When Nora Met Meg: A Trilogy of Romantic Comedies and the Perfect Pair of the Woman Auteur and Muse

Nuha Hassan
9 min readMar 19


Tom Hanks, Nora Ephron and Meg Ryan behind the scenes in ‘You’ve Got Mail’ (1997).

Muses are typically synonymous with male directors and actresses. Uma Thurman and Quentin Tarantino work together to form art that is considered meaningful. But what of women’s auteurship and muses? Hollywood has been highly criticised for its lack of women directors. In 2016, women directors made up only 7% of the top 250 films released that year. In another article by Vanity Fair, women directors make up only 39% of people working behind the camera and are largely underrepresented when it comes to narrative features.

Due to the industry’s system, which prefers male directors’ commercially successful movies over a woman’s capacity to gain the level of trust and success over their male counterparts. It’s an unjust system that constantly refers to women directors as “Indie Women” because independent films offer more opportunities for women rather than larger-budgeted narrative films.

Chris Holmlund, who wrote Mutual Muses in Independent Cinema, states that inspiration does not drive these muses’ work relationships. It is how they interact and speak each other’s language. Friendships, alliance and trust are the main factors that bring these mutual muses pairings into a more feminine style of filmmaking. Furthermore, Holmlund explains that Catherine Keener and Nicole Holofcener understand each other’s methods with Holofcener’s loose-knit narratives and Keener’s ability to improvise and enhance her performance. “As a director, Holofcener doesn’t take away the complexity to which Keener contributes. The camera rests on Keener in close-up and medium shots,” Holmlund writes about how Holofcener’s direction and editing reflect the women’s sense of freedom, friendship, and work ethic. As for Kelly Reichardt’s direction, she has a different technique when it comes to working with Michelle Williams. Reichardt coached Williams with the smallest of gestures, postures, and stances. Reichardt underplays her scenes by capturing Williams in haunting close-up shots and communicating with her facial expressions.

Nora Ephron. Image courtesy of BFI London.

Feminist intervention and auteurship within indie cinema are different compared to mainstream romantic comedies. While there are limitations to women’s narratives in the media, mainstream movies focus on offering feminine depictions of these characters. Nora Ephron is considered one of the best writers in Hollywood. Her mantra, “everything is copy,” is one that her mother used to tell her. Everything from her childhood, love life, divorce, romantic relationships, and so much more, is taken from her life experiences. Heartburn (1986) is adapted from Nora’s (yes, I will be using her first name in this essay) semi-autobiographical book of the same name and is based on the true events of her marriage to the Watergate reporter, Carl Bernstein and his affair. Nora poured her heart out in the book and the movie, and this opened the opportunity to write more movies with female characters. This is when Nora meets Meg Ryan.

Nora invested in creating characters that reflected her, and in the case of Rob Reiner’s When Harry Met Sally… (1989), she mirrors herself as Sally Albright, a journalist who takes a road trip with Harry Burns (Billy Crystal) from Chicago to New York. By chance, they meet again after ten years and form a friendship and then fall in love. Both of these characters are fashioned and inspired by Nora and Reiner’s romantic love life. Nora used her reporter skills to write down every element of Reiner and Crystal’s love life and crafted the script of When Harry Met Sally…, and then it came down to finding the right actress to play the journalist.

In the book, I’ll Have What She’s Having: How Nora Ephron’s Three Iconic Films Saved Romantic Comedy by Erin Carlson, Nora’s life, writing, and directorial career take centre stage. Nora wanted to find someone that was fluent in Nora’s own language. Meg (and yes, I will be referring to Meg by her first name) was not a big name in Hollywood at that time, but she was known for both being able to cry on cue and her charismatic performances. During the audition with Crystal, Meg showed her improvisational skills and proved Reiner wrong, who had doubts about her performance in the movie.

Meg Ryan and Billy Crystal as Sally and Harry in the fake orgasm scene in ‘When Harry Met Sally…’ (1989). Image courtesy of Colombia Pictures.

It’s a known fact that many scenes and dialogues in When Harry Met Sally… were a collaborative effort of improvisation. One of the most iconic scenes in the movie — the fake orgasm scene — is improvised. In the script, Sally tries to prove to Harry that women can sometimes fake it during sex. During rehearsals when the scene came up, Meg suggested that she perform the act just as it is. After a collective and surprising response from Nora and the team, it was decided that Meg would perform the fake orgasm scene in a restaurant. Although, when it came to the day of the shoot, Meg was nervous and insisted on taking breaks in between scenes to calm herself down. According to Reiner, Meg performed the scene half-heartedly and he directed her to pound the table and scream as loud as she could. After giving the instructions, Meg performed the scene much better in every shot.

Nora and Meg were destined to collaborate together again. Their work ethic, friendship, and understanding of each other’s language and performance were very rare. Nora mentions that, even though Harry was making jokes, Meg always stole every scene in the movie. She was the heart and soul of Nora’s Sally. But those scenes and dialogues were only meant to be stolen by the right actress, and Nora hit the jackpot when she met her muse. Nora later says that Meg was a buried treasure and a wonderful discovery, and Meg is beautiful and funny. This relationship between the mutual muses would last for another two movies, which are Sleepless in Seattle (1993) and You’ve Got Mail (1998), both movies directed by Nora.

Nora started working on her next project, Sleepless in Seattle and she was determined to nab Tom Hanks for the role of Sam Baldwin. As Sam mourns the death of his wife, his eight-year-old son, Jonah (Ross Malinger) calls a radio show and hopes that he finds a companion for his father. Meg plays Annie Reed, who happened to listen to the radio and was moved by what Sam described as being in love with his wife. “It was like magic,” he says, and a tear falls down Annie’s cheeks. Nora loved Meg and Hanks together on screen and she found her inspiration to cast them in her next movie. It wasn’t easy to convince Hanks, but when he finally agreed to the role, everything was going to be perfect.

Sleepless in Seattle was the movie that shot Meg to stardom and the movie that guaranteed that Nora had the power to direct movies. Always a perfectionist, Nora had a lot on her plate and an entire studio on her shoulder and she had to make sure that this movie did not fail.

Since working together on the set of When Harry Met Sally…, Nora and Meg had developed an understanding of each other. Carson’s book mentions that the director and muse developed a shorthand verbal and nonverbal communication, where Nora would explain the point of the scene, and the importance of the pause in clear terms, and Meg acted it out. In an interview, Meg mentions that Nora is so specific and explains the scenes very well, there is no room for other interpretations and misunderstandings between them. “…I almost feel like I can read her mind,” said Meg.

Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan as Sam and Annie in ‘Sleepless in Seattle’ (1993). Image courtesy of TriStar Pictures.

A scene that played to Nora’s expectations was when Annie listens to the radio show and hears Sam’s story. Annie peels an apple in one slice, gets emotional hearing Sam’s monologue, and then starts crying. Meg had the skill to cry on cue and her face crumpled at the sound of Sam’s voice. To Nora, that was a dream.

In the final scene where Annie and Sam meet for the first time on top of the Empire State Building, the moment they met is captured in silence and only in small gestures. Some find it a bit odd that Sam and Annie don’t exchange a word in those moments, but to Nora, it’s not words that count, but the look in their eyes. When Meg and Hanks’ characters finally meet, it is like a dream come true. Meg looks at him with passion in her eyes, as if he’s the one that she’s been looking for her whole life. Balanced that with Tom’s emotions, his surprised expression and the connection that they had right at that moment. It would be an understatement to say that the scene is so powerful on its own and the kind of magnitude that it has on contemporary romantic comedies. Nora trusted Tom, her new muse, and Meg to perform this with sincerity and wholeheartedly, and perform it they did.

Even if Meg and Hanks have barely five minutes of screentime together, the magic that is mentioned at the beginning of Sleepless in Seattle is exactly what Nora was looking for. The mastery of the Ephron language and gestures speaks volumes through these characters. As Nora is a director that is obsessed with dialogue-driven scenes, the meeting between Annie and Sam at the end is wordless. Well, except for when they introduce themselves. From this moment on Meg and Hanks became Nora’s female and male muses, and their last and final collaboration, You’ve Got Mail tests their chemistry once more.

For Nora, Meg, and Hanks’ next movie, there were a few problems ahead. Meg felt stifled by romantic comedies, but who would ever turn down Nora Ephron? And so, they started on their next project, You’ve Got Mail, which is about two bookstore owners who become AOL friends but unbeknownst to them, they are rivals. Hanks believed that Nora wrote stories about adults who are going through life changes, pain and loss, heartbreak, and everything in between. The magic and secret of Nora’s writing lies within her own experience and mantra, “everything is copy.”

Meg Ryan and Nora Ephron behind the scenes in ‘You’ve Got Mail’ (1997).

While working on the movie, Nora’s female muse demanded changes to be made to strengthen her character. Meg insisted that she change the character’s name, and to play Kathleen Kelly as someone who is strong and finds her voice wherever she is. That’s the kind of respect and mutual understanding that Nora and Meg have for each other. It’s the collective understanding that goes beyond the work ethic and forms a friendship that lasts a lifetime. For Nora and Meg, You’ve Got Mail was like coming back to a home that they’d both shared before.

The pair of a female auteur and muse is not easy to find. For Nora and Meg, the connection was instant magic and it was meant to be. There is no denying that with Meg around Nora’s projects, the woman director was able to produce, direct and write some of her best work. What makes these two tick is the mere connection that they have, a bond that can never be repeated with another woman director and a muse. What Nora and Meg have is rare and there isn’t anyone that can copy that kind of mutual understanding of gestures, language and connection.

Nowadays, women directors like Greta Gerwig and Saoirse Ronan have collaborated on Lady Bird and Little Women, respectively. In addition to this pairing, Timothee Chalamet also stars in both of those movies. So in a way, Gerwig has her male and female muses in this modern day of filmmaking.

Nora Ephron was an exceptional director and writer, and it saddens me to say that romantic comedies have never been the same since she died. Nora’s storytelling came from a part of her, sort of autobiographical and these experiences are her own, so to say. She writes amazing dialogue and the relationship between men and women is different and unique. There are so many movies that tried to recreate the magic of Nora in romantic comedies, but there can only be one.



Nuha Hassan