In Defense of Nora Ephron’s Unfairly Panned Heartburn Movie

7 minute read

Say the name Nora Ephron and you’ll conjure the romance of autumn in New York City, the charm of Meg Ryan, and the sense that true love is right around the corner. With the holy trinity of Ephron-written films—1989’s When Harry Met Sally, 1993’s Sleepless in Seattle, and 1998’s You’ve Got Mail (the latter two of which she also directed)—she redefined the rom-com for a new generation. Her most celebrated films center clever, sophisticated yet vulnerable women on the hunt for love. But, while Ephron’s name may be synonymous with romance, her best film is the one that makes a convincing case for a breakup.

Heartburn, the darkly complex 1986 comedy about the implosion of a marriage, written by Ephron and directed by Mike Nichols, could reasonably be called the black sheep of the Ephron canon. The movie is based on Ephron’s deliciously acerbic roman a clef of the same name—a book that turns 40 this month—written in the aftermath of her divorce from her second husband, Watergate journalist Carl Bernstein. Bernstein famously cheated on Ephron while she was pregnant with their second child; both the book and the film center on Rachel Samstat, a pregnant food writer who, like Ephron, discovers that her political journalist husband Mark is having an affair.

Ephron died in 2012. Of all the films she wrote or directed, Heartburn is the most overtly personal. And of all the heroines she created, Rachel skews closest to who Ephron was in real life: intellectual but thorny, deploying 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, which largely defined Ephron’s work: “Everything is copy.” The film is also the most cogent example of how this ethos, inescapably tied to Ephron’s legacy, was a double-edged sword when it came to her public perception.

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While Ephron is now credited with creating the blueprint for a generation of writers who draw from personal experiences to create art, her decision to pull inspiration from the messy nuances of her own life was, in the earlier years of her career, heavily criticized. She was labeled an “effective self-publicizer” in a New York Times review of Heartburn the book, while writer Leon Wieseltier, under the pen name Tristan Vox in Vanity Fair, slammed the then-possibility of a Heartburn film as “child abuse,” going so far as to make the case that Bernstein’s betrayal was far less harmful than Ephron laying bare the details of her story. As Vox, Wieseltier equated the potential creation of a film adaptation to “the infidelity of a mother toward her children.” The film adaptation even played a pivotal role in the divorce agreement, which included stipulations that Bernstein be allowed to meet with Nichols and view an early cut, and that a share of the profits from the film be placed in a trust for their children. Following the finalization of their divorce, Bernstein disparaged Ephron and the Heartburn screenplay, claiming that it “continues the tasteless exploitation and public circus Nora has made out of our lives.”

While Heartburn the novel was ultimately a best-selling hit, Heartburn the film—despite starring a brilliant Meryl Streep and an ever-sinister Jack Nicholson—was panned. It has an audience score of 46% on Rotten Tomatoes. Critics, especially male ones, found it shallow and rancorous. In his review for the Chicago Sun-Times, Robert Ebert labeled Heartburn a “bitter, sour movie about two people who are only marginally interesting,” going so far as to write that Ephron had “too much anger” and suggesting that she should have “based her story on somebody else’s marriage.”

Nora Ephron, Carl Bernstein and guest during Amnesty International Benefit, 1977 at Tavern on the Green in New York City.
The marriage of Nora Ephron (left) and Carl Bernstein, pictured with another guest at a 1977 New York City event, was the subject of media gossip and scrutiny.Ron Galella Collection/Getty Images

Perhaps it should come as no surprise that sentiment surrounding Heartburn is far from the cozy, effusive enthusiasm that Ephron’s films would later inspire—the movie is a study in hard truths packaged in a medium that’s often used for escapism. But the very things that turn off viewers of Heartburn—its wry and clear-eyed depiction of a failing marriage, a shameless fixation on the indignity of betrayal, the discomfort of witnessing a pregnant woman be scorned, and an unwillingness to offer a romantic reconciliation—are what make it Ephron’s best work.

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

While most films about romantic relationships 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 typically roll. It looks beyond the struggle of finding someone to be with to the greater challenge of staying in love. The film opens with a wedding meet-cute that ends with Rachel and Mark tucking into a post-coital bowl of spaghetti carbonara, Mark grandly telling Rachel that when they’re married, he wants her to make the dish every week. Soon, they tie the knot, but they discover that married life is not all carbonara and kisses—it’s hard work and arduous home renovations, takeout pizza and crying children, suspicions realized, trust lost, and, eventually, vows broken. Streep’s portrayal of Rachel is equal parts spirited and disarmingly pathetic. In a scene at the couple’s country home, she earnestly confides in her friends about the joy she feels as a new mother. But she’s interrupted when Mark savagely rips a drumstick from the roast chicken she prepared for the group before the meal begins. His thoughtless faux pas sparks a heated argument between husband and wife, shattering their tableaux 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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This element of authenticity looms large in the legacy of Heartburn—it’s the true draw of the film, and the reason Ephron’s work has endured. While her rom-coms with adorable heroines and happy endings made her a genre-defining voice, Heartburn is the film that captures the real reason why we love Ephron—and the real value of the “everything is copy” maxim. Her staunch willingness to mine some of the most painful and humiliating moments of her life, even as naysayers decried her approach as bitter and self-serving, and her ability to weave those moments into a story that makes us laugh and cry at the same time, was daring. 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,” Ephron once famously said. “Not the victim.”

There’s a scene in Heartburn when Rachel discovers that Mark has continued on with his affair. After delivering a wry speech about the end of love at a dinner party—“You can either stick with it, which is unbearable, or you can go off and dream another dream”—she throws a key lime pie in his face with perfect aim, then coolly asks for the car keys and exits the room without looking back. The thrill we feel watching Rachel stand up for herself is a thrill we also feel for Ephron, who refused to be devastated by Bernstein’s infidelity. True to her own advice, Ephron was no victim. But she was also more than a heroine: she was the one telling the story.

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