Farewell Nora Ephron

“Like most of my contemporaries, I first read The Fountainhead when I was 18 years old. I loved it. I too missed the point. I thought it was a book about a strong-willed architect…and his love life….I deliberately skipped over all the passages about egoism and altruism. And I spent the next year hoping I would meet a gaunt, orange-haired architect who would rape me. Or failing that, an architect who would rape me. Or failing that, an architect. I am certain thatThe Fountainhead did a great deal more for architects than Architectural Forum ever dreamed.” –Nora Ephron, The New York Times Book Review (1968)

Although rarely discussed in “polite” film company, there are actually some very brilliant Romantic Comedies. Like people who know little about wine and profess to “only drink red” it’s the genre most po-pohed as of little cinematic value.

And yet, of the list of films that I wish I’d written, two are Romantic Comedies. One is the very brilliant When Harry Met Sally, written by the very witty, very brilliant Nora Ephron. Of course she didn’t just write romantic comedies, she also wrote Heartburn (autobiographically after her own failed marriage) the film and the book and she wrote Silkwood, Julie and Julia, Sleepless in Seattle, You’ve got Mail (another very interesting very underrated script) Mixed Nuts and Hanging Up.  (the other rom-com I wish I’d written is Down With Love, written by Eve Ahlert and Dennis Drake)

On June 26, 2012, at the age of 71 , Ephron died from pneumonia, a complication resulting from acute myeloid leukemia, a condition with which she was diagnosed in 2006. In her most recent book, I Remember Nothing (2010), Ephron left clues that something was wrong or that she was sick. There was widespread reaction to her passing with celebrities such as Meryl Streep, Billy Crystal, Meg Ryan, Tom Hanks, Albert Brooks and Ron Howard commenting on her brilliance, warmth and “wit”.

When HArry Met Sally – as popular as it is – is still an underrated film.  It is not cushioned in a time when women had large roles on the screen, nor is surrounded by other rom-com’s. It was the virtual birth of the romantic comedy, and like all other films that launched a genre was far superior to those that followed it. The trick to this film is the writing. Yes it warmly directed by Rob Reiner and yes Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan are perfect in their roles, but the casual wit of Ephrons words and their comedic timing are what makes this film the best of its kind.

After Ephron graduated, she worked briefly as an intern in the White House of President John F. Kennedy, and then moved to New York and became a “mail girl” at Newsweek. She held that position for a year.

When New York City’s newspapers suspended publication during a strike by the International Typographical Union, Ephron and some of her friends, including the young Calvin Trillin, put out their own satirical newspaper. Ephron’s parodies of New York Post columnists caught the eye of the Post‘s publisher, Dorothy Schiff. When the strike was over, Schiff hired Ephron as a reporter. The 1960s were a lively time for journalism in New York and Dorothy Schiff’s Post, at that time a liberal-leaning afternoon tabloid, offered Ephron a free hand to explore her favorite city from top to bottom. In 1966, she broke the news in the Post that Bob Dylan had married Sara Lownds in a private ceremony three-and-a-half months earlier. While working at the Post, Ephron also began writing occasional essays for publications such as New York magazine, Esquire and The New York Times Magazine. Her work as a reporter won acclaim as part of the “New Journalism” movement of the 1960s, in which the author’s personal voice became part of the story. Her humorous 1972 essay, “A Few Words About Breasts,” made her name as an essayist. As a regular columnist for Esquire, and she became one of America’s best-known humorists. Her essays, often focusing on sex, food and New York City, were collected in a series of best-selling volumes, Wallflower at the OrgyCrazy Salad, and Scribble Scribble.

In this position, Ephron made a name for herself by taking on subjects as wide-ranging as Dorothy Schiff, her former boss and owner of the Post; Betty Friedan, whom she chastised for pursuing a feud with Gloria Steinem; and her alma mater Wellesley, which she said had turned out a generation of “docile” women.” A 1968 send-up of Women’s Wear Daily inCosmopolitan resulted in threats of a lawsuit from WWD.

While married to Bernstein in the mid-1970s, at her husband and Bob Woodward’s request she helped Bernstein re-write William Goldman’s script for All the President’s Men, because the two journalists were not happy with it. The Ephron-Bernstein script was not used in the end, but was seen by someone who offered Ephron her first screenwriting job, for a television movie.

Ephron enjoyed her greatest writing success with When Harry Met Sally (1989), a romantic comedy directed by Rob Reiner, starring Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan. The film struck an instant chord with audiences and became an international hit. Ephron had seen her parents’ writing careers falter in the 1950s, as they both fell prey to alcohol and the fickle fashions of Hollywood. Ephron contemplated a transition to directing, in part to protect her own writing career in an industry still largely inhospitable to films by or about women. Unfortunately, This Is My Life (1992), her directing debut, about the struggles of a single mother working as a stand-up comic, was a box office disappointment. Ephron knew her future as a director would stand or fall with her next assignment.

Sleepless in Seattle (1993) was co-written by Nora Ephron and her younger sister, Delia. Director Nora cast Harry and Sally star Meg Ryan, teaming her with Tom Hanks. The resulting film was an enormous success, and Ephron was now established as Hollywood’s foremost creator of romantic comedies. A follow-up film, Mixed Nuts (1994), was a commercial disappointment, but Michael (1996), starring John Travolta as an angel, enjoyed solid success at the box office. In You’ve Got Mail (1998), Ephron re-united Sleepless stars Hanks and Ryan in a contemporary variation on the classic comedy, The Shop Around the Corner (1940). Ephron’s film also serves as a love letter to her beloved Upper West Side. With You’ve Got Mail, the team of Ephron, Ryan and Hanks scored another huge success.

In the following years, Ephron pursued a wide variety of projects. She made an unexpected foray into writing for the stage with her 2002 play Imaginary Friends, based on the turbulent rivalry of authors Lillian Hellman and Mary McCarthy. She coauthored the play Love, Loss, and What I Wore (based on the book by Ilene Beckerman) with her sister, Delia and it has played to sold out audiences in Canada, New York City, and The Geffen Playhouse in California. She took another unusual tack with an offbeat big-screen adaptation of the 1960s television series Bewitched, starring Nicole Kidman and Will Ferrell. Her 2006 collection of essays, I Feel Bad About My Neck: And Other Reflections on Being a Woman, immediately shot to number one on the New York Times best-seller list.

In her film Julie & Julia (2009), she returned to a favorite subject — food — by telling the parallel stories of prominent food writer Julia Child and a contemporary Manhattan woman who sets out to cook her way through every recipe in Childs’s classic Mastering the Art of French Cooking. The film starred Ephron’s friend and previous collaborator, Meryl Streep, as Julia Child. In addition to her books, plays and movies, Ephron wrote a regular blog for the online news site The Huffington Post. Her 2010 collection of essays, I Remember Nothing, takes a humorous look at the aging process and other topics.

In 1994, she was awarded the Women in Film Crystal Award.

I am very sad I won’t be seeing any more films written by her.