Nora Ephron (1941-2012)
I called Nora Ephron in 1986, and because I was a producer for the Today Show at the time, she picked up the phone. I told her I was doing a five part series on pioneering contemporary women behind the scenes in Hollywood, and could I interview her? At the time, Ephron had written the Academy Award nominated Silkwood (1983), and the hilarious and heartbreaking, Heartburn (1986) from her best-selling novel. Quite rightly, and refreshingly not full of herself, she turned me down. She said she really didn’t feel she had yet garnered the kind of experience in movies to allow her to wear such a lofty mantle as pioneer. But in the years to come, that would change for Ephron, and all rather quickly.
Let’s face it, most of us are not Nora Ephron. Most of us are mere mortals. Most of us are good at some thing, usually one thing. And then, there are the others. There are the Sherry Lansings of the world who truly, deeply and organically understand what is means to sail graciously through the social stratum of a man’s world and not just survive, but thrive. There are the Sherry Lansings, and there are the Nora Ephrons. These are women who have it all. The whole package. Nora always insisted that she was no anomaly in this regard.
Nobody really has an easy time getting a movie made. And furthermore I can’t stand people complaining. It’s not a conversation that interests me…Those endless women-in-film panels. It’s like, “JUST DO IT. Write something else if this one didn’t get made.” It’s my ongoing argument with a whole part of the women’s movement.
She made it sound so easy. Take nothing personally, move on from your mistakes, don’t wallow too long on your failures, and you too may find heretofore unopened doors suddenly spring wide. It also doesn’t hurt if you are a multi-faceted, facile writer like Ephron, with a distinctive voice that never fails to hit a popular nerve. And when it does fail, she learned from her mistakes, and kept the pen moving.
Nora Ephron died impossibly young and before she was finished. Producer Scott Rudin called her in the hospital two weeks before her death from myeloid leukemia, to go over some notes for a TV pilot she was writing. In typical Ephron fashion she commented, If I could just get a hairdresser in here, we could have a meeting. She also finished a new play, Lucky Guy, about columnist Mike McAlary, who covered cop and crime scandals in the 1980s and ’90s before dying of colon cancer at 41. It was set to open on Broadway with her frequent collborator, Tom Hanks, in the fall of 2012. Let’s hope that will still happen.
There were scores of witticisms, funny lines, truisms that typified no one else in the world. At the 32nd AFI Life Achievement Award Tribute To Meryl Streep in 2004, Nora famously remarked, I highly recommend having Meryl Streep play you…She plays all of us better than we play ourselves. Although it’s a little depressing knowing that if you went to audition to play yourself you would lose out to her. Some days, when I’m having a hard day, I call up Meryl and she’ll come and she’ll step in for me. She’s so good, people don’t really notice. I call her at the end of the day and find out how I did, and inevitably it’s one of the best days I’ve ever had.
As in every life, there were doozy disasters, such as Michael, with John Travolta as a fallen angel who smokes and drinks and hides enormous feathered wings under a trench coat. And Bewitched, called dismal by the Washington Post. The New York Times said that Ephron forgot that a gimmick is no substitute for a screenplay, never mind a real movie.
We hear complaints about women directors who make duds for studios, then don’t get a second chance, unlike their male counterparts. And this is true. But here too, Nora Ephron seemed the exception. Says Ariel Levy in the New Yorker, It is no small thing to get studio backing after you’ve lost money on a movie, especially if you are over a certain age. (In Hollywood, that age is approximately twenty-seven.) It is hard, Ephron said. I think I’ve managed it partly because Amy Pascal, the co-chairman of Sony Pictures, keeps giving me work. It can’t hurt, either, that Pascal’s boss is Howard Stringer; Ephron is Stringer’s son’s godmother.
But a writer-director who comes up with something wonderful always has a chance, especially if, like Nora, you have a long track record of having made money for the company, as Michael Lynton, the chairman and C.E.O. of Sony Pictures, put it. This is the talent that Ephron always relied upon to resuscitate her, whether from the catastrophe, the great fiasco, of my second marriage, or from the loss, domestically, of more than twenty million dollars on Bewitched. If you’re a writer, she said, you can write your way back.
There are great lessons to be learned from such resiliency. That is not to say that sexism isn’t the cancer of the industry, indeed of the world. But such a philosophy: to be in the world, but not of it; to let criticism slough easily down the back, made it possible for Ephron to continue to work with abandon in the medium in which she clearly excelled. I’m very into denial, she told an audience in 2006 on a panel called Advice for Women with her friend, Arianna Huffington, at the 92nd St. Y in New York.
The rap on Ephron from her detractors, says Ariel Levy, has always been that her cinematic vision is too schmaltzy, too eager to soothe and please. A line in Heartburn anticipates such complaints decades before they were made. “What they say about me,” Ephron wrote, “is “I don’t have an original point of view, and I am a sellout. This last accusation always makes me cross, because I would love to be a sellout if only someone would ask.” Her urge to put a happy ending on every story is what her critics dislike and her fans depend upon. And her corresponding refusal to succumb to self-pity is what people envy and resent: it is a quality you don’t often see in women, or, for that matter, men.
The eldest of four daughter of two successful Hollywood screenwriters, Nora grew up thinking, It was so clear there were no women in show business. It was so clearly not a place for a person like me. Unlike the pre-1920s, if there were women in the film business at all, they generally had a husband they collaborated with, like Ephron’s mother, Phoebe. When Nora graduated from Wellesley in 1962, and went to New York City, her fantasies had settled on becoming Dorothy Parker, not Preston Sturges. (And lest we forget, it was Dorothy Parker who said, Of course, calling them “women writers” is their ruin. They begin to think of themselves that way.)
In our family, we were expected to be writers, said Nora’s sister, Delia, one of her frequent collaborators. Phoebe Ephron got her wish. All four girls became writers. Ariel Levy describes Ephron’s upbringing as “madcap and bouncy…” and, only slightly more unnerving than the version that Henry and Phoebe Ephron presented themselves, in their play Take Her, She’s Mine, which was based on Nora’s letters and visits home during her time in college.
A happy household turned darker in her parent’s later years, when Nora was in late adolescence. Henry Ephron became a frequent visitor to mental hospitals and attempted suicide. Her mother took to alcohol and died of cirrhosis of the liver at age fifty-seven. Everything is copy, Phoebe Ephron told the girls, …which was related to her expectation that all suffering be reconfigured into a funny story before it was brought to her attention. “Take notes,” she directed Nora, from her deathbed.
This is the indelible imprint that her parents left. They, simply had no interest whatsoever in your sorrows, said Nora. It was so ‘Someday this will be a funny story…I’m not interested. I’m having a drink and smoking a cigarette, and what else is new?’ I think if you learn over and over from your parents that you do not get love from wallowing in heartbreak or failure, then you don’t really have much of a habit of doing it. This, in a nutshell, is what made Nora Ephron a pioneer. This, and a writing style bristling with a unique, dryly comic personality.
So in spite the fact that she didn’t envision herself in show biz, Ephron would nonetheless distinguish herself in show biz, and a whole lot of the fields. In the sixties, she distinguished herself as a journalist. She began an eviscerating profile of Dorothy Schiff, the publisher of the New York Post, where she had worked for a time, with the words I feel bad about what I’m going to do here. In the seventies, she wrote a comedic column on the women’s movement for Esquire. (Pretty much everyone admits that she was funny.) That was also the decade she became famous for marrying Carl Bernstein of Watergate fame, and claiming for years that she knew the identity of Deep Throat, (although enigmatically, the media didn’t take much notice). Bernstein had an affair when Ephron was seven months pregnant with their second child, fueling the novel, Heartburn, which became a best seller, and later, a film.
Her screenplay with Alice Arlen of Silkwood, was Ephron’s foray into movies, and won and Academy Award nomination and still more fame. Her screenplay for Cookie (1989), was directed by Susan Seidelman who recalled in an obit letter to the editor of The New York Times,
I learned a few things from Nora:
*That you could be a serious writer (and director) and walk into a creative meeting wearing a fur coat and a little black dress, with perfectly coifed hair and manicured nails, and be taken very seriously.
*That you can age with style and grace and still be respected in an industry that worships youth.
*That you could be a hardworking filmmaker and still have the time and energy to be a devoted wife and mother.
I knew very few women in the film industry who were juggling work with a busy family life, so I paid particular attention to the way Nora did it. I remember script meetings at her apartment at the Apthorp on the Upper West Side at which her young sons wandered in and out of the room casually and even joined in whatever conversation we were having without its being a big deal. This blending of work and family seemed natural and unpretentious.
In the early nineties, Ephron decided, more or less, that she might as well direct her own screenplays. Mike Nichols, who had directed her 1983 screenplay for Silkwood, said he knew early on that Ephron would be able to direct.Not only did she have a complete comprehension of the process of making a movie — she simply soaked that up — but she had all the ancillary skills, the people skills, all the hundreds of things that are useful when you’re making a movie.
Nora herself noted,
Most directors, I have discovered, need to be convinced that the screenplay they’re going to direct has something to do with them, and this is a tricky thing if you write screenplays where women have parts that are equal to or greater that the male part…You look at a list of directors and it’s all boys; it certainly was when I started as a screenwriter. So I thought, I’m just going to become a director and that’ll make it easier.
Her good friend, Lynda Obst produced Ephron’s first directing venture, This is My Life (1992). It also didn’t hurt that she was also now holding a second Academy Award nomination for the wildly successful, When Harry Met Sally (1990), now a classic. If you’re not a successful actress, the next best route into directing is having a pen with a magic touch. And Ephron had that pen in spades. As Fay Kanin once reminded me, No one is going to say, ‘We’re not doing this screenplay because a woman wrote it.’
From there, the nineties became like a decade of greatest screenwriting/directing hits, Sleepless in Seattle (1993), Mixed Nuts (1994), You’ve Got Mail (1998). And in the first decade of the new millennium, Ephron managed the almost impossible feat of becoming an It girl yet again, in her sixties. She published the collection I Feel Bad About My Neck, which became a No. 1 best-seller. Remarkably, she enhanced her own glamour by writing about the distinctly dowdy subject of aging. When we were young . . . the amount of time we spent making ourselves look good bore some correlation to the number of hours we spent having sex (which was, after all, one of the reasons for our spending so much time on grooming). But now that we’re older, whom are we kidding? The book sold more than a million copies.
As Ariel Levy has noted about Ephron’s now cultural classics, When Harry Met Sally, Sleepless in Seattle, You’ve got Mail, and her last film, Julie & Julia, (her fourth collaboration with Meryl Streep, and the latest to bring Streep and Academy Award nomination for her astonishing incarnation of Julia Child), They are deeply comforting comedies, and they have made Ephron, at least by some measures, the most successful female director working in this country…”We don’t think of things that way and I’m not,” she told me firmly, putting her fork down on the table. “I think Nancy Meyers”who directed “Something’s Got to Give” is more successful. But it doesn’t matter. The main thing is that it just seems like a sad thing to be called.”
Until her very last breath at age 71, Nora Ephron showed no signs of slowing down. If we are to learn anything from this pioneer it is this, [The film business is] a very male business. Vast portions of it might as well be the United States Army in 1943. If you want to be successful and you are a woman, you have to understand that there’s all kinds of horrible stuff that comes with it, and you simply cannot do anything about it, but move on.
Goodbye Nora Ephron. Goodbye to your refreshing candor and your wit. We will miss hearing the truth about what everybody is thinking but nobody will say. You were a one-of-a-kind role model that affected, moved and changed all of us. Let’s face it, neck and all, we will miss you.