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EPHRON, SYMBOLIST

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Yes, Sleepless in Seattle, the successful, highly unlikely comedy about a Seattle widower (Tom Hanks) and a Baltimore journalist (Meg Ryan) yanked together by fate, is a love story. But it’s not a movie about love, says cowriter-director Nora Ephron: ”It’s a movie about love in the movies, and how that screws up our expectations about love in our own lives.” In Ephron’s view, audiences in the in-your-face ’90s crave inspirational unreality, just as Sleepless’ unfulfilled heroine, Annie, and her friends yearn for the idealized romance of the 1957 tearjerker An Affair to Remember. So Ephron, who also wrote When Harry Met Sally…, directed 1992’s This Is My Life, and is married to writer Nick Pileggi, set out to make a modern-day romantic-comedy classic. ”The word I kept yelling at everyone during rehearsals was ‘timeless.”’ To capture that circa-anytime feel, Ephron adhered to the following regulations: * Rule No. 1: No sex. Abstinence is simultaneously old-fashioned and timely. Indeed, there is nary a smooch between Sleepless’ lovestruck leads. ”I have a theory that the romantic comedy was killed by sex,” she says. ”Romantic comedies flourished in a period when you couldn’t put sex in a movie. The way people flirted was by going, ‘Blah blah blah’ to one another. Suddenly when you could have sex it wasn’t necessary to talk anymore.” * Rule No. 2: No product placement. ”I wanted this to be a movie that, when you look at it, you would not know quite when it was made. So that means there are a huge number of things that people can’t wear and can’t have in their homes. Plastic was banned from the set.” Annie wears unhip knee-grazing skirts and eats in an unrenovated kitchen. * Rule No. 3: Balance every ’90s reference with an allusion to vintage Hollywood films. Ephron offsets her characters’ mentions of Fatal Attraction, Susan Faludi’s best-seller Backlash, and AT&T phone commercials with a soundtrack featuring Louis Armstrong and Jimmy Durante and a climactic scene set atop the Art Deco-age Empire State Building. Classy maybe, but classic? We’ll know as time goes by.

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