Nora Ephron's most underrated movie scene involves key lime pie and impeccable hand-eye coordination.

By Mia Galuppo
Updated May 13, 2020 @ 1:00 pm
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Credit: Paramount/Alamy

Welcome to Still Not Over It InStyle's weekly pop culture column about those moments in TV and movie history that we're ... still not over.

Since the pandemic started, it seems as though we (as in, the human race) have burned through enough plot to fuel an HBO miniseries.

As the real world becomes increasingly chaotic, I’ve gravitated towards increasingly passive entertainment. Big cat enthusiasts in embossed leather vests plot to murder each other? Nah, man. YouTube videos of amateur botanists walking through the Mojave in search of some rare chaparral? Sign me the hell up.

It was within this head space that I began to stream Nora Ephron's Heartburn on a Saturday — or maybe a Sunday, or possibly a Wednesday, who’s to say — evening. Whether it’s on top of the Empire State Building or over AOL, getting people together is Ephron’s signature. But Heartburn, released in 1986, is instead about a slow breakup. Compared to its romance-focused peers, it is deferential to the beats of real relationships, likely because it is a fictionalized account of Ephron’s second marriage to reporter Carl Bernstein (yes, that Bernstein), which ended in 1980. I considered it a safe bet for the new parameters of my quarantine content.

The movie centers on Rachel (Meryl Streep in a variety of loose knits), a divorcée food columnist that marries perennial bachelor and Washington beat reporter, Mark (Jack Nicholson in a range of loud button-ups), and moves from New York to the country’s capital, where they start a family and Mark begins an affair. The climax comes at a dinner party, when Rachel realizes that Mark has continued the extra-marital affair that he swore to end. After an impeccably delivered monologue on the ignorance we often choose in relationships, Rachel takes a key lime pie she had made for the evening and smashes it into her soon-to-be ex-husband’s face.

A pie to the face was once a slapstick staple, though in the years since Larry, Moe, and Curly, it's been relegated to the domain of charity events and children's TV shows. But it's always played for laughs. That is, except in this case. In my mind, it would take such a large amount of raw rage to overshadow the silliness of smashing a literal pie in someone’s face. It’s a testament to everyone involved in the production and the convergence of Ephron’s writing, Mike Nichols’s directing, and Streep’s performance (and hand-eye coordination) that the pie scene — ahem — hits the way that it does. It doesn’t fall flat, because it’s not weighed down by unnecessary sarcasm or deflated with wink to the audience. It’s a master class in buying in. Delivered with gusto and unabashed earnestness, it always sat with me as something that was pretty punk rock. Rachel was like if Joan Jett wore Eileen Fisher.

My first viewing of Heartburn came when I was a teenager, an admittedly odd choice for a 13-year-old. However, during subsequent watches, as I’ve inched closer to the age of the 30-something characters, I find myself sympathizing more and more with everyone on screen, identifying with the delusion unique to home improvement work and the joys of post-sex carbs. But every time, without fail, as Rachel starts to pile freshly whipped cream onto that custard, I sit up a little straighter, knowing what will come next.

And on day twenty-eight of self-isolation, as I watched Rachel walk out the front door and into her new life from my couch (a.k.a. my office a.k.a. my kitchen table), I had a new thought about the pie: “That could have been dessert for a week.” More realistically, it would be dessert for at least three days, including one breakfast session. As sourdough starter feedings have become a substitute measurement of time, and much of my entertainment and sense of control is happening in the kitchen, I understand my response. My viewing of anything, even something as low stakes as a movie that I had seen so many times, is going to be inextricably linked to the current state of the world.

Still, in a time when it feels like there is no room left for feelings of surprise or shock, it came as a small personal reassurance that seeing that pie smashed into Jack Nicholson’s face still brought out a visceral reaction. Even if it’s not the one I am used to.