Why Heartburn Is Nora Ephron’s Best Movie

smallname Nora Ephron and you’ll imagine the romance of autumn in New York, the glamor of Meg Ryan and the feeling that true love is just around the corner. With the holy trinity of films written by Efron—1989 When Harry met Sally, of 1993 Sleepless in Seattleand of 1998 You have an email message (the latter two of which he also directed)—redefined the rom-com for a new generation. Her most famous films focus on intelligent, sophisticated yet vulnerable women in pursuit of love. But while Efron’s name may be synonymous with romance, her best film is one that makes a compelling case for a breakup.

Heartburn, the darkly complex 1986 comedy about the breakdown of a marriage, written by Efron and directed by Mike Nichols, could reasonably be called the black sheep of the Efron canon. The film is based on Ephron’s wonderfully unflinching romance of the same name — a book that turns 40 this month — written in the wake of her divorce from her second husband, Watergate reporter Carl Bernstein. Bernstein famously cheated on Ephron while she was pregnant with their second child. Both the book and the film focus on Rachel Shumstat, a pregnant food writer who, like Efron, discovers that her political journalist husband Mark is having an affair.

Efron died in 2012. Of all the movies she wrote or directed, Heartburn it is the most overtly personal. And of all the heroines he’s created, Rachel comes closest to who Efron was in real life: intellectual but prickly, using her sharp wit as a defense against her deepest insecurities. Heartburn is the film that best embodies the maxim coined by her mother, the playwright Phoebe Ephron, that has largely defined Ephron’s work: “Everything is a copy.” The film is also the most convincing example of how this ethos, inextricably linked to Ephron’s legacy, was a double-edged sword when it came to her public perception.

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While Efron is now credited with creating the blueprint for a generation of writers who draw on personal experiences to create art, her decision to draw inspiration from the messy nuances of her own life was heavily criticized in the early years of her career. She was described as an “effective self-promoter” in a New York Times review of Heartburn the book, while author Leon Wieseltier, under the pseudonym Tristan Vox in Vanity fairhit the then probability a Heartburn film as “child abuse,” going so far as to argue that Bernstein’s betrayal was far less damaging than Ephron revealing the details of her story. As Vox, Wieseltier likened the potential creation of a film adaptation to “a mother’s infidelity to her children.” The film adaptation even played a key role in the divorce settlement, which included stipulations that Bernstein be allowed to meet with Nichols and see an early cut and that a share of the film’s profits be placed in a trust for the children their. After their divorce was finalized, Bernstein disparaged Ephron and them Heartburn script, claiming that it “continues the tasteless exploitation and public circus that Nora made of our lives.”

While Heartburn the novel was ultimately a best-selling success, Heartburn the film—despite starring a brilliant Meryl Streep and an always awful Jack Nicholson—was released. It has an audience rating of 46% on Rotten Tomatoes. Critics, especially men, found it shallow and mean-spirited. In his review of Chicago Sun-Timesnamed Robert Ebert Heartburn a “bitter, sour movie about two people who have only marginal interests,” going so far as to write that Efron had “too much anger” and suggesting that she should have “based her story on someone else’s wedding.”

The wedding of Nora Ephron (left) and Carl Bernstein, pictured with another guest at a New York event in 1977, was the subject of gossip and media scrutiny.

Collection Ron Galella/Getty Images

Perhaps the sentiment surrounding it should come as no surprise Heartburn it’s a far cry from the comfortable, diffuse excitement that Efron’s films would later inspire—the film is a study of harsh truths packaged in a medium often used for escapism. But the very things that discourage viewers Heartburn—the furious and stark depiction of a failed marriage, the shameless fixation on the humiliation of betrayal, the agony of seeing a pregnant woman scorned and the reluctance to offer a romantic reconciliation—are what make this Efron’s best work.

Heartburn it won’t pull you in for a warm hug, but it’s a film to turn to when you need a heartwarming dose of honesty, a look at the ugly side of love that we don’t always talk about but know intimately. It gives us a relatable take on modern love—and an honest look at Ephron, a cultural tour de force, at her truest, funniest, and most heartbreakingly vulnerable.

While most romance movies focus on the process of falling in love, culminating in a grand finale as the couple decides to be together, Heartburn is a meditation on what happens after the credits roll. It seems beyond the struggle of finding someone to be with the bigger challenge is staying in love. The film opens with a cute wedding encounter that ends with Rachel and Mark tucking into a bowl of spaghetti carbonara after intercourse, Mark grandly telling Rachel that when they get married, he wants her to make the dish every week. Soon, they tie the knot, but discover that married life isn’t all cakewalks and kisses—it’s hard work and painstaking home renovations, takeout pizza and crying kids, realized suspicions, lost trust, and ultimately, broken vows. Streep’s portrayal of Rachel is equal parts witty and disarmingly pathetic. In a scene at the couple’s country house, she candidly confides in her friends about her joy as a new mother. But it’s interrupted when Mark savagely rips a drum from the roast chicken he’s prepared for the group before the meal begins. His reckless faux pas ignites a heated argument between the spouses, destroying their canvases of domestic bliss. In Heartburn, we get the rare opportunity to see a romantic relationship that is finite, flawed, and very, very real.

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That element of authenticity looms large in his heritage Heartburn-It’s the real plot of the film and the reason Efron’s work has endured. While her rom-coms with adorable heroines and happy endings made her a genre-defining voice, Heartburn is the movie that captures the real reason we love Efron—and the true value of the saying “everything’s a copy.” Her steadfast willingness to mine some of the most painful and humbling moments of her life, even when naysayers accused her approach of being bitter and selfish, and her ability to weave those moments into a story that makes us laugh and let’s cry at the same time, he dared. More than that, it was groundbreaking, setting an example that would influence generations. “Above all, whatever you do, be the heroine of your own life,” Efron once said. “Not the victim.”

There is a scene inside Heartburn when Rachel discovers that Mark has continued his affair. After giving a tongue-in-cheek speech about the end of love at a dinner party – “You can either stick with it, which is unbearable, or you can run away and dream another dream” – she throws a key lime pie in his face with perfect aim , then coolly asks for the car keys and walks out of the room without looking back. The emotion we feel watching Rachel stand up for herself is an emotion we also feel for Efron, who refused to be crushed by Bernstein’s infidelity. True to her advice, Efron was no victim. But she was more than a heroine: she was the one who told the story.

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I am writing to Cady Lang at cady.lang@timemagazine.com.

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