Ephron balked at Pennsylvania, so . . . Baltimore! Long-distance love has 'em 'Sleepless'

June 25, 1993|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Film Critic

With one magic eyebrow cocked in a posture of utterly civilized disbelief, Nora Ephron says, "Lancaster. Lancaster, Pennsylvania?"

It's somewhat like Dorothy Parker, with the same facial expression, saying, "Pig's knuckles?"

But yes, so an early draft of the script of "Sleepless in Seattle" read, a love story about a Seattle architect and a newspaper reporter in . . . Lancaster, Pennsylvania.

"I couldn't write a movie set in a city without a major-league team," Ephron said emphatically, as if she were explaining an immutable law of physics. "And so I said, 'Let's move it to Baltimore,' and the director said yes."

TC It was a propitious decision, for in the mysterious Hollywood process, after Ephron turned in her version of the script, everybody liked it except the director, Nick Castle.

Bye, bye, Nick Castle. He was the one who left the project. (Ironically, the film he moved to, "Dennis the Menace," also opens today).

Then, as she says, "major stars started to sniff around it. One of them was Julia Roberts, and Julia liked me. That somehow validated me as the director, instead of the usual A-list guys. And although she didn't do the film, I did get the job."

She was told, "Now go find the world's best cinematographer," which is how Sven Nykvist, the brilliant collaborator with Ingmar Bergman and Woody Allen, ended up turning Baltimore into shimmering vistas and foggy romantic cityscapes. His visual take on the city paralleled Ephron's intellectual ardor.

"I loved Baltimore," recalled Ephron last week. "Crab cakes. Soft-shelled crabs. It's a wonderful city."

Ephron came to town for a premiere of "Sleepless in Seattle" June 17, though one had the impression the screening was sheer subterfuge: The real reason was the food. "I could have shot this movie forever," she said dreamily. "We had the most wonderful time in Baltimore."

Maybe she says that to all the boys, but maybe not. This is the woman, after all, who forged an original reputation in the '70s as an acerbic essayist who turned a gimlet-eyed view toward all that was going on in crazy America in those times. Her pieces were collected in a famously titled volume, "Wallflower at the Orgy."

Then, also famously, she married hubby No. 2. Carl Bernstein, at the apex of Watergate fame, and when that marriage collapsed, she captured all the pain of how breaking up is hard to do in her novel "Heartburn," which in turn she adapted for the movies, which in turn led to more movie assignments -- "Silkwood," "Cookie," and most successfully, "When Harry Met Sally . . ." until she found herself a rookie director at nearly 50 in last year's "The Story of My Life." So she does have a considerable reputation for probity.

Right now, having Metrolinered down from her home base in New York with her husband (No. 3, reporter and crime writer Nick "Wise Guys" Pileggi), her children and her producer, she's in the full bloom of high pleasantry. A charmer, a beguiler, everyone's immediate Best Friend, she throws herself down in the corner of a bar, orders up a cappuccino and sets out to dish movie. It doesn't hurt a bit that "Sleepless in Seattle" is riding a wave of major buzz, vaunted weeks before its opening as "the sleeper of the summer" on the basis of hysterically favorable sneak previews.

"I love the way the words 'sleeper' and 'Sleepless' are so similar," Ephron says with a smile. "That helps."

Ephron actually came to the project as the fourth writer, hired for a two-week polish to bring a promising script up to speed.

"I thought, 'This'll be fun.' And I needed the money," she said. "But one night, I was lying in bed and suddenly I had this image."

She draws the image on a napkin. It is a pictogram of the continental United States; then, two large arcs inscribe the distance from Seattle to Baltimore. In the film, Seattle architect Tom Hanks, a widowed architect who is tricked into a late night talk radio experience by his 8-year-old son, attracts the passion of Meg Ryan, a Sun feature writer who lives in that enchanted glade called . . . Fells Point. Eventually, after much travail, they get together.

The movie, with apologies to Deborah Kerr and Cary Grant in "An Affair to Remember," is a shameless romantic fantasy.

"When my mother took me to see 'Affair to Remember' in 1957, I just lost it. And afterward my mother [a highly successful Hollywood screenwriter] introduced me to Cary Grant. That was the beginning and the end of my relationship with Cary Grant."

In keeping with the timeless, generic quality of the work, the Ryan character is portrayed as a sort of icon of nearly pure '50s innocence.

"I wanted to keep her a virgin, you know, without being silly about it. I gave Meg a nightgown that came up to here" and she touches her neck, "and Meg said, 'She would wear that to bed?' and I said, 'Do you know who you are? You're the Breck girl.' "

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