Like almost everyone else, I was shocked by the news of the death of Nora Ephron a few days ago.
She was a culture hero to me going all the way back to the 1970s when I devoured her newspaper and magazine column collections “Crazy Salad” and “Scribble Scribble.”
Saner and funnier than most of the so-called “new” journalists of that era, Ephron was more in the vein of Pauline Kael or Mary McCarthy than Tom Wolfe or Gay Talese — she was a smart and independent woman who defied labels and genres.
Ephron also seemed to possess huge amounts of that rarest of writers’ resources — common sense. Even though few of us shared her privileged background and life in the fastest lanes of New York and Hollywood, Ephron always wrote about people and ideas in a very relatable manner.
I enjoyed almost all of the movies she wrote and directed, but the one that I keep going back to — and the one that best reflects her early days as a columnist and commentator — is “Heartburn.”
Unlike the airy, happily-ever-after romantic comedies Ephron would go on to create — “Sleepless in Seattle,” “You’ve Got Mail” — the 1986 film directed by Mike Nichols is about finding and then losing romance when a partner proves to be a serial cheater.
“Heartburn” is a very funny and well-observed social comedy with a big bitter pill buried in it — the fact that men don’t seem to be programmed to be sexually faithful to one person.
New York magazine food writer Rachel (Meryl Streep) goes through hell in the movie because she has already had one bad marriage and mistakenly believes she can change Washington political columnist Mark (Jack Nicholson) who is “famous” for his sexual adventures.
Most of the people who happily curl up on the couch with “When Harry Met Sally” and “Sleepless in Seattle” again and again, hated “Heartburn” because it doesn’t conform to romantic comedy expectations.
Not only is Rachel cheated upon by Mark, she learns of his affair in the final stages of her second pregnancy. At the end of the movie we see her boarding the Eastern shuttle back to New York City with a babe in arms and a toddler walking beside her. We know that Rachel will survive and thrive — just as Ephron did under similar circumstances with second husband Carl Bernstein — but it’s not the sort of ending moviegoers expect at a Hollywood romantic comedy with two major stars in the leads.
What makes “Heartburn” so irresistible to me is the tartness of the humor all the way through the film and Mike Nichols’ direction of an astounding cast that also includes Stockard Channing, Jeff Daniels, Catherine O’Hara, Maureen Stapleton, Joanna Gleason and many more (even the tiny role of the mugger who steals Rachel’s wedding ring is played by Kevin Spacey!).
Streep does some of her best acting in this movie — the worse things get for Rachel the funnier she is.
Toward the end of the movie, the star pulls off a tour de force scene in a Georgetown beauty parlor where the chatter of the girls around Rachel (about their no-good boyfriends) makes her finally realize what Mark has been up to. Nichols does the whole sequence in one long take so we can study Rachel’s face as the awful truth starts to sink in.