Queen of the Rom-Coms

By Richard Horwich
Erin Carlson A. Jesse Jiryu Davis

“I’ll Have What
She’s Having”

Erin Carlson
Hachette, $27

Many years ago, when Nora Ephron and I were young and single, a mutual friend tried to fix us up by inviting both of us to a party. Unfortunately, she invited so many other people that Nora and I never connected. 

This sounds like the premise of an Ephron movie like “Sleepless in Seattle,” in which two people destined for each other fail to connect until the happy ending — but in real life, though we were neighbors on the Upper West Side for years, we never met, and the closest I’ve ever gotten to her is reading Erin Carlson’s posthumous biography, “I’ll Have What She’s Having.” That title, as fans of the writer and director know, is the famous line, delivered by Rob Reiner’s mother, that tops Meg Ryan’s faked orgasm halfway through “When Harry Met Sally.” 

What emerges in the book is a picture of a kooky, crafty, ambitious, hilarious, insecure, sometimes spiteful, always entertaining woman pursuing a brilliant career as a novelist, essayist, script writer (stage and screen), and director, right up there with that other transplanted New Yorker Woody Allen. The focus stays mainly on the work, but her life pretty much was her work. Her failed marriages to Dan Greenburg and Carl Bernstein (out of which came her novel “Heartburn”) are dealt with summarily, and her third marriage — the successful one, to Nicholas Pileggi, a.k.a. Mr. Right — doesn’t get much space either, beyond his baffling description of her as “the kind of Italian mama I grew up with: They make a house really a home.” So far is that from anything anybody else ever said about her that it may be why the marriage succeeded. 

What we mostly get is a step-by-step narrative of how three movies — “When Harry Met Sally,” “Sleepless in Seattle,” and “You’ve Got Mail” — got made, from original idea to postproduction, and of how Nora surmounted the innumerable hurdles she encountered: temperamental actors, know-nothing executives, costume designers who didn’t understand the look she was going for, set designers who forgot that her least favorite color was blue, all balanced by enough competent craftsmen to realize her vision and by her creative synergy with her sister and collaborator, Delia. 

You can learn a good deal about the moviemaking process here, but the book takes for granted that you possess more than basic knowledge of Hollywood and its ways. Its target audience is Ephron fans, who have seen the films over and over and remember every scene. Maybe that’s why sometimes the synopses of key scenes in those “three iconic films” — like that faked orgasm in Katz’s Delicatessen and the mix-up at Cafe Lalo that brings Ms. Ryan and Tom Hanks together in “You’ve Got Mail” — are muddled and hard to follow. Perhaps Ms. Carlson assumes we know by heart what happens, but I had to watch them on YouTube to figure it out. And I was disappointed that, even though the scene in Katz’s is described in exhaustive detail, one of my favorite moments goes unacknowledged: Immediately after Ms. Ryan ceases her ecstatic moaning, she daintily eats a forkful of coleslaw. 

Even dedicated admirers may find it hard to dig out from under an avalanche of names of Nora’s friends and co-workers, their friends and co-workers, their agents and psychiatrists and chauffeurs and the spouses of all these people. Ms. Carlson is a diligent and careful researcher who interviewed literally hundreds of people for this book (not, unfortunately, Ephron, who died in 2012), but she seems to have felt compelled to include every detail she learned, pertinent or not. 

If you have only a casual interest in the movie business, you may find yourself foundering in a sea of references you won’t understand, scenes you don’t remember, anecdotes you don’t get. People are often referred to by their first names only, which works fine for most of us with Cher but maybe not for non-movie-buffs with “Demi.” And do we really need to know the name of Nora’s therapist’s husband, since he never figures in the story?

Ms. Carlson is a career journalist, writing about movies for trade papers like The Hollywood Reporter, and her prose is gossipy and filled with the lingo of the trade — directors “helm” films, producers “greenlight” projects, clients are “repped” by their agents. Still, all her hard work results in a believable portrait of Ephron, and also, inevitably, of Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks — America’s Sweetheart (sometimes a little ditzy and cranky) and Mr. Nice Guy (who also had a more complicated off-camera side). 

But the book claims to be more than a narrative of Ephron’s life. The subtitle is “How Nora Ephron’s Three Iconic Films Saved the Romantic Comedy,” which seems to promise a critical examination of the films in the context of the genre. And that, Ms. Carlson doesn’t give us. 

Two of the three iconic films were based on earlier romantic comedies, “Sleepless” on Leo McCarey’s “An Affair to Remember” and “Mail” on Ernst Lubitsch’s “The Shop Around the Corner,” which Ms. Carlson could have but didn’t use as the foundation of her investigation of the genre. And her roundup of the rom-coms that Ephron’s oeuvre presumably made possible is puzzling; it includes “There’s Something About Mary,” which, like all Farrelly brothers’ films, is more raunch than romance, and also “Sex and the City,” which Ms. Carlson admits tends to “subvert the romantic comedy, with nakedly unlikable characters like Carrie Bradshaw.” 

Surprisingly, she doesn’t mention the present-day version of Ryan and Hanks, Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling, whose terrific debut as a couple in “Crazy, Stupid, Love” is as close as any recent film comes to recapturing the Ephron ethos, and whose “La La Land” won six Oscars in 2016, including Best Actress for Ms. Stone. 

Ms. Carlson makes a game attempt to measure the appeal of Ephron’s movies by describing the “new climate of political and social conservatism during the 1980s,” which, she says, may account for “the Sandra Dee-ification of Meg Ryan” (nice phrase!) in “Sleepless.” This is a promising line of inquiry, but it occupies only a couple of pages; film history is not really what Ms. Carlson wanted to write. Nor is film criticism, in the Rotten Tomatoes sense, her forte; to say, of Ms. Ryan’s work in one of her roles, “Meg ripped open her soul and laid it bare” sounds more like a PR release than a review. 

So “I’ll Have What She’s Having” is a book not to be pored over for its deep analysis of movie comedy, but rather to be skimmed for the nuggets it offers — the witty sallies of and delicious stories about Nora Ephron, and her gritty, touching struggles toward fame and success that, despite the fits and starts, Ms. Carlson manages to display. 

Richard Horwich taught literature at Brooklyn College and New York University. He lives in East Hampton.

Nora Ephron had a house in East Hampton for many years.

Nora Ephron on the set of “Lucky Numbers” in 2000.Paramount Pictures
Meg Ryan and Billy Crystal in a famous scene from Rob Reiner’s 1989 romantic comedy “When Harry Met Sally,” screenplay by Nora Ephron.