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It is fitting that Nora Ephron’s cinematic career ended with the 2009 film Julie & Julia. The feature was a merging of two approaches to life. One was that of a revolutionary in changing times – a commanding woman who refused to bow to gendered restrictions, a force who reinvented herself for the world at hand. She was a copywriter, a typist, a secretary, a chef, a writer, and an icon – a force of power and delight. The other life was the romantic – the frazzled manic pixie upset with life and love. She was the dreamer deeply unsatisfied with her place in the world and struggling to make a name for herself – the woman who would emotionally melt at the sight of a foiled soufflé. Julie and Julia were, essentially, two sides to Nora Ephron.
We remember her today as the harbinger of rom-coms. She is the writer/director who made Meg Ryan’s career, who crafted the way cinema would look at modern romance. She’s the woman who made us all fall in love with When Harry Met Sally before offering up the sea of diminishing returns, from the straight-out romance of Sleepless in Seattle, to the cookie cutter follow-up You’ve Got Mail, to the utter disappointments of Hanging Up and Bewitched. Before the effusive praise was heaped upon her in her death, thoughts of Nora Ephron were steeped in romantic discontent. But reducing her to such narrow limitations is tantamount to discussing the manic fervor of Julie without ever mentioning the magic of Julia.
Like Ms. Child, Ephron was a woman of many lives, thoughts, and professional hats. Born to a pair of screenwriters, words were her passion and she morphed them in every way she could – as a journalist, an author, a satirist, a screenwriter, and ultimately, the director who would make the words come to moving life. She entered the workforce during the polarizing ‘60s and found herself face to face with a myriad of notable historic people and events. She met J.F.K. (who she briefly interned for) and Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, Eleanor Roosevelt, Dorothy Parker, Groucho Marx, and Jimmy Stewart. She saw The Beatles appear on The Ed Sullivan Show, was (partially) present during the 1967 march on Washington, watched Billie Jean King battle Bobby Riggs, broke the news of Bob Dylan’s marriage to Sara Lownds, stood in front of the White House when Nixon resigned, was a war correspondent in Israel, and was once married to the Carl Bernstein at the heart of the Watergate scandal.
“Ephron made her name as someone who could deflate pretensions with the kind of assurance that made it hard to imagine how her targets could ever have been taken seriously. She did it in 1975 to Dorothy Schiff, then owner of the New York Post and her former boss, who she called ‘silly,’ ‘frothy’ and the proprietor of a ‘terrible newspaper.’ She did it at the height of the women's movement, when she called Betty Friedan ‘thoroughly irrational’ for pursuing a vendetta against Gloria Steinem. She even managed, in 1968, to excite a threat of legal action out of Women's Wear Daily, for sending it up across the pages of Cosmopolitan.” (The Guardian, 2007)
Ephron was an intelligent, outspoken, and driven woman – a rare female voice in a sea of men. After marrying Bernstein, and helping him on a treatment for All the President’s Men, Nora Ephron settled (mostly) into a new career – screenwriter. Working with Bernstein scored the journalist her first gig in Hollywood scribing a television movie. By 1983, her first script hit theaters – the Meryl Streep-starring Silkwood. It was a natural progression for Ephron – a forthright woman relaying the life of an outspoken, star-crossed heroine. Streep was so natural, so at home in Ephron’s words that it was no surprise to see her next become the fictional version of Ephron herself in Heartburn – the writer’s revealing, yet fictionalized, look at the implosion of her marriage to Bernstein. As Streep has since described, which could be said of the actress herself, “Nora was a person whose gifts of mind, amply displayed as a young person in her sharply observed journalistic pieces and in her personal wit, were, when I first met her, kind of scary: aimed and airy at the same time, an insouciant sharpness that could be intimidating, because you could never catch her ‘trying,’ everything seemed effortless.”
Ephron’s early characters were relatable and strong, flowing perfectly to her most memorable and long-lasting film, When Harry Met Sally. With Rob Reiner, the screenwriter managed to catch a spark between Harry and Sally that she was never able to replicate for a very simple reason: this wasn’t a meet-cute story of two people obviously getting together through some highly fictional and suffocatingly romantic way appealing only to the most romantic at heart. This wasn’t a romance twisting the towels of sap, but a film about life and discovery. Sally was the cinematic daughter of Ephron’s feminist roots. It was the story of two lives – which may or may not romantically intersect – more than it was the story of a man and woman destined to be together. Their romantic union isn’t because the film was a rom-com that deemed it so, but rather because both parties seem to come to the realization on their own fictionalized terms.
This isn’t the “true love” of two people who have never met and know absolutely nothing about each other (Sleepless in Seattle), or two people who hate each other in real life, yet are falling for each other online (You’ve Got Mail). There was no uber-romantic ideal positioned as real life; merely two people learning who they are and who they want in life.
It was also a film germinating in two people, based on a question rather than an inevitable destination. As director Rob Reiner recently wrote:
“I think the reason why When Harry Met Sally works is that there’s a lot of Nora in Sally. It was an idea I had based on the fact that I had been single for 10 years and making a mess of my single life, and started thinking about how men dated and whether sex gets in the way of a friendship. … We started the process on When Harry Met Sally by her interviewing me and my partner and friend Andy Scheinman, and just finding out what men think about and what goes on inside our heads. She interviewed us like a journalist, got all these thoughts down, and that became the basis for Harry, and she became the basis for Sally.”
As Erik aptly wrote in his recent tribute: “Ephron had this uncanny ability of fishing out the realities of our lives and presenting them back to us in relatable, entertaining ways.” She thrived when she wrote about life in all its many forms. She thrived when wrote not about romance, but about relationships. There was a beautiful depth and feeling of exploration in her early work – how she unraveled the life of Karen Silkwood; how she revealed her own inner pain and resolve in Heartburn; and how she let Harry and Sally find themselves naturally. It was a magic she missed afterwards, as romance became not about the connection between two people, but about the end result – the fantastical fairy tale. Romance began to be framed as two people falling into perfectly timed and situated, practically otherworldly, scenarios. It fed not the joy of finding real love, but the craving of instant, unattainable perfection.
Many fell for Tom Hanks’ Sam revealing his inner pain to the world-at-large on the radio, to him being immediately attracted to Meg Ryan’s romantic stalker, who flies to his airport, investigates his home, and watches him from across the street. But that magic is nothing compared to the moment when Jack Nicholson learns he’s about to be a father in Heartburn, before the marriage began to fall apart. There is a beautiful, realistic bliss to the scene as he eats pizza and sings with his mouth full, so full of joy that in the middle of the night he continues the serenade, even after being muffled in the bed.
It’s difficult to reconcile Ephron’s cinematic beginnings with much of her cinematic end – they are two utterly different approaches to life. It’s also difficult to reconcile much of her Hollywood output with the writing she continued as both an author and journalist. This isn’t the story of a fierce, independent woman who simply mellowed as she matured, who became increasingly enamored with the fairy tale aesthetic. The spark of Ephron’s early film work continued to live on off-screen. Yes, the person who co-wrote and directed Bewitched is the woman who wrote “The Girl Who Fixed the Umlaut,” who asked “Why Won’t Playboy Die?”
Creativity and its motivations aside, Nora Ephron indelibly impacted this creative community. She’s the female writer/director/producer who made women’s stories a success, who helped form the future of a genre (for better or worse), and most importantly: Nora Ephron is one of the few trailblazers who proved the financial potential of female filmmaking long before women like Lena Dunham, Kristen Wiig, and Catherine Hardwicke.
Ephron offers the proof of lasting success, the value in female-centric fare, and maybe most importantly, the reminder that a woman is the sum of all her parts, and not just the flops. Her box office might have fallen in recent years, but then she merged her past with her present in Julie & Julia, once again gaining box office success, and earning the attention of the Academy and the Golden Globes.
As she once wrote: “My religion is Get Over It.” It’s a motto that made much of her work a breath of fresh, smart air.
She is missed as a keen, witty mind whose words impacted half a century in newspapers, magazines, books, life, and of course, film.