Nora Ephron once said that her mother wanted her to “understand that the tragedies of your life one day have the potential to be the comic stories the next”. It was a maxim the writer lived by right up her death on Tuesday. In her last book, I Remember Nothing, she made long lists of the things she would and would not miss when she was no longer in this world.
Acutely aware that leukaemia was likely to overcome her, this could have been a maudlin, introspective affair. True, there are fluffy references to her kids, waffles and Paris in the “What I Will Miss” column. But she also reveals she could do without “bad dinners like the one we went to last night,” “dry skin” and “panels on Women In Film”. Like her previous best-selling collection of essays, I Feel Bad About My Neck, such mordant, caustic wit revealed a writer at turns brilliantly self-aware, but with an innate sense of the ridiculousness of life and love.
Most people, of course, will know Ephron for the two rom-coms that earned her Oscar nominations: When Harry Met Sally and Sleepless in Seattle. Yet these were not fluffy, throwaway movies. Ephron made her female characters sharp, smart and eye-poppingly realistic. “I try to write parts for women that are as complicated and interesting as women actually are,” she once said.
There was a reason those films seemed so delightfully honest and sparklingly true; Ephron had been writing and laughing about these kinds of people in newspapers and magazines for years. It’s telling that her first job offer at the New York Post didn’t come via the usual channels. She was spotted writing a parody of the newspaper in 1962, and the publisher liked it so much, Ephron was hired.
There were interviews with celebrities. There were satirical reports of society weddings where other women would write “about how many raisins were in the fruitcake ... I was the only one who would write it as this hilarious cultural event,” she said later. And by the late 1960s she’d become one of the pioneers of the so-called “new journalism”. Much of it was in, of, or about New York and, for many, she remains the professional New Yorker. As David Kamp said in Vanity Fair this week: “If you want to take a smart, funny, brisk, real-time plunge into what the city was like in the ’60s and ’70s, you can do no better than Wallflower at the Orgy (1970) and Crazy Salad (1975), her two collections of the stuff she wrote in those trip-wire years for New York and Esquire.”
No wonder, then, that New York mayor Michael Bloomberg’s eulogy on Twitter remarked that “Nora Ephron always loved a good New York story and she could tell them like no one else. NYC will miss her very much”.
But to characterise Ephron as merely a Woody Allen-esque Manhattanite does her a severe disservice. For starters, she grew up in Los Angeles. And there was something brilliantly universal in both her targets – she was legendarily cutting when authority tripped over into pretentiousness – and her preoccupations. Ephron often cited one 1972 piece for Esquire, “A Few Words About Breasts”, as being a turning point in her career. “I knew when I finished writing that piece that either it was going to be a huge success or be judged as a kind of ‘who needs to know any of this?’ kind of thing,” she told American magazine The Believer earlier this year.
It was the former.
Even the most prudish can’t fail to be amused and touched by this quite brilliant excoriation of the trials and tribulations of growing up flat-chested. Reading that piece again today (Esquire reposted it online this week) Ephron’s future career as a successful screenwriter seems obvious. Not only could she skewer real life in a single sentence, but she also had a brilliant ear for dialogue.
Perhaps it helped that she had parents who were successful screenwriters themselves – one of the epithets that has pockmarked nearly every Ephron obituary this week is another word of advice from her mother: “Take notes. Everything is copy.” But she was clear about how hard she had to work to be a success as a female writer in a man’s world. After all, though her first big break in film was working on the screenplay for her then-husband Carl Bernstein’s book All The President’s Men, the script was discarded. It was only the Oscar-nominated work for Mike Nichols’ Silkwood in 1983 which kick-started her movie career.
“I couldn’t find anything that grabbed me and I hadn’t made a movie in seven years,” said Nichols at the time. “And then she came along with Silkwood.”
Meanwhile, Ephron’s razor-sharp, acidic 1983 break-up novel Heartburn, was a best-seller, though many saw it as a thinly disguised reflection on the end of her marriage to Bernstein (including Bernstein himself, who threatened to sue). But it sums up Ephron’s attitude that she refused to see it in those terms. In a new introduction to the book years later, she responded that only female writers ever get accused of writing thinly disguised novels. “Philip Roth and John Updike picked away at the carcasses of their early marriages in book after book but … they were never hit with the ‘thinly disguised’ thing.”
“One of the things I’m proudest of is that I managed to convert an event that seemed to me hideously tragic at the time to a comedy – and if that’s not fiction, I don’t know what is,” she said years later.
When Heartburn was made into a film starring Meryl Streep and Jack Nicholson – with Ephron writing the screenplay – her first major cinematic hit arrived. But it was her next screenplay that cemented her place in Hollywood. When Harry Met Sally, from 1989, is in many ways the perfect Ephron storm: it’s set in New York, the famous scene between Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan reveals unspoken secrets about femininity, and the amusingly honest pretence of the movie deals with the inability of men and women to have platonic relationships. But its killer line, like so much of Ephron’s best work, reveals a refreshing belief in humanity. “I came here tonight,” says Crystal, “because when you realise you want to spend the rest of your life with somebody, you want the rest of your life to start as soon as possible.”
It’s perhaps telling that Harry became Crystal’s defining film role, and that he noted this week, amid the sadness, that “being her Harry to Meg’s Sally will always have a special place in my heart. I was very lucky to get to say her words”.
When Harry Met Sally gave Ephron confidence to direct her own screenplays: the hugely successful Sleepless In Seattle (1993) teamed Meg Ryan with Tom Hanks to fairly slushy effect, but was littered with great lines such as “You don’t want to be in love. You want to be in love in a movie.” The trio reunited for You’ve Got Mail, a huge box-office success.
Naturally, Ephron also had her fair share of duds, too – most notably 1996’s angel road movie Michael and the update of the family sitcom Bewitched (2005) starring Will Ferrell and Nicole Kidman. But it was classic Ephron to find humour in such professional disasters, and it all came out in “Flops: I’ve Had A Few”, included in the I Remember Nothing collection.
“I now know that when you shoot a movie where the crew is absolutely hysterical with laughter and you are -repeatedly told by the sound guy that you are making the funniest movie in history, you may be in trouble,” she wrote. “Failure, they say, is a growth experience; you learn from failure. I wish that were true. It seems to me the main thing you learn from a failure is that it’s entirely possible you will have another failure.”
Happily, her last film was a success, Julie and Julia from 2009 garnering Meryl Streep the Oscar nomination for her depiction of chef Julia Child – although some sniped that the softer focus of Ephron’s film career cost her some credibility. “She remained dependably entertaining, but the sharp edges were not so cutting any more,” remarked Janet Maslin in this week’s The New York Times.
But, the other oft-quoted Ephronism this week has been “be the heroine of your life, not the victim”. And in taking control of her wildly varied existence – and writing about it so perceptively, passionately and most of all humorously – she certainly practised what she preached.
Crazy Salad: Some Things About Women (non-fiction, 1975)
Her second collection of essays and articles not only discusses feminism in a witty, irreverent, almost cheeky, way but makes sense for men, too. Contains her most famous essay “A Few Words About Breasts”.
Heartburn (novel, 1983)
The somehow hilarious story of a mother, seven months pregnant with her second child, who discovers that her reporter husband is cheating on her with her friend. Which, incidentally, is exactly what happened to Ephron. Made into a film in 1986.
When Harry Met Sally (film, 1989)
Ephron wrote and produced this wonderful story of two friends, Harry and Sally, and their series of chance encounters over 12 years in New York. Can they stay ‘just good friends’? Nominated for the Oscar in Best Original Screenplay category.
You’ve Got Mail (film, 1998)
Directed and written by Ephron, and starring Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan, this is a lovely update of a Hungarian play in which two e-mailing paramours in New York are unaware that their lives cross over in none-too-pleasing ways. A massive box-office success.
I Feel Bad About My Neck (non-fiction, 2007)
Her penultimate collection of essays was her first in 23 years and revealed her journalism had been missed – even though she was, by this point, blogging. Full of typically acerbic observations about ageing.