Nora Ephron Films: Watching Women Writing

Harry: "You were going to be a gymnast."

Sally: "A journalist."

Harry: "Right, right. That's what I said."

Don't you love how the women in Nora Ephron's films are always writing? I do. I find it reassuring to see Sally Albright, identified only fleetingly in When Harry Met Sally as a reporter for the News and later for New York magazine, sitting at her late-80s model computer tapping away on some assignment. Remember, this was before blogging, Facebook and email so she was actually getting some work done.

A lot can be said about how Ephron's characters were often seen cooking (Julia Child, Julie Powell, and Ephron's Heartburn alter ego, food writer Rachel Samstat) or eating (all of the above, plus of course Sally and her memorable sandwich at Katz's delicatessen). The writer-director's romance with food has been widely noted. And it was really a romantic view: Has anyone actually been able to produce a bowl of spaghetti carbonara in the moments before the glow of a first sexual encounter has worn off? Unless you are Meryl Streep twirling Ephron's egg-slicked strands of pasta in bed with Jack Nicholson, this is, I can report, an impossible task. Seriously, did she start boiling the water beforehand?

But the on-screen writing made no less of an impression. Has any screenwriter ever put more women writing on the screen? Most in Hollywood would shy from something so mundane. But Ephron, the daughter and sister of writers, never did. Between food and words, there were cues to where her loyalty came down: "Restaurants are to people in the '80s what theater was to people in the '60s," sniffs one of her characters -- inadvertently quoting another character's magazine column back to him. Naturally, they fall in love.

Sometimes the writing characters helped to jog the plot. Julie & Julia is about boeuf bourguignon only on the surface; if Julie Powell (Amy Adams) killed a lobster but didn't blog about it, would anyone hear it scream? We see her at her laptop, and Julia at her Underwood -- using carbon paper! -- and the film's triumphant final image is of Child (Streep, again) embracing the first copy of her book.

Annie in Sleepless in Seattle (Ryan) is also a writer, which gives her essential cover to stalk -- er, pursue -- her radio paramour. After she closes her bookstore, You've Got Mail's Kathleen (Ryan, again) becomes a writer of children's books. Even before then, with the advent of email, we see her pouring her heart out through her fingers on her keyboard.

Making Sally a writer in When Harry Met Sally didn't propel the plot. But it did have a purpose. Our heroine may have worried about not getting married before she was 40 (eight years away!), but even in those couple of brief typing scenes she appeared calm and assured at that keyboard. Ephron gave her women characters a rough-tender road to finding love but, Heartburn not withstanding, always delivered a happy ending in that department. Just keep writing and the romance stuff will sort itself eventually.

This was a message that was not lost on me when I saw the film the year I graduated from journalism school, but before I drove from Los Angeles to New York City with a male friend with whom, as Harry Burns would put it, the sex stuff had already gotten in the way. We moved past that, managed to stay friends, and he dropped me in Greenwich Village before leaving for Chicago.

There, in the shadow of the Washington Square Arch, I had no boyfriend, and no prospect of one, but did have a small apartment to myself and soon after, a staff job at a monthly magazine, something that is today more anachronistic than the beige Toshiba laptop where I did my writing. Thanks in very large part to Nora Ephron, I had arrived from the Coast with an image in my mind of what a writer in New York looked like, and this was it. The City was where the grown ups were, and they weren't just living their grown-up lives, they were plunking down at their desks and writing about it. Because of Ephron's clack-clack-clack typing sequences, I knew what I was supposed to be doing, where I should put my energy.

And, sometime well before I turned 40, I married a man whom I met at that first magazine job. So, really, she was right about everything. The romantic stuff works out in the end.

Allison Adato is a senior editor at People and the author of "Smart Chefs Stay Slim: Lessons in Eating and Living from America's Best Chefs" (Penguin/NAL, 2012). Follow her on Twitter at @editgirlnyc.