I have to admit – somewhat sheepishly considering the outpouring of commemoratives since Nora Ephron died of myelodysplasia on June 26 – that I was never particularly a fan of her work. But as I’ve read those commemoratives, it’s come to me – another sheepish admission – how little I knew of her work.
Perhaps because I’d only initially become aware of her name through Sleepless in Seattle (1994), which she’d written and directed, that film forever colored my judgment of her work; a judgment reinforced by the fact that she happened to be working her way through a streak of similarly flyweight romances at the time including Michael (1986) – a bit of sugary goo about an unconventional angel (John Travolta) manifested on earth apparently for the sole reason of bringing tabloid reporters William Hurt and Andie MacDowell together – and You’ve Got Mail (1998), the thematic rom/com bookend to Sleepless starring the same Valentine’s dream pairing of Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan.
But Ephron’s career is about more than one work, or even any few of her works. Like any writer – particularly screenwriters whose vision is under constant onslaught from “creative executives,” studio marketing mavens, and any number of other people who, to lift a line from Paddy Chayefsky, think knowing the alphabet gives them license to meddle in the development process – she had her hits and misses. My Blue Heaven (1990) was a huge miss although its intriguing culture clash concept of Mafiosi completely misplaced in white bread middle America under the witness protection program may have been sunk as much by woeful miscasting (Steve Martin as an over-the-top guido?) as any creative misstep on Ephron’s part. And Bewitched (2005)? Well, maybe trying to turn a one-joke TV show from the ‘60s into a movie for the 2000s was just doomed from the start.
But then there was her Oscar-winning screenplay for nuclear industry expose Silkwood (1983, co-written with Alice Arlen), which managed the deft feat of making whistle-blower Karen Silkwood a hero without sanctifying a tremendously flawed character. And, of course, there’s When Harry Met Sally…(1989).
In his tribute to Ephron, Entertainment Weekly’s Mark Harris called the film “…the gold standard for modern romantic comedies…,” and while I – in my typically male when-is-something-gonna-blow-up way – usually can’t even stand the idea of rom/coms, I have to agree. It’s up there with Annie Hall (1977) and (500) Days of Summer (2009) as one of those romances where its sincerity and honesty trumps romantic contrivance, and where the sharpness of its wit, the intelligence of its characters, and the sheer knowing behind it (“This is how it is, people; I know it, you know it, and now we all know it”) breaks it out from the crowd of by-the-numbers awww-inducing sugar cookies which have so repeatedly and so vainly tried to capture the same magic.
It took Harris’ piece to remind me that Ephron had begun as a journalist and essayist (only in reading Harris’ obit did I remember reading one of Ephron’s most well-known pieces: “I Feel Bad About My Neck”), had turned out one bitterly funny novel (Heartburn, inspired by her marriage-gone-wrong to Carl Bernstein), and was even a respectable hand at writing for the stage (2002’s Imaginary Friends; 2009’s Love, Loss, and What I Wore).
But as I’ve gone over her obituary pieces in doing my homework for this piece, the thing I’m probably most impressed with – and perhaps the thing for which she should truly be saluted – is that she survived. In a notoriously brutal profession, and one famously even harder on women who take a place behind the camera, Nora Ephron survived. I don’t just mean she stayed bankable (2009’s Julie & Julia not only recaptured a lot of that Harry/Sally sparkle, particularly in its Julia Child chapters, but was a deserving $94 million hit to boot), but neither she nor her work ever descended into a darker, melancholic cinematic menopause.
Creatively and personally, there always seemed to be another chapter for her. “You can always change your mind,” Harris quotes her. “I know. I’ve had four careers and three husbands.”
Say what you will about Sleepless in Seattle being contrived, dramatically manipulative, and about as predictable as the sweep of a minute hand, its irrepressible (if grating) optimism and belief in romantic kismet has to be admired coming from the heart of someone who, at the time, had already suffered two failed marriages (and one of them – to Bernstein – crashing and burning in spectacular fashion).
“(Be) the heroine in your life,” she told the 1996 graduating class at Wellesley College, “not the victim.” Nora Ephron didn’t just say it; she lived it. And perhaps that was her greatest work.