May 19, 1941– Nora Ephron:
“Why do people write books that say it’s better to be older than to be younger? It’s not better. Even if you have all your marbles, you’re constantly reaching for the name of the person you met yesterday.”
Please, don’t even think for a moment that I consider myself to be in a category with her, or that I equate what I do with what she accomplished, but it is no secret that Nora Ephron is one of my writer heroes.
On a Seattle summer day in 1992, I survived my fifth callback audition for the role of Jay in a new film titled Sleepless In Seattle. I began to have that feeling that I always fought hard against in my acting days: I wanted this role. I wanted it something terrible. I could taste it. I visualized my name as the credits rolled. By this final callback, I was dizzy with the possibility. Jay was a small, yet showy role, well-written and very funny. I had been able to keep Writer/Director Ephron, the casting director, and assorted producers laughing with each read.
Leaving that callback, I found myself passing multi-hyphenate Rob Reiner in a hallway at the production office. After I tossed an ”I love your work” to Reiner, I thought to myself: I really admire Rob Reiner. I wonder what his connection is with Sleepless? Hmmm… he would be so cool to chat with. Maybe he will notice me as Jay and use me in one of his projects!
When I returned home, my agent had already called to let me know that Ephron and Co. thought I was ”splendidly funny and waggish” and they thanked me for sticking through all the auditions, but they had decided to go with Reiner as Jay in Sleepless In Seattle.
Ephron is my one of my top writing inspirations, but I didn’t much care for Sleepless In Seattle when I finally got around to seeing it years later on VHS, watched on a boat floating on Lake Union not far from the film’s actual location. My reaction to the film had little to do with my not being cast (how was I supposed to compete against Rob Reiner?), but I found it rather treacley and twee, plus I felt that the filmmakers got Seattle all wrong. Everyone else in the world seems to love it. Maybe I should watch it again.
Ephron had a sentimental streak, for sure, but she also brought her sharp New Yorker wit to glossy Hollywood rom-coms, with Academy Award-nominated screenplays for When Harry Met Sally (1989) and Sleepless In Seattle (1993), which she also directed. Her films are close in spirit to the sophisticated Katharine Hepburn/Spencer Tracy battle-of-the-sexes comedies of the 1950s.
Ephron’s parents were screenwriters Henry and Phoebe Ephron, who wrote Desk Set (1957) for Hepburn and Tracy. Their frothy Broadway play, Take Her She’s Mine (1961) is based on their daughter’s rebellious college days. It was adapted to film in 1963, with Sandra Dee in the role of the thinly disguised Nora. Later, Ephron wrote screenplays that were based on pieces of her own life. She created strong female characters that were never strident or domineering; they were simply the equal of men, but her essays were tougher and funnier than her films.
Ephron was born in Manhattan but brought up in Beverly Hills, the eldest of four daughters. Her sisters, Delia, Hallie and Amy, all became writers too. She wrote for the school newspaper at Wellesley College, where she graduated with a degree in Political Science in 1962.
She worked in the mailroom at Newsweek Magazine before landing a job as a columnist for the New York Post. She wrote articles for Esquire and New York Magazine, and she was pretty much the smartest journalist of her era, our own Dorothy Parker. She wrote satirical, self-deprecating pieces about her love for cooking, sex, and NYC.
In 1975 she met Carl Bernstein, a Washington Post reporter, now famous for his part in exposing the Watergate Scandal. They married in 1976. The couple wrote a screenplay for All the President’s Men, the movie based on Watergate, which was rejected in favor of the one written by William Goldman, but Ephron discovered she liked screenwriting.
For many years, Ephron was among only a handful of people in the world who knew the true identity of ”Deep Throat”, the source for her husband Bernstein and Bob Woodward during the Watergate scandal. Ephron claimed she had guessed the identity of Deep Throat after reading Bernstein’s notes, which referred to the unnamed person as “MF”. Bernstein claimed “MF” was short for “My Friend,” but Ephron guessed correctly that the initials stood for Mark Felt, the former associate director of the FBI.
After the breakup of her marriage, Ephron was open about the identity of Deep Throat. She revealed his identity to anyone who asked. This revelation attracted little media attention during the many years that the identity of Deep Throat was a mystery. Ephron:
“No one, apart from my sons, believed me.”
Her first produced project was a script for the television movie Perfect Gentlemen (1978), starring Lauren Bacall.
Her first feature film screenplay was Silkwood (1983), written for her friend Mike Nichols. Silkwood is about the real-life Karen Silkwood, who died in suspicious circumstances while investigating abuses at a plutonium plant where she had worked. Nichols had not made a film for seven years. Silkwood concentrated on the daily life of its chain-smoking, foul-mouthed blue-collar heroine, perfectly played by Meryl Streep.
Streep plays a thinly disguised version of Ephron in the caustic Heartburn (1986), also directed by Nichols, about the breakdown of her marriage destroyed by the infidelity of her husband, played by Jack Nicholson. It was based on Ephron’s 1983 novel of the same name, a comic chronicle of her marriage to Bernstein, which ended in 1980 after he had a series of affairs. The publication of the novel resulted in Bernstein going a court order to prevent Ephron from writing about him again.
“I highly recommend having Meryl Streep play you. If your husband is cheating on you with a carhop, get Meryl to play you. You will feel much better.”
When Harry Met Sally (1989) was her biggest hit. Directed by Rob Reiner, the film is based on the break-up of Reiner’s marriage to Penny Marshall, and how he found himself back in the dating game. Reiner asked Ephron to do the screenplay which was based on interviews with Reiner. It starts with Harry (Billy Crystal) and Sally (Meg Ryan) posing the question: “Can men and women be friends or … does the sex always get in the way?”
Like most rom-coms, it is blissfully predictable, but the scene in which Sally demonstrates a fake orgasm in a delicatessen has become an iconic movie moment. The woman who utters the unforgettable: “I’ll have what she’s having” line, is Reiner’s mother, Estelle.
When Harry Met Sally was followed by the buddy comedy My Blue Heaven (1990) with Steve Martin and Rick Moranis, directed by Herbert Ross. It was a box-office dud, and after that, Ephron to decide to direct her own screenplays. She knew from her parents’ careers how powerless screenwriters can be. Ephron:
“One of the best things about directing movies, as opposed to merely writing them, is that there’s no confusion about who’s to blame: you are.”
Ephron had another big hit with Sleepless In Seattle, an unashamedly old-fashioned romantic comedy that was somehow made without me. It stars Tom Hanks and Ryan and is an homage to Leo McCarey‘s weepy An Affair To Remember. She paid homage to Hollywood again with Ernst Lubitsch‘s perfect The Shop Around the Corner (1940) as inspiration, using Hanks and Ryan again in You’ve Got Mail (1998).
Ephron’s last film is the blithe Julie & Julia (2009), which has my favorite Streep performance, playing celebrated chef Julia Child. I adore this movie.
Her essays, collected in Crazy Salad (1975), I Feel Bad About My Neck (2006), Wallflower At The Orgy (1970), Scribble Scribble (1978) and I Remember Nothing (2010), made me want to become a writer.
Ephron told few people she was sick and even her close friends were surprised and shocked by her passing. She was taken by pneumonia brought on by Myeloid Leukemia in June 2012, at 71-years-old.
Ephron’s openly gay son Jacob Bernstein, a NY Times writer, made an extraordinary HBO documentary about his mother, Everything Is Copy (2016). It is as brilliant as Ephron herself. It takes its name from a philosophy Ephron inherited from her mother, and it is a lovely and unexpectedly profound exploration of how she lived her life: “Take Notes. Everything is copy.” Have tissues close at hand when you watch it.
In her final book I Remember Nothing: And Other Reflections (2010), Ephron published two lists:
WHAT I WON’T MISS:
Bad dinners like the one we went to last night
Technology in general
Washing my hair
Polls that show that 42 percent of the American people believe in creationism
The collapse of the dollar
The sound of the vacuum cleaner
E-mail. I know I already said it, but I want to emphasize it.
Panels on Women in Film
Taking off makeup every night
WHAT I WILL MISS:
The concept of waffles
A walk in the park
The idea of a walk in the park
Shakespeare in the Park
Reading in bed
The view out the window
Dinner at home just the two of us
Dinner with friends
Dinner with friends in cities where none of us lives
Next year in Istanbul
Pride & Prejudice
The Christmas tree
One for the table
Taking a bath
Coming over the bridge to Manhattan