Back with the dream team

 

Cinematic pairings - the sort that blister the celluloid - are few and far between. The best - Hepburn/Tracy, Bacall/Bogart - were lovers on and off screen, and it shows. These days there's little choice - it's Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks.

Personally I can't say that the Hanks/Ryan coupling quite does it for me - perhaps because they're happily married to other people. Also for my money Hanks is altogether too solid and lacks the lean and maverick streak that makes the mercury really boil. Ditto apple-pie Ryan.

As might be expected, Nora Ephron, writer and director of the latest Hanks/Ryan offering, You Got M@il, disagrees. No one really remembers the golden couple's first screen mating - 1990's Joe and the Volcano - but the chemistry certainly worked on Sleepless in Seattle - it won Ephron an Oscar nomination, her third for a screenplay.

The first was in 1983 for Silkwood, based around the true story of an accident in a nuclear processing plant - her first foray into the movies, and an unlikely choice given her track record as a comic writer. Truer to type was her next nomination, everyone's favourite when-the-hell-are-they-going-to-get-it-together movie, When Harry Met Sally, which of course introduced her to Meg Ryan.

Getting involved with the film business was the last thing Ephron had in mind when she left home. Through her 1960s and 1970s acerbic newspaper and magazine columns, Ephron came to epitomise the brash and brave New Yorker.

In fact she grew up in Hollywood where her parents were playwrights and screenwriters, Henry and Phoebe Ephron, who co-wrote some 14 movies, mainly romantic comedies, including Daddy Long Legs and Carousel (which Henry also produced). Successful the Ephrons might have been, but life for their four little girls was pretty good hell, at least later on "when they got sort of nuts and drank and drove everyone nuts", remembers Ephron as she curls up on the sofa in her London hotel suite, looking a decade younger than her 57 years.

"I always had a gigantic yen to be as far away from the movies as humanly possible, because LA is a horrible place and my mother was practically the only working mother it seemed to me in the world except for my poor friend Becky whose mother `had to work because she was divorced'. I mean there weren't any women who worked in the 1950s in LA if they didn't have to. That was the height of the let's-get-the-women-outof-the-workforce-and-back-into-thekitchen-so-th at-we-can-have-all-the-jobs -guys era. My mother just didn't believe that. She named me after the heroine of Ibsen's A Doll's House, and it was quite clear to all of us we were going to work, so of course we were going to do it."

First came an east coast education, at Wellesley, then in 1963, aged 22, Ephron joined the New York Post as a reporter. Even then her inspiration was the movies. The remake of The Front Page - His Girl Friday - cast crusading reporter Hildy Johnson as a woman, played by Rosalind Russell. "I grew up wanting to be Hildy Johnson," she wrote in Esquire in 1977, "and as it happens Hildy Johnson is someone worth wanting to grow up to be."

Just a few years later, however, she was in Hollywood. So what happened? It wasn't a sell-out, she insists defensively. "In the 1970s everyone was trying to get into the movie business. Esquire had a cover of a monkey writing a screenplay. And it's fun to be in the movie business; it's fun to make a movie and do the thing that movies do, which is that you get into people's brains in a really nice way and lots of them."

As for the idea that she has lost the attack that made her journalism so memorable, again the hackles rise. It's just not true. Yes, she writes romantic comedies and so there are certain givens, but within those parameters she believes the old Ephron acid wit is still very much in evidence. "Take the character Tom Hanks is with (a go-getting professional played with great verve by Parker Posey) in this movie. I happen to adore that character - and she's a total bitch just like me." She also pokes fun at Meg Ryan's other half, an up-hisown-ego journalist, played by Greg Kinnear, whose head is turned by veneer-thin celebrity.

"There's all sorts of things in there that I think are the kinds of observations that I used to make when I was writing essays. So I don't think that because these movies have happy endings a little blood can't get spilled along the way. Just as I don't think I ever meant to imply when I wrote all these wildly acerbic vicious things that I didn't have an absolutely fantastic heart that beat truly underneath it all."

Ephron began her directing career, she says, because she was fed up being told as a writer her scenes were too long. Her directorial debut, This is My Life, about a woman stand-up in New York, with two young daughters (which, like You Got M@il, she co-wrote with her own sister Delia) she describes as a steep learning curve. Ephron only directed Sleepless In Seattle by default.

She came in as a "script doctor" and when the original director walked off (not liking her re-writes) she took over. The result was one of the most successful films of the decade.

Now, five years on, the dream team is here again with You Got M@il. Cynical? Perhaps, but romantic comedies in which two people ostensibly hate one other but ultimately fall in love are central to the Hollywood tradition, and no one ever raised eyebrows about Fred and Ginger. Although Ephron denies You Got M@il is in any sense a sequel, serious cineastes will experience a sense of deja vu, based as it is on the 1940 Ernst Lubitch comedy, The Shop Around the Corner, starring James Stewart and Margaret Sullivan, itself remade in 1949 as a Judy Garland vehicle In the Good Old Summertime. The story remains much the same, two people who know - and don't like - each other become pen pals - or in the Judy Garland version, are paired through a dating agency. Lubitch's Budapest department store became Garland's Chicago music shop. In You Got M@il Hanks is the Goliath of the New York book trade with Ryan as David, struggling to keep a neighbourhood children's bookshop going. And how do they communicate? Why email of course.

EPHRON is no stranger to affairs of the heart, the agony and the ecstasy. She has been married three times, most famously to Carl Bernstein, the Washington Post journalist who blew Nixon away with Watergate. Equally famously, perhaps, he had an affair with the then British ambassador's wife, Margaret Jay, now Baroness Jay, leader of the House of Lords. Ephron - still in her wild and wacky columnist days - wrote a very funny book about it, Heartburn, subsequently turned into a somewhat less funny film starring Meryl Streep and directed by Mike Nichols, both of whom she had worked with on Silkwood.

"Whatever I know about directing comes from having watched carefully when I was working with Mike Nichols, who was a brilliant director with actors, 100 times better than I am. I was so lucky because Mike let me watch casting, and if you don't get a chance to do that as a screenwriter then you really don't have a clue of how actors save your life every day on a movie. There are actors who would come in and they would read for a part and I would sit there thinking, `do we re-write this entire scene? It's appalling, this is wrong.' And then the right actor comes in and does it and it's funny and it's good and so I learned how amazing they are.

"I watched Meryl Streep do two movies and she's amazing. She's like a flower - you give her a drop of water she blossoms. She loves notes, she loves to honour the script. Every so often actors will come in with ideas for the script that are not so much ideas for the script as ideas on how to have a few more lines in the scene. She would always say, let's start with the script, because she's a stage actress basically."

Working with Rob Reiner on When Harry Met Sally was a quite different experience and taught her that there is no one way to work as a director. "He came up through television where you change everything and anyone with a joke can come in, and if it works it works and that's a great way to work too. And when you're working in comedy the last thing you want is to have that kind of wall up, where `this is it and it's written in stone and no one can change it'. It would be horrible to work that way on a movie, but a lot of directors do it, and they make much better movies than I do." Most directors, she says, don't have the chance she had, as a screenwriter, to watch other directors work. "Mike says the thing about being a director for him is that he's never seen anyone else do it. He says it's like making love, you want to say, `is this how everyone else does it?' "

Ephron credits the success of both Sleepless in Seattle and You Got M@il squarely to her two stars, "two great comedy actors". And perhaps not unreasonably. The intervening Mixed Nuts, again co-written with sister Delia and starring Steve Martin, was a disaster. Both Hanks and Ryan, she says, are "pretty remarkable. Journalists are always saying `why do you always do romantic comedy?' But I loved comedy. And those of us who work there are on a high wire. Tragedy is easy, comedy is hard."

You Got M@il opens on Friday