How Nora Ephron 'Saved the Romantic Comedy' with cranky Tom Hanks
Legendary nice guy Tom Hanks was kind of a jerk on the set of “Sleepless in Seattle.” And “America’s Sweetheart” Meg Ryan turned a little sour when the pair filmed “You’ve Got Mail.”
Oh, and that famous fake-orgasm scene in “When Harry Met Sally”? It wasn’t Nora Ephron’s invention — though she’s received sole credit for everyone’s favorite public climax across the years.
The new book “I’ll Have What She’s Having: How Nora Ephron’s Three Iconic Films Saved the Romantic Comedy” delivers a delight of buzzy Hollywood backstories unearthed by veteran entertainment journalist Erin Carlson.
The book also serves as a tribute to Ephron, the hit movie director, bestselling author and writer of two Broadway shows — including “Lucky Guy,” the tale of Daily News columnist Mike McAlary.
Playwright and film director Nora Ephron (l.) and actor Tom Hanks arrive at the Barrymore Theatre in New York, Thursday, Dec. 12, 2002.
(JOHN MARSHALL MANTEL/AP)
Hanks, Ryan, Rob Reiner and a host of others provided fresh interviews about Ephron, with great results.
Ephron was hired in 1984 to write “When Harry Met Sally” for Reiner and his co-producer, Andy Scheinman. The premise was set: Can a man and a woman ever just be friends?
In one meeting, Reiner agonized that Meg Ryan’s character, Sally, needed to drop a big reveal about women that would stun Harry, played by his close friend Billy Crystal.
Scheinman had just “the thing.” His girlfriend’s sister, Dani Minnick, a model famous for a series of cigarette commercials, Virginia Slims, had confided that women fake orgasms.
“I’ll Have What She’s Having: How Nora Ephron’s Three Iconic Films Saved the Romantic Comedy” by Erin Carlson
Reiner was blindsided, refusing to believe Ephron when she insisted it was true. Ordering several female staffers into his office, the bearishly built director shouted what sounded like an accusation:
“DO WOMEN FAKE ORGASMS?”
Yes, they all said. “The thing” went into the script.
While it was Ryan’s idea to act out the elaborately faked orgasm, she froze when it came to filming the scene. It fell to Reiner to offer a demonstration.
Ephron got all the credit for Meg Ryan’s iconic fake orgasm onscreen with Billy Crystal in “When Harry Met Sally,” but Rob Reiner and Andy Scheinman concocted the idea.
The director took the seat in Katz’s Deli next to Crystal and across from Ryan, all too aware his mother Estelle sat just a few tables over. Reiner had hired mom to deliver the famous line, “I’ll have what she’s having.”
Estelle had told Reiner she was happy to sign on just to spend a day with her son. “I’ll come,” she said. “I’ll have a hot dog.”
Estelle, in her early 70s, got so much more.
Reiner, mortified at having to direct “a woman on how to fake an orgasm in front of my mother,” manned up and started pounding the table, panting loudly while shouting, “Oh God! Oh God!”
Aaron Barsky, the assistant director, remembers Crystal as insecure in his “first leading role.” He leaned heavily on his buddy Reiner for reassurance — so much so that Ryan felt excluded.
Reports surfaced that the co-stars were barely speaking at points. “I felt like I was doing my work in my trailer,” Ryan admitted later.
Tom Hanks eventually starred as Daily News Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist Mike McAlary in “Lucky Guy,” written by Ephron, in a limited Broadway run.
(©2012 Joan Marcus)
But by the time the film wrapped and Harry had Sally in his arms, everyone was on good terms.
Ephron bonded deeply with Ryan on the “boy’s set,” and rushed the blond actress a copy of her final script for “Sleepless in Seattle” in 1992.
“We’ve got to do this together,” Ephron insisted. Ryan agreed.
Ephron then initiated the “difficult conversation” where she informed Ryan that her then-husband, Dennis Quaid, wasn’t right for the role of Sam Baldwin.
Meg Ryan as Annie Reed (l.) Ross Malinger as Jonah Baldwin (c.) and Tom Hanks as Sam Baldwin (r.) in a scene from “Sleepless in Seattle.” Hanks was worried about the kid getting the “good lines” in the film.
The studio was going with Tom Hanks.
In fact, Ephron wasn’t sold on casting Hanks. The Oscar-winning actor was wary of her, too.
“I was an extremely cranky actor at that time,” recalled Hanks. “Coming in and saying, ‘Why does the kid have so many good lines?’
“I had made enough movies to get smoked on a couple of occasions as well as thinking that I was a big shot and ‘My voice must be heard.’”
(Misha Erwitt/New York Daily News)
Long after Ephron and Hanks settled their differences, “the kid” still presented problems. The role of Jonah, the eight-year-old son who plays matchmaker, went originally to Nathan Watt.
On the shoot’s first weekend, after a few days of rehearsal, Watt was fired. Hanks and the boy weren’t connecting. Producer Gary Foster had already put in an emergency call to an acting coach.
“Tom is being driven crazy and this boy keeps repeating dialog off-camera when Tom’s trying to film a scene and he’s not adding to the film right now,” he said.
Once Watt was gone, Ross Malinger was brought in to play Jonah — even though Ephron disliked his “chipmunk chin” and the fat around his neck. The writer was famously a perfectionist in all things.
Mike McAlary (r.) shakes hands with Daily News publisher Mort Zuckerman after winning the Pulitzer Prize for columns on Abner Louima, victim of police brutality.
“She could cut you like a knife if you made a mistake,” says associate producer Jim Skotchdopole, an Ephron ally.
The next casting challenge was the Empire State Building, pivotal to the film’s final romantic scene.
Management at the iconic Midtown skyscraper refused to close its observation deck to tourists for filming.
Ephron, who knew every power player in New York, reached out to public relations guru Howard Rubenstein. He took his “impassioned plea” to the federal prison where the building’s owner, the infamously arrogant Leona Helmsley, was serving 18 months for tax evasion.
(Richard Corkery /New York Daily News )
The Queen of Mean relented.
By the time Ephron, Hanks and Ryan reunited for “You’ve Got Mail” in 1997, it had the feel of a family reunion. Except Ryan had turned difficult.
“She was just more demanding on that movie!” recalls Delia, Ephron’s sister and co-writer. “She just needed more stuff, and she wasn’t totally happy.”
In “You’ve Got Mail,” Ryan’s character Kathleen Kelly owns a beloved children’s bookstore on the Upper West Side. Her outpost is threatened by the huge corporate bookstore plonked down across the street by Joe Fox (Hanks).
Actor Tom Hanks gestures towards the likeness of the playwright Nora Ephron after the premiere of the play “Lucky Guy” in New York on April 1, 2013.
He’s her nemesis, except she’s unknowingly falling in love with him online.
It was a perfect Meg Ryan role, but …
“She was getting to a point, really, where she was beginning to feel ‘I don’t know if I still want to be Meg Ryan,’” says costume designer Albert Wolsky.
Ryan was at the start of a disastrous slide. In 2000, the actress dubbed “America’s Sweetheart” betrayed her ardent fans when she began a passionate affair with Russell Crowe on the set of “Proof of Life.”
Ephron, who knew every power player in New York, reached out to public relations guru Howard Rubenstein (pictured) to “cast” the Empire State Building in “Sleepless in Seattle.”
Ryan followed the scandal by making grittier choices, like the erotic thriller “In the Cut” and the boxing saga “Against the Ropes.”
Both failed. Fans had turned their backs on the adorable actress.
After “You’ve Got Mail,” Ephron didn’t score again at the box office until “Julie and Julia” in 2009. Her highly anticipated “Bewitched,” starring Nicole Kidman, had moviegoers throwing popcorn at the screen four years earlier.
That same year, Hanks turned her down flat when she approached him with a script based on the life of New York columnist McAlary, who won the Pulitzer Prize shortly before his death from cancer in 1998.
Many saw McAlary’s hard-won exposé of the sadistic abuse of Haitian immigrant Abner Louima by cops as heroic. But Hanks just didn’t like the guy.
In 2011, though, Hanks’ feelings changed when he learned Jon Hamm — at the height of “Mad Man” mania — was sniffing around the role.
Empire State Building owner Leona Helmsley relented to Rubenstein’s pleas in the end.
(Keith Bedford/Getty Images)
“Lucky Guy,” starring Hanks, had a hugely successful limited run on Broadway a year after Ephron’s death.
Hanks had kept at Ephron, wanting to know why she was so fascinated by McAlary. She admitted she wasn’t a particular fan of his columns or career.
It was the play’s director, Geoffrey Wolfe, who finally clued Hanks in, sharing Ephron’s reply when he posed the same question.
“This play is about somebody who has more luck than talent,” Ephron explained, implicitly reflecting on her own long string of successes. “And I know something about that.”