Why Couldn’t Nora Win?

Nora Ephron

I always think every movie should begin with a logo that says…
“[Such and such studio] did everything in its power to keep from making this movie.”
Nora Ephron

I wanted Nora to win…Only problem was, she wasn’t nominated. Like Meryl, the over-appreciated star of her latest stunning vehicle, Julie & Julia, the Academy just figures enough of a good thing gets boring. Why give accolades to someone that everyone already knows is a genius, when you can give them to someone who makes boy movies better than the boys? How much more fun is that. And novel too!

(Or like the Golden Globes, why not give them to yet another lark-filled, booze-soaked buddy movie and its ever-increasing puer pubescents? The Hangover over Julie & Julia? You have got to be kidding…)

Nora has seen two Oscar nominations…Both for best original screenplay. First for “When Harry Met Sally” (1990), and then for “Sleepless in Seattle” (1994). She didn’t win either time. And she was never nominated for directing, as though her multi-faceted hyphenate gifts (writer/producer/director/journalist/book author/blogger) make her too eclectic (too threatening?) to be considered a serious enough director for the Academy.

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. We get mad at the Sherry Lansings when they say things like,

“Almost never have I seen any examples of prejudice…It would be very easy for me when I am frustrated about not being able to get a movie that I care desperately about to get made to say, ‘Oh well, it’s because they’re prejudiced against women.’ In fact, it has nothing to do with it. I’ve never ever thought that my failures had anything to do with me being a woman…. If you have the passion, and the conviction and you really believe in something, eventually you will get it done. I’ve always believed that in this business there is only one God, and that God is talent, and that nobody will ever refuse a talented person.”

And the Nora Ephrons, who say things like,

“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.”

Melissa Silverstein in her blog, Women and Hollywood from a Feminist Perspective got mad:

“Geez Nora. Don’t you think after 25 or 30 years we’re all tired of these panels? Isn’t everybody tired of asking the same question for 30 years? Wouldn’t it be great to never need to have a panel that focused on the lack of women directors anymore? But since there are so few female directors that are successful, isn’t it all of our jobs to keep pushing and hounding and asking the questions? Yes there is complaining, frustration and whining at times. But there are also legitimate conversations about box office issues, the lack of interest in scripts about women and the ongoing SEXISM in the business. If we didn’t have these panels and agitate and complain and pushed – where would we be?”

Valid point, Melissa. But in fact, it is this very annoying trait in Lansing, and in Ephron, and in people lucky enough to grasp what they seem to have grasped, that is the secret of their success. 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 tries to learn from her mistakes, but keeps the pen moving.

There have been real doozy disasters, such as “Michael,” starring John Travolta as a fallen angel who smokes and drinks and hides enormous feathered wings under a trench coat. (Nora, what were you thinking?) 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.” Ouch.

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 seems to be the exception. Says Ariel Levy in a New Yorker article about Ephron,

“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 has 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 resiliancy. 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, makes it possible for Ephron and just a handful of women like her, to continue to work with abandon in a medium that they’re good at, and they love.

“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 Eprhon’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 makes 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.

In the early nineties, Ephron decided, more or less, that she might as well direct her own screenplays.

“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.”

It didn’t hurt that, at this juncture, she had a lot of famous friends in the business, and was famous herself. Her good friend, producer Lynda Obst, was one of her greatest advocates, and 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 has 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 the most recent, 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…”Meryl doesn’t do an imitation of Julia Child,” said director Mike Nichols. “She is Julia Child. Now, we know that’s not possible, but we see it.” )

“They are deeply comforting comedies,” says Levy, “and they have made Ephron, at least by some measures, the most successful female director working in this country…”

Although “success” translated into big box office numbers, does not an Oscar winner necessarily make, as we now know from the lowest grossing Oscar-winning picture in history, “The Hurt Locker.”

“We don’t think of things that way and I’m not,” she told Levy firmly. “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.”

In her sixties, 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.”

From my view, if you don’t have to be mortal, and can be Nora Ephron instead, with all her multifarious gifts, who cares whether or not a phallic little gold man is sitting on your shelf? For my money, I’d rather be a fly on the wall inside Ephron’s brain privy to her next great concept. All Uncle Oscar seems to be good for these days are Hangover puers ignored by the Golden Globes.

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