In introducing Screenwriting award winner Nora Ephron at a Hollywood Film Awards ceremony a couple of years ago her good friend and admirer Steven Spielberg said, “Nora knows how so easily to make us laugh and to make us cry and embrace the human comedy of it all. And she does it without any bathroom humor.”
That was the great thing about this multi-talented writer/director/author who clearly had a knack for writing about men and women, particularly the latter, without ever trivializing them or reaching for the lowest common denominator in what passes for many studio-bred movie comedies today. And she did it all with so much style, sophistication, flair and wit. It’s the end of an era. The Hollywood in which Nora Ephron excelled seems to be passing quickly before our eyes.
Related: Nora Ephron Dies At 71
It’s interesting to note that in 1983 when she got her first feature film script produced, Silkwood (directed by Mike Nichols), there were hardly any women in real power positions in the studios. Slowly, but fortunately that changed because it enabled Nora Ephron to be able to make movies her way in the studio system, and for that we are eternally grateful.
In her greatest screen successes as a writer of her Oscar-nominated script for When Harry Met Sally (1989) and later sitting in the director’s chair as well for such huge hits as Sleepless In Seattle (1993), You’ve Got Mail (1998) and her final film 2009′s Julie And Julia, there was at the core of each one a strong woman both women and men could learn to understand and love, well at least understand. In fact strong women were at the center of so many Ephron scripts from Silkwood to 1986′s biting and thinly-veiled autobiographical Heartburn (which she adapted from her book about her short-lived marriage to Carl Bernstein), and even the sparkling little-seen 1979 ABC-TV movie Perfect Gentlemen, featuring Lauren Bacall and Ruth Gordon pulling off a heist, that served as a launching pad for what would turn into an enormously successful film career.
The concepts of so many Ephron scripts kept us on the edge of our seats, guessing where these relationships would be going. In three of her best films Meg Ryan co-starred, and in her she found the perfect actor to be her muse. All of those films, When Harry Met Sally, Sleepless In Seattle and You’ve Got Mail remain three of the best examples of romantic comedies, the Ephron specialty, in the last 50 years. All of them set up characters who resisted the traditional path to love we often see in the genre and instead made us root for them as they slowly realized what the audience already knew: they were right for each other. But Ephron was too smart to lay it on or fall into the normal traps. When Harry Met Sally, directed by Rob Reiner, endures to this day, because it was a total original posing the question right at the beginning, “Can men and women ever be friends?” It was a simple question that still resonates and doesn’t have any easy answers. Ephron movies often resisted the ”easy answers”. The film won Ephron an Original Screenplay Oscar nomination but somehow she lost to Dead Poet’s Society, a good movie that hasn’t nearly passed the same test of time of a classic like When Harry Met Sally. You wuz robbed, Nora.
With Sleepless In Seattle, an enormous hit which she directed as well as wrote (with Jeff Arch and David S. Ward), it wasn’t so much a traditional movie romance as it was about romance in the movies themselves and our never-ending search for that almost unobtainable ideal. And You’ve Got Mail was a contemporized new version of The Shop Around The Corner (1940) that used email instead of letters in chronicling the romantic longings of its two main characters played so well by Tom Hanks and Ryan who also co-starred in Sleepless In Seattle (which by the way is finding new life as a musical set to premiere next summer at the Pasadena Playhouse).
What I always loved about Ephron was she somehow managed to seem the quintissential New Yorker even though she was a Hollywood kid right from the start, graduating from Beverly Hills High School before heading off to Wellesley. Her parents, of course, were Phoebe and Henry Ephron, a great screenwriting team responsible for such quintissential 20th Century Fox films of the 50′s like Desk Set, Carousel, Daddy Long Legs and There’s No Business Like Show Business. Ephron and her sister Delia (and sometimes collaborator including You’ve Got Mail) obviously had the tremendous advantage of growing up in the shadow of the business and saw first hand what to do – or not to do – to survive. One of those key lessons for Nora, a born writer, was to protect her words. That was really the key reason she turned to directing in the first place 20 years ago with the Julie Kavner comedy, This Is My Life (yes, another strong female lead). But she hated being called a successful “woman director”. In her eyes that was marginalizing things. She was a director, and a good one. She also hated the term “chick flick” saying, and rightly so, that men liked coming to her movies too. I certainly did.
Like everyone else in her position not everything was the success she envisioned at the start. Somehow her take on the 60′s TV sitcom, Bewitched (2005) with Nicole Kidman and Will Ferrell fizzled when it should have fizzed. And there were other disappointments, but she came back strong and was justifiably proud of still turning out successful and smart adult comedies, even being a woman in her late 60′s (A Hollywood no-no), which she did with Julie And Julia in 2009, another great collaboration between Ephron and her other muse, Meryl Streep who won an Oscar nomination playing Julia Child to Amy Adams’ Julie, a young wife who became obsessed with cooking all of Child’s recipes. It also allowed Ephron to dabble in her other great love. In fact she once said, “writing is what I do. It’s like breathing to me at a certain point but if I couldn’t write, I do like cooking”.
Much as I would have loved to have shared one of your legendary meals, Nora, I for one am glad the writing thing worked out so well for you. And for us.
Awards Columnist Pete Hammond - tip him here.