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...I love Diana, but I don't know if I buy her assessment. I'd pin the blame for today's "gross-out" comedy not on the late Ms. Ephron but on the much-later Bluto Blutarsky.