In Memoriam: Nora Ephron

Once again, I’m left trying to sum up in a few words the legacy a woman with great reach, humor, wisdom and talent has left.

Nora Ephron died this past week after a long battle with leukemia. She was 71, and had become “one of her era’s most successful screenwriters and filmmakers,” according to Charles McGrath, writing in the New York Times. McGrath notes that she was “a journalist, a blogger, an essayist, a novelist, a playwright, an Oscar-nominated screenwriter and a movie director — a rarity in a film industry whose directorial ranks were and continue to be dominated by men.”

source: Huffington Post (re-sized here)

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Perhaps it’s no surprise that she became a writer — and one who was able to cross boundaries into many different types of it. She came from a family of writers. Her three sisters are also writers, and her father and mother were Hollywood screenwriters. Ephron would write with her sisters during her life. The legacy continues because her son, Jacob Bernstein, is also a writer, as is her husband, Nicholas Pileggi (author of Casino and Wiseguy; both became films, the latter named Goodfellas)

Ephron started her writing career as a journalist with the New York Post in the early 1960s. She moved into magazines, including Esquire and New York, which would showcase one of her many talents: impeccable comic timing and a wit that could slice or soothe, often at her own expense. She made a name for herself through personal essays marked by that humor and the short, spare style that carried far more weight in its undercurrents than Ephron put on the page.

When she turned to screenwriting, she would display that timing and wit in the films When Harry Met Sally (1989) and Sleepless in Seattle (1993). She directed the latter film, and both were nominated for Oscars. Both also demonstrate Ephron’s gift with dialogue, through which much more than words were conveyed. The summation of an entire relationship could be displayed in a few lines of dialogue, a well-placed quip, or a barb.

But Ephron’s initial foray into screenwriting was the one she co-wrote with Alice Arlen, the Oscar-nominated Silkwood (1983), the story of Karen Silkwood, a worker at a plutonium plant who was purposefully contaminated and possibly murdered to prevent her from exposing safety violations. Hardly a light topic. But nevertheless indicative of Ephron’s talents, who could weave both tragedy and humor into a story, without losing sight of the humanity within them. Or of her own trials. She adapted her own novel Heartburn to the screenplay that would become the movie of the same name, with Jack Nicholson and Meryl streep, the story of the dissolution of Ephron’s marriage to Carl Bernstein.

The last film she wrote and directed was 2009’s Julie and Julia, also nominated for an Oscar. She was working on a pilot for a TV series less than two weeks before she died, quipping to producer Scott Rudin on the phone from the hospital that “if I could just get a hairdresser in here, we could have a meeting,” perhaps referencing her famous hair fussiness. She’d have it professionally blow-dryed, once saying that “it’s cheaper by far than psychoanalysis and far more uplifting.” (McGrath, NYT)

From what I’ve read of hers, and from what others have said about her, I’m not surprised that she was still working during her last days. Director Mike Nichols (Silkwood, Heartburn) said that, “Nora was so funny and so interesting that you didn’t notice that she was also necessary. I think a lot of her friends and readers will feel that.” Longtime friend Meryl Streep said of this consummate, classy, witty woman, “You could call on her for anything: doctors, restaurants, recipes, speeches, or just a few jokes, and we all did it, constantly,” she wrote in her e-mail. “She was an expert in all the departments of living well.” (McGrath, NYT)

According to McGrath in the NYT, “Robert Gottlieb, who had edited her books since the 1970s, said that her death would be ‘terrible for her readers and her movie audience and her colleagues.’ But ‘the private Nora was even more remarkable, he added, saying she was ‘always there for you with a full heart plus the crucial dose of the reality principle.’

An expert in all the departments of living well and a full heart with crucial doses of reality. Would that we could all be remembered as such.

“Whatever you choose, however many roads you travel, I hope that you choose not to be a lady. I hope you will find some way to break the rules and make a little trouble out there. And I also hope that you will choose to make some of that trouble on behalf of women.”–Nora Ephron, commencement address at Wellesley College


To hear some excerpts from a 2006 interview following the publication of a collection of Ephron’s essays, click this NPR link.

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