acute myeloid leukemia, Director, drama, entertainment, ephron writer, hollywood, I remember Nothing, Movie-Making, nora ephron, Oscars, Sleepless in Seattle, When harry Met Sally, Writer, You Got Mail
Nora Ephron, who wrote and directed iconic modern romantic comedies and served as the wry voice of multiple generations, died on Tuesday, June 26 of pneumonia, a complication from the acute myeloid leukemia she’d been diagnosed with in 2006. Her illness had been a private matter, known to close friends and family only. This meant that those of us who considered her to be a best friend, albeit one we could reach only by opening up the New Yorker or one of her books or going to the multiplex, were gobsmacked by the fact that she was gone.
Her death feels like a kind of robbery, not of things you have, but of gifts you were expecting. She was 71, but surely there would be another collection of essays, two or three more movies to watch repeatedly, as comforting as a bowl of the mashed potatoes and cold slices of butter she loved? If she were preparing to die, wouldn’t this most graceful sharer tell us about it, in some strangely comforting way?
(MORE: Nora Ephron’s Best Film Moments)
In hindsight, there were signs. Go to her IMDB page and you’ll find there was nothing pending, despite the solid success of her big, generous 2009 film Julie & Julia. Her 2010 book I Remember Nothing ended with a list titled “What I Will Miss” and a thank-you to “my doctors.” Because these were Ephron’s words, we took them as little jokes, a nod to her readily acknowledged neuroses, to her grudging acceptance of aging.
Before I began writing this appreciation, I had various teary business to conduct, starting with weeping over Ephron’s obituaries, then rereading Ariel Levy’s excellent 2009 profile of the writer/director/essayist/home cook from the New Yorker, dipping back into Ephron’s own essays. I stopped crying to laugh at her hilariously befuddled column about the Coen brothers’ version of No Country for Old Men. In between I sent texts to my sister, who I knew would be poring over the same material some 200 miles away from me. We both expected that we would grow old with Ephron, with her holding up a torch — aflame with wit — to illuminate the way as we followed her through the caverns of decline. Her essays felt like aged Lucinda Williams songs, the rawness sanded down, the comedy born of wisdom that softened the angst, but the voice still frank and strong.
As a writer-director, Nora Ephron was not Ingmar Bergman, which is to say, you might never discuss her films in a graduate seminar on identity in cinema. On the other hand, you never worried that, should fate deposit her at your house, she’d sit in a corner being Swedish and dour. Also, while a Netflix copy of The Seventh Seal might remain in your possession for months, while you wait for the right (or dutiful) mood to watch it, When Harry Met Sally requires no emotional preparation beyond being human. Ephron didn’t technically make all that many romantic comedies, but she was the undisputed queen of the genre. She made movies about falling in love and did it so well that these idealized relationships actually seemed like possibilities instead of implausible annoyances. What unattached romantic has been to the top of the Empire State Building since 1993, when Sleepless in Seattle came out, without looking around for their Tom Hanks or Meg Ryan, even if not immediately conscious of that sweet spark of hope?
She was nominated for an Oscar for three of her screenplays but never won. I wanted so much for her Julie & Julia screenplay to be recognized by the Academy. She took a gimmicky memoir of a woman who cooked her way through Julia Child’s The Art of French Cooking and stewed it up with the story of the real Julia. No one likes the Julie bits even one-tenth as much as they like the Julia bits, but Ephron diluted much of Julie’s whining and incorporated it into a beautiful whole. She made much of something minor while making it look effortless.
That was one of her talents, a sort of effortless (seeming) processing of pain. Ephron’s novel Heartburn, a fictionalized, highly comic account of her disastrous split from her second husband, journalist Carl Bernstein, came out in 1983. My mother brought it home sometime in the next year or so. She laughed so much over it that I read it too, even though I was a college student blissfully in love with my first serious boyfriend and thus had little expectation that I’d relate to the story of some crazy, cooking-obsessed woman who had been cheated on while vastly pregnant. I howled with laughter and thereafter gave the side-eye to Bernstein, Dustin Hoffman (just for good measure, since he played Bernstein in the movie version of All the President’s Men) and to some degree, the boyfriend. Much later in life, when I could truly relate, I was grateful to Ephron for Heartburn and the example she had set: everything is copy, or can be, and disaster can and should be mined for comedy. Black comedy beats the blues. “My religion is Get Over It,” Ephron wrote in I Remember Nothing. In this church, she has many followers.
I realized, in the hours after Ephron’s death, how present she is in my daily life. She is the background hum when I look in the mirror and notice the neck that I am just beginning to feel bad about. (Who calls an essay collection I Feel Bad About My Neck? Some kind of genius.) She’s in the kitchen, where I can’t fry a steak without recalling the funny lament she wrote for Teflon in 2006, when experts determined that Teflon frying pans were bad and should be replaced with the Le Creuset pan I now use. I bought it because Ephron said she was going to buy one. More significantly, she is in virtually every conversation about women in film, even though she didn’t particularly want to be. Kathryn Bigelow is the first woman to win an Academy Award for Best Director, but for decades, if you started a conversation about female filmmakers with clout, Ephron was the first, and often the only, name anyone brought up. She hated being asked to appear on panels called Women in Film and didn’t want to be referred to as the most successful female director (she tried to push that title off on director Nancy Meyers). “The main thing is that it just seems like a sad thing to be called,” she told Levy in that 2009 New Yorker profile. It made sense that she didn’t want to be put on a pedestal; she delighted in knocking herself off them to put others at ease.
There are many who dismiss her films. Some are bad. I commute on a bus line that shows Michael, her ridiculous 1996 John Travolta-as-angel film, four trips out of 10. I look up at the screen and think, What was Nora thinking?, but my affection for her remains undiminished. The great films she wrote, like Mike Nichols’ Heartburn and Silkwood and Rob Reiner’s When Harry Met Sally, are good enough to make you want to go back and watch the lesser ones she wrote and directed, like Hanging Up (2000) and Bewitched (2005). Sleepless in Seattle, her ode to An Affair to Remember, can be watched over and over again. Even You’ve Got Mail, something I’m sure I disdained upon release, seems entirely delightful when you sit down to watch it with your family. Ephron had an uncanny ability to please, repeatedly.
In one of the closing chapters in I Remember Nothing, Ephron described the joy of the summers she used to spend at her house in Long Island, N.Y., with her third husband, writer Nicholas Pileggi, and her kids: “We were always there for the end of June, my favorite time of the year, when the sun doesn’t set until nine-thirty at night and you feel as if you will live forever,” she wrote. Later she interpreted nature’s messages differently, saw them as a reminder of the end of all things, and stopped spending her summers there. And she did not live forever. But she died at her favorite time of year, at the end of June, and even, it seems, right around sunset. There is some exquisite magic in that timing. And she left us wanting more, final proof of a great comic.
Reprinted from TIME by Mary Pols
Nora Ephron was our Dorothy Parker, but she was a multimedia Dorothy Parker, excelling in books, films, scripts, humor. Perhaps her genius is best appreciated in her sly, aphoristic brevity. There is music in her quotes—note the “my heart does a little dance” and the “bounce bounce bounce.” Her prose wear tap shoes. Here are some of her best lines.
“I look out the window and I see the lights and the skyline and the people on the street rushing around looking for action, love, and the world’s greatest chocolate chip cookie, and my heart does a little dance.”
“I always read the last page of a book first so that if I die before I finish I’ll know how it turned out.”
—Billy Crystal to Meg Ryan in When Harry Met Sally
“We all look good for our age. Except for our necks.”
—I Feel Bad About My Neck
“I don’t want to be someone that you’re settling for. I don’t want to be someone that anyone settles for. Marriage is hard enough without bringing such low expectations into it, isn’t it?”
—Walter from Sleepless in Seattle
“One of the only movies about marriage. Of course it’s also about drinking.”
—On The Thin Man, The Daily Beast
“Insane people are always sure that they are fine. It is only the sane people who are willing to admit that they are crazy.”
“When your children are teenagers, it’s important to have a dog so that someone in the house is happy to see you.”
—I Feel Bad About My Neck
“The whole purpose of places like Starbucks is for people with no decision-making ability whatsoever to make six decisions just to buy one cup of coffee. Short, tall, light, dark, caf, decaf, low-fat, non-fat, etc. So people who don’t know what the hell they’re doing or who on earth they are can, for only $2.95, get not just a cup of coffee but an absolutely defining sense of self.
—Tom Hanks in You’ve Got Mail
“I have for many years been puzzled by the persistence of Hugh Hefner. Why is he still here?”
—“Why Won’t Playboy Die?” Newsweek
“I have to murder and dismember a crustacean.”
—Amy Adams in Julie & Julia
“You are the butter to my bread, you are the breath to my life.”
—Paul Child to Julia, from Julie & Julia
“Suddenly, one day, there was this thing called parenting. Parenting was serious. Parenting was fierce. Parenting was solemn. Parenting was a participle, like going and doing and crusading and worrying.”
—“Parenting in Three Stages”
“Whenever I get married, I start buying Gourmet magazine.”
—Crazy Salad Plus Nine
“If pregnancy were a book, they would cut the last two chapters. The beginning is glorious, especially if you’re lucky enough not to have morning sickness and if, like me, you’ve had small breasts all your life. Suddenly they begin to grow, and you’ve got them, you’ve really got them, breasts, darling breasts, and when you walk down the street they bounce, truly they do, they bounce bounce bounce.”
“When you give up your apartment in New York and move to another city, New York becomes the worst version of itself.”
—”Moving On,” The New Yorker
“Well, it was a million tiny little things that, when you added them all up, they meant we were supposed to be together … and I knew it. I knew it the very first time I touched her. It was like coming home … only to no home I’d ever known … I was just taking her hand to help her out of a car and I knew. It was like … magic.”
—Tom Hanks in Sleepless in Seattle
“Sometimes I believe that some people are better at love than others, and sometimes I believe that everyone is faking it.”
“‘I need my umlaut,’ Blomkvist said. ‘What if I want to go to Svavelsjö? Or Strängnäs? Or Södertälje? What if I want to write to Wadensjö? Or Ekström or Nyström?’
It was a compelling argument.”
—“The Girl Who Fixed the Umlaut,” The New Yorker
“Beware of men who cry. It’s true that men who cry are sensitive to and in touch with feelings, but the only feelings they tend to be sensitive to and in touch with are their own.”
“My mother was a good recreational cook, but what she basically believed about cooking was that if you worked hard and prospered, someone else would do it for you.”
“The Wonderbra is not a step forward for women. Nothing that hurts that much is a step forward for women.”
—1996 Wellesley College commencement address
And, the greatest of all:
“I love that you get cold when it’s 71 degrees out. I love that it takes you an hour and a half to order a sandwich. I love that you get a little crinkle above your nose when you’re looking at me like I’m nuts. I love that after I spend the day with you, I can still smell your perfume on my clothes. And I love that you are the last person I want to talk to before I go to sleep at night. And it’s not because I’m lonely, and it’s not because it’s New Year’s Eve. I came here tonight because when you realize you want to spend the rest of your life with somebody, you want the rest of your life to start as soon as possible.”
—Billy Crystal to Meg Ryan in When Harry Met Sally