
Listen, I get it. As a Jewish woman and native New Yorker who was raised on Ephron’s Big Three (“When Harry Met Sally,” “Sleepless in Seattle,” and “You’ve Got Mail”) and who has published a book and slew of articles devoted to the romantic comedy craft, of course I desired nothing more than a career modeled after Ephron. Before there was Tina Fey or Shonda Rhimes, Ephron was one of the few female household names just as famous for her work behind the camera as her actors in front of it. She gave funny best friends and women prone to acerbic remarks something to aspire to, a path for many to take if you wanted a career in TV or film but didn’t necessarily see yourself on screen.
But for me, over time, having such a specific aspiration lost its luster. It seemed like a kind of trap — being told that you’re the second coming of a specific voice when as a debut essayist or filmmaker, you haven’t really found your own yet. Ephron’s are very, very big shoes to fill, and anyone early in their career is likely to fall short, setting them up for failure when their work is not as “Ephron-esque” as advertised. This desperation to find a successor eliminates the opportunity for the work to speak for itself, all the while cheapening Ephron’s decades-long career, too. She’s a once-in-a-generation creator, yet a brand new essayist is already creating at her level? It doesn’t add up. The more I’ve studied the romantic comedy craft and learned about Ephron’s life and work, it’s safe to say what she pulled off was like capturing lightning in a bottle.
I also feel confident that Ephron herself would hate this years-long trend. She spoke openly about her disdain of being referred to as a “female director,” telling the New Yorker in 2009, “The main thing is that it just seems like a sad thing to be called.” When Ephron compiled her famous “What I Won’t Miss” list for her final book, “I Remember Nothing and Other Reflections,” she even went so far as to include “Panels on Women in Film,” which feels particularly damning, knowing as we do now, that she wrote that list while she was secretly suffering from leukemia.
When male filmmakers make their debut, they are originals, a breath of fresh air — just look at the discourse around the Safdie brothers. But for women, we are often simply an iteration of what came before. There’s also the gender binary of it all: Anyone could easily say that a female rom-com filmmaker was the next Albert Brooks, the next Rob Reiner, the next Garry Marshall, but they never do. It seems like a logical conclusion that Cazzie David, a burgeoning humorist who makes light of her anxieties the way her father does, would be referred to as “the next Larry David,” but alas, a woman’s name instead had to be invoked, harkening back to Ephron’s distaste for being referred to as a “female director.”
As more and more female writers and directors break into the industry, it is my hope that their books or films increasingly speak for themselves, without needing to use Ephron’s work as the standard-bearer. Plus, sites like Girls on Tops and Super Yaki are doing their due diligence to ensure that others like Penny Marshall, Lulu Wang, Claire Denis and more get the same household name treatment Ephron did.
However, I will say there remains one specific way I would like my career to model after Ephron’s: very rarely do people talk about her flops. Should I have failures in my professional endeavors, I would also like them to be forgotten.