Phone Calls and the Internet as Intimacy in the Films of Nora Ephron

Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan in When Harry Met Sally. A split screen shows Harry and Sally in their respective beds, on the phone with each other.
Columbia Pictures

Nora Ephron’s films, from the ones she wrote to the ones she directed, are all about relationships. As assorted rom-com characters are prone to telling us, a key part of any relationship is communication, but the way we communicate has changed. It’s changed since When Harry Met Sally was released in 1989, and it’s changed even over the course of this year, with virtual interaction replacing a lot of face-to-face socialising. We’ve all been relying on alternative forms of intimacy during the present pandemic – even if lockdown restrictions are beginning to ease and we can see friends and loved ones, we’re not allowed to touch them. In some ways, then, Ephron’s films are ahead of their time. In When Harry Met Sally, this intimacy takes the form of phone calls. In 1998’s You’ve Got Mail, the primary form of communication is email, while in 2009’s Julie & Julia, the protagonist turns to blogging – it is worth noting that the modes of communication get more ‘impersonal’ as time progresses. Where does that leave us today?

In one of the most famous scenes from When Harry Met Sally, the titular characters (played by Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan) watch Casablanca together while they’re on the phone to each other. Both in their respective apartments, the camera posits them side by side, sitting in their respective beds, creating a kind of mirror image. The film they’re watching is coming to an end; they argue about its conclusion, one of many such bickerings. Harry tells Sally that she is high maintenance, unlike Ingrid Bergman, who is low maintenance. He imitates her restaurant ordering habits – the way she always asks for the dressing on the side – to demonstrate this. He knows her well. They laugh about it together. It is intimate, easy, natural. It seems like this is something they do together often. We forget that they are not in the same room together. 

Billy Crystal in When Harry Met Sally. Harry is on the phone, looking down sadly.
Columbia Pictures

However, there are limitations to their phone calls – both have things they’d like to say, we can tell by their faces, but this is a case of dramatic irony. We can see what has been left unsaid, but they cannot. How many words have gone unsaid since the pandemic began?

In You’ve Got Mail, rival bookshop owners Kathleen (Meg Ryan) and Joe (Tom Hanks) can attribute their relationship entirely to the connection they make over email. The internet provides an anonymity that the pair use as a safety blanket. They are both unhappy in their current relationships, and email allows them to explore their feelings without the guilt of unfaithfulness. They’re falling in love without ever having met in person – and they have no idea who the other is.

Thus, their email correspondence allows for deception. There’s no way their relationship would exist without this deception, either – Joe is the owner of a newly opened chain bookstore that will put Kathleen’s small independent shop out of business. It’s a kids’ bookstore, inherited from her mother – no match for a multinational megastore. Ultimately, Joe is responsible for destroying the legacy of Kathleen’s late mother – without their pre-existing email relationship, it is hard to believe that she would fall in love with the man responsible for that. And yet, their bond exists. “The odd thing about this form of communication is you’re more likely to talk about nothing than something,” Kathleen writes in one of her emails to Joe. “But I just want to say that all this nothing has meant more to me than so many somethings.”

Meg Ryan in You've Got Mail. Kathleen types at her laptop in her home. She looks curious.
Warner Bros.

In Julie & Julia, Julie (Amy Adams) starts a cooking blog where she recreates the recipes of Julia Child in an attempt to regain some purpose in her life: “The book: ‘Mastering the Art of French Cooking’… The challenge: 365 days. 524 recipes. The contender: Julie Powell. Government employee by days, renegade foodie by night.” Fed up of her dead-end office job and feeling alienated from her more successful peers (“What do you think it means if you don’t like your friends?” she asks, wistfully), she finds comfort in the cooking and in the blog. “A horrible day at work…” she types in one post. “But then I came home and cooked chicken with cream, mushrooms and port, and it was total bliss.” Would the cooking alone achieve the same results? Probably not. Julie needs the accountability of sharing something publicly, and she needs the community.

For her birthday party, Julie invites a small group of people to her apartment for dinner. She cooks lobster (a recipe from ‘Mastering the Art of French Cooking’, of course) and wears a plastic string of Julia Child-esque pearls. “Bon appétit!” she cries in an attempt at Child’s distinctive voice. After they eat, she makes her toast, addressing her husband, Eric (Chris Messina): “I’m 30. I thought it was gonna be terrible, but thanks to you, and thanks to Julia, it feels like I’m gonna get through.” Her invisible online community is already proving to be a lifeline. The next day, at work, Julie’s head pops up over the wall of her office cubicle. “53 comments on my lobster blog!” she exclaims to her colleague. “It’s like there’s this whole army of people who are sort of connected to me,” she says to Eric, later.

Amy Adams in Julie & Julia. Julie sits at her laptop at a cluttered desk, musing at the screen. She wears a Jualia Childs-esque string of pearls.
Columbia Pictures

However, the blog becomes a source of tension with her husband; she lets it consume her. “Both of us were lost and both of us were saved by food in some way or other,” Julie writes of her and Julia Child, after a bad fight with Eric. Of their differences, she adds: “Julia deserved her husband, I don’t.” But the blog also acts as a reconciliatory tool – the couple make up after Eric reads this post. Julie’s blog gives her purpose – she connects to her subject matter and readers in a way that she has been struggling to connect with things in her ‘real’ life. But is this a good thing or a bad thing? The blog undoubtedly becomes a source of tension in her marriage, and not through a lack of support – Eric is consistent in helping Julie buy ingredients and trying to fix her mishaps in the kitchen.

In these films, phone calls and the internet are a way for the characters to find something they cannot get in person. But are these moments of intimacy beneficial or detrimental to the central relationships of Ephron’s films? What these films each demonstrate, in their different ways, is that our virtual interactions are not sustainable in the long term. What effect will this have on all of us, post-pandemic? Will our ways of communicating ever be the same again? Some have argued that social media has pushed us apart over the past decade rather than pulling us closer. The way we have reacted to the social conditions of the pandemic shows just how much we still need face-to-face contact, and suggests that maybe we aren’t as destined to follow the unintentional trajectory of Ephron’s films after all. Some of these virtual nothings may mean more than so many somethings, but nothing can never truly replace something, no matter what Meg Ryan tells you.

by Emily Garbutt

Emily is a freelance culture writer, English Literature graduate, and aspiring vegan mac and cheese critic based in London. Her favourite films usually feature Saoirse Ronan, aliens, or angsty teenagers (in an ideal world, all three). Find her on Twitter @emilylgarbutt.

3 replies »

  1. Your insights from two of my favourite cinematic works of all times ( WHEN HARRY MET SALLY and JULIE AND JULIA ) are wonderfully presented. I love the fact that all writers at SCREEN QUEENS always expand upon the sociological impact of cinema and how the medium represents our daily truths so succinctly. So thank you for that.


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