With so many assaults on the boundaries of governance and sovereignty in the news lately, reflecting on the career of writer and Hollywood director Nora Ephron, who died this week at 71, may seem off-topic. But upon reading through many glowing Ephron appreciations, I realize that in her work lies another broken boundary. It is a cultural one, and every bit as significant as lines on the map or in the Constitution.
In a scene from her most famous movie, "When Harry Met Sally" (1989), Ephron brought to mainstream, predominantly female audiences the spectacle of a professional actress (Meg Ryan), not a porn prop, performing an extended impression of an orgasm in a crowded delicatessen. It was supposed to be the ultimate put-down of her crass male companion (Billy Crystal). Was this merely a smart update of the onscreen battle of the sexes once famously waged by Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy? Or had we become party to something darker? Either way, America laughed, and Ephron is today eulogized for this unforgettable display.
It was a first, all right, but maybe not so funny, since it was also a milestone in the pornification of the American middle class. This has been a long process in which increasingly voyeuristic audiences watch as increasingly untrammeled moviemakers rob human sexuality of intimacy and consequence. "When Harry Met Sally" took us over the top, cauterizing audiences to a new convention of shamelessness -- the ideal of Betty Friedan feminism.
And then what happened? Ever since, as a Salon.com critic approvingly wrote, "rom-coms have gotten increasingly raunchy and foulmouthed, often desperately so. But whatever supposed new twists writers dream up -- make the lovers casual-sex partners or bisexual polyamorists or ex-lovers of each other's parents -- they're just spraying Cool Whip on a cake that Ephron baked."
This must make Ephron the mother of the transgressive "gross-out" comedy, even if she is more politely celebrated as the queen of romantic comedy. To be sure, two subsequent Ephron "rom-coms," "Sleepless in Seattle" (1993) and "You've Got Mail" (1998), were more conventional entertainments. But the lines had blurred.