As Bong Joon-ho accepted his Academy Award, he pointed out how Martin Scorsese was a significant influence for him when he said: “The most personal is the most creative.” It made me realize how screenwriters come up with characters and relationships close to home, opening up their hearts on-screen through these fictional characters. One of these writers who put representations of herself in various conditions in her scripts is Nora Ephron. Mainly known for her romantic comedies, Ephron reveals not only her personality but also her life journey in her films. The relationships, conflicts, and conditions change, but the characters remain close to Ephron’s heart throughout her filmography. One can see that her life is her biggest inspiration. This paper examines Nora Ephron’s protagonists through character development, motivation, and stakes, focusing mainly on Silkwood (1983), Heartburn (1986), and Hanging Up (2000).
The character is one of the primary story elements in a script. Blake Snyder explains in Saving the Cat the function of a character: through the protagonist, the writer first and foremost gives us someone to identify with. Then, it becomes easier to communicate the idea as someone is experiencing everything for us. He suggests determining the “what is it about” before “who is it about” while writing a script. While creating the main character, he suggests that the writer should think of certain questions: “Who is the best person to put in this situation? What person would offer the most comic conflict given that punishment? What hero would offer the longest journey and need to learn the biggest lesson?” All these questions presume that the plot is determined before the main character. As opposed to this, I argue that Nora Ephron’s characters seem to exist in her mind before the events that will unfold. It seems that before coming up with the acts, she creates her characters inspired by herself. Like all people, these characters come with desires and flaws to be corrected within their journey. Nevertheless, it satisfies Snyder’s next premise, which claims that the viewer would like to see the film when the characters are whom they would want to see win. Creating characters closer to her heart, Ephron makes sure that the audience will root for them as she provides the best action plan for the growth of her characters. Her likability in the business and media endorses the likability of her characters.
Ephron’s female protagonists are not only likable but also the main characters in the feminist politics of their time. Roberta Garette studies Ephron’s female leads to suggest that we see a similar characterization of the heroine often in a harshly sexist world (2012). The characters’ victory becomes the symbolic triumph of feminism. Garette quotes cultural theorist Angela McRobbie on the fact that since the mid-1990s, the independent, educated young woman has become the cultural object of fascination and concern. Therefore, the character inherently attracts its curious viewer: “How will the independent young woman cope with these obstacles?” Garrett points out how the humiliations end up making the characters resilient. Notably, most of the obstacles the characters face are related to their disappointments, unmet expectations, and making fools of themselves. For instance, Sally in When Harry Met Sally outgrows her naiveté to become a confident young woman and outsmart Harry. She is no longer the one to feel ashamed but is the one to humiliate Harry when he feels most confident. As an example, one might refer to the significant contrast in the diner scenes. Sally is not only one of the prototypical characters of the feminist politics in Garette’s studies but also represents its creator. Ephron admits that Sally is more or less her. They are both cheerful in nature, and Ephron says she is “as big a nightmare when ordering in a restaurant as she was.”
Cinematic culture in the 1980s has been known for its increased representation of several groups. Together with the rise in blaxploitation films and queer cinema, Ephron’s movies earned their place under “chick flicks.” Garette considers these films under the influence of post-feminism in terms of legal rights and visibility. Therefore, with the rising impact of the female writers and filmmakers, Ephron’s characters also introduce the contemporary approach to heterosexual romance. In contrast to the previous women’s films filled with misery, Ephron provides a playful approach to the specific rules and conventions of heterosexual coupledom in different cultural contexts. By putting the plucky heroine in various settings for her to overcome issues related to work, love, and family, Ephron studies the extended dimensions of her life and her growth.
Everything is Copy is a documentary by Jacob Bernstein on his mother’s work. It begins as Ephron explains the power of telling your stories. She gives the example of stepping on a banana peel: If you fall, you are the victim; if you tell people that you did, you become the hero of the joke. A closer look into her scripts reveals that she tells stories of women who are on some level herself, and writing is her way of becoming the hero of her life. All characters seem to be originating in the writer herself, even though they are based on actual events and real people. For instance, writing holds great importance in Ephron’s life, therefore her characters’: Sally in When Harry Met Sally, Rachel in Heartburn, Georgia in Hanging Up are all reporters. In Julie and Julia, both characters are writers: one writes a recipe book, and one is a soon-to-be-published blogger.
It is not a coincidence that she casts certain actors for the roles that she identifies with. Snyder notes on some actor archetypes, as well. He notes that: “the reason that these archetypes exist to satisfy our inner need to see these shadow creations in our brains played out on screen. It’s the Jungian archetypes these actors represent that we’re interested in seeing.” Coming from a similar perspective, Ephron casts the same women for several of these roles. Meryl Streep, for instance, stars in three of her films, playing the character that is mostly identified with the writer herself. Meg Ryan is another example for these actors whom Snyder lists under his “good girl tempted” archetype: “pure of heart, cute as a bug.” She stars in four of Ephron’s films, becoming the face of the strong female lead.
The first script written by Ephron, Silkwood, is based on the true story of the early power plant activist. Karen Silkwood was a technician at a power plant in danger of plutonium contamination. The story follows how those in charge prevent her from speaking out as she tries to warn the others. Ephron is drawn into Karen Silkwood’s story as she is an unlikely hero: “In fact, what drew Alice and me to Karen Silkwood’s story were the less-than-perfect aspects, and what we tried to write was not a movie about a heroic woman who did something heroic but rather the story of a complicated and interesting and flawed woman who quite unexpectedly did something heroic,” she explains in The Tie That Binds. Similar to Karen Silkwood’s heuristic approach to activism, Ephron enters the film industry as an aspiring screenwriter. While Karen is not sure what she is doing, the writer also is introduced to a world that is new to her. Following the film’s release, the two seemed to be sharing a similar reaction. Ephron was “pounded into the ground” by The New York Times following Silkwood, but the writer explains that it was nothing unexpected. Indeed, “For something to matter, it must be political—or more important, ambiguous, deliciously ambiguous, unresolved, mythic. The very thing that attracts a filmmaker to a project is the thing that guarantees his life will be hell once he makes it.” She was expecting to receive negative feedback on her work, yet it does not stop her from telling the story of a woman that was silenced. Her approach, in this sense, is also similar to that of Karen Silkwood herself.
The overall argument of this paper becomes literal in the case of Heartburn. Basing her character on another real person, herself, Ephron writes her second script again about real events. Heartburn is based on Ephron’s husband’s infidelity, which brought an end to their marriage. The film was subject to legal battles between the former spouses. Coming from somewhere very personal and vivid, Ephron pours her heart first into her novel, to be followed by the script. By writing the story of her painful divorce in a funny way, director Mike Nichols says that she won. The film is an example of the above mentioned, “stepping on a banana peel” kind of story. The female lead representing Ephron is Rachel, a food writer at a New York City magazine played by Meryl Streep. She is seemingly easy-going, feeling grateful, and blessed for everything she has. This optimistic worldview is one of the critical characteristics Ephron uses to define herself; thus, it appears repeatedly as a feature of her female protagonists. The male counterpart, on the other hand, is deliberately left unexplained and shallow. Even though Jack Nichols’ name is written as big as Streep’s on the poster, his character is not as significant as the female lead. We never get to hear his side of the story. Meryl Streep explains this issue as the script being about the person who gets hit by a bus, and not the bus. The subjectivity of the events is justified when Ephron admits that she is only interested in telling her version of the stories. If the film was not based on her side of the events, the male character could have been subject to criticism of not being as complex.
Even though the characters are based on flesh and bone, real people, knowing her characters is not necessarily sufficient for a script to be successful. The character development and motivation play a key role in conveying the idea to the viewer. The title character in Silkwood revolves around the idea of taking responsibility while engaging in an unknown field. Accordingly, the character is initially depicted as an irresponsible mother. She wants to see her children, but have not arranged her shifts yet. She is all over the place. In contrast to the traditional mother that cooks for her children, she takes them to a fast-food restaurant. Being an irresponsible woman in every aspect is depicted economically by representing Karen as a mother who does not have her kids as her priority, which I believe challenges the feminist idea behind her scripts. Karen’s character development focuses on taking action for the things she wants to see change. The development becomes significant as at the beginning of the film, she did not seem to be caring a lot for her kids as she lived apart from them and rarely called or saw them. But, in the end, she fights at the expense of her life to protect the people with whom she works. The viewer is given a clear character arc.
Heartburn conveys the development of Ephron’s recovery from divorce through the character of Rachel. The character arc is of the writers’ as the story comes from somewhere profoundly personal. Rachel’s motivation throughout the film is to be the wife her husband wants her to be. Eventually, she discovers that the issue does not stem from her inadequacy, but instead, Mike is in search of something else. The character then decides to remove herself from the ill relationship in which she keeps longing for the old happy days. She embraces her selfhood instead of her husband’s love and affection. The ending underlines Garette’s suggestion regarding Ephron’s characters: “…the heroism of the female protagonist is established through her ability to maintain a strong sense of selfhood and direction in the face of patriarchal pressures and expectations.” The film becomes Ephron’s way of saying she has moved on, and when life gave her lemons, she indeed served the world her lemonade. More accurately, in this case, life gave her key limes, which she used to make a key lime pie and whip it on her husband’s face.
In addition to a clear character arc, Snyder highlights that a successful protagonist has a primal factor at sake. Primal urges get our attention: survival, hunger, protection of loved ones, fear of death… Karen Silkwood, as a character, provides a compelling argument as even though she is an unlikely hero, she has her and all the factory workers’ lives at stake. Therefore, Ephron starts the business from a solid ground by basing the protagonist on a real person whose driving force of action is survival. As Snyder suggests, the best ideas and the best characters in the lead roles must have basic needs, wants, and desires. In this journey, Karen ruins her relationship with her boyfriend. Also, she pursues the labor union business at the expense of her friendship with the coworkers. Rachel, in Heartburn, has not only her marriage at stake but also the woman she identifies herself to be. Nevertheless, having primal factors at stake is not the case for all of her characters, which brings us to Hanging Up, the film that she co-wrote with her sister Delia Ephron and trusted Diane Keaton to direct.
Hanging Up is another film based on the writer’s own life. It is a fictional take on their complicated family relationship. But why did Hanging Up fail to meet audience expectations? The script was based on Delia Ephron’s novel, and she admits that she did not want her sister to change much of it. Probably because it was too close to home, the sisters’ struggle to meet on the same page is reflected in the script. According to her sister Delia, the writer was not there to deal with the death of their father. This makes her the Georgia of the story, who is almost invisible until the last few scenes. However, Nora Ephron wanted to claim her presence in the film, which brought about a not-as-powerful main character: Eve. The story fell short when the writer wanted to get hold of the main character, who was not herself. Delia Ephron reveals that Nora Ephron was, in fact, the villain of the initial story, and it is not something the writer knows how to work with.
Returning to Snyder’s claim on the protagonist, one can suggest that Eve does not have much at stake. Eve is the center character who seems to bear the burden of family dynamics and especially their father’s needs. She is framed to be always on the phone, failing to meet the increasing demands as she functions as the bridge in the family. However, the character does not have anything at stake. She has a loving and caring husband who, unfortunately, disappears from the story without any reason other than to leave room for the sisters to bond. Eve’s marriage is never at stake, and her desire to reconnect with her sisters remain unconvincing as she has lived distant to her sisters for a long time and has not been resentful.
Snyder notes that you can have a good idea and wreck it with the wrong characters. Could this be the case with Hanging Up? Maybe the father character should have been like Nana from Daughters of the Dust, holding firmly onto her roots and putting family first, instead of being a forgetful old man who grabs any women in his range. Then, having Eve as the only daughter who cares about the old man would make her struggle more compelling. In the film, the father does not seem to be worrying about the visitors or his daughters anyway. Therefore, the viewer interprets her struggle as excessive whining. Jack Garner depicts the film as “cinematic equivalent of fingernails on a blackboard,” adding: “Although Meg Ryan has sparkled in other Ephron works — like “Sleepless in Seattle” and “You’ve Got Mail” — she fights an uphill battle to make us like this character. Eve is in a constant state of hurly-burly. Her relentless complaining wears thin.” He suggests that Eve’s character falls short in compelling the viewer, which might again be attributed to the issue that she does not have primal urges at stake. Besides, the character is not a likable one when compared to the previously mentioned protagonists, which might be because Ephron is not a skillful writer when the character is not based on her. Also, she might have thought her sister Delia was excessively whining during the time of their father’s loss, which would explain what is reflected in Eve.
Learning from this failure, in Julie and Julia, Ephron gives me the impression as if she puts her younger self in conversation with her older self. Julia Child is challenged in several ways: she becomes the only woman in the advanced cooking class (relating to the male-dominated film industry), and she fails multiple times before finding a publisher for her book. Nevertheless, she is always cheerful and positive. She never has her marriage at stake. She never leaves her husband in the background or becomes unconnected to him. On the other hand, similar to her previous younger characters, Julie is established as self-oriented, stressed out, and disappointed in general. She cannot spare her husband from her job-related struggles and has her marriage at stake in her journey. Where Julia represents the mature Nora, Julie is like her younger self, who feels a bit lost. Toward the end of the film, Julie says that both she and Julia are saved by food in some way. I think it was her writing that saved her, just like Ephron herself. After abandoning her dream to become a published author, her blog becomes a passion for Julie’s dull life. Nevertheless, her blog then opens the way for her to publish her first book. These two characters both represent Ephron and are depicted together in her last script for cinema.
When Snyder asks for a protagonist who 1) he can identify with, 2) he can learn from, 3) he has a compelling reason to follow, 4) he believes that deserves to win, 5) has stakes that are primal and ring true for him; Ephron gives him nobody but herself. Her characters represent her in various stages of life, accompanies her with her struggles, take lessons from their mistakes for her. Writing herself should not be interpreted as the easy way out of creativity as it requires pouring one’s heart on paper to share it with the whole world. Like the characters who are carrying the world’s weight on their shoulders, the viewer understands Ephron’s concerns and regrets in life. Her candor allows the audience to feel closer to the writer through her filmography until the films become transparent in the conversation between Ephron and the viewer.
Ephron, Nora “The Tie That Binds,” The Nation., April 6, 1992
Garner, Jack “Everyone’s whining in ‘Hanging Up’ gets tiresome,” USA TODAY (Arlington, VA), February 17, 2000
Garrette, Roberta “Female fantasy and post-feminist politics in Nora Ephron’s screenplays,” Journal of Screenwriting, Volume 3 Number 12, 2012
Snyder, Blake “Save the Cat,” Michael Wiese Productions, 2005
Everything is Copy (2015) dir. Jacob Bernstein