R.I.P. Nora Ephron

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Nora Ephron was one of those artists who think they are on the left – probably because most of their friends and colleagues are – but whose own work suggests very strongly otherwise.

Yes, she married – yeesh – Carl Bernstein.  Well, somebody had to.  Anyway, nobody’s perfect.  Love is blind.  And all that.

But just look at her work.  I first became acquainted with her through the Esquire essays she collected in 1978 in Scribble Scribble.  It was the decade of Women’s Lib, but this was no grim feminist treatise – it was a hilarious, irreverent, snappy collection of essays in the tradition of Dororthy Parker, full of witty self-deprecation and sharp insight into human behavior, and I remember reading it over and over again, savoring the funny prose and laughing out loud repeatedly.

One thing was clear: Ephron was no oversensitive flower, ever on the lookout for sexist slights; no, she was a tough, perceptive, no-nonsense New York newspaperwoman (one of her essays was about her reportorial stint at the then very quirky and shabby New York Post) – an updated, more low-rent version of Kate Hepburn in Woman of the Year, kind of, only more interested in the little everyday details than in large-scale world events, and gifted with a terrific eye for the absurd.

She went on to write movies and then direct them.  Her parents, Harry and Phoebe Ephron, had scripted a bunch of Hollywood pictures – none of them remotely great, but all of them good, solid, old-fashioned entertainment – among them Look for the Silver Lining, There’s No Business Like Show Business, Carousel, and Desk Set.  Although Ephron sought to identify with the new Hollywood – and with new sensibilities – her own films, in their themes and tones and storylines, repeatedly and emphatically harkened back to the Golden Age of American movies, in the very best of ways.

To be sure, Silkwood (1983), written by Ephron and directed by Mike Nichols, was a case study in Hollwood PC, drenched in familiar anti-corporate paranoia.  But Heartburn (1986), also directed by Nichols, and When Harry Met Sally… (1989), directed by Rob Reiner, were entertaining portraits of romantic relationships, the former based on the breakup of the Bernstein marriage, the latter, probably her most famous picture, a now-classic romantic comedy.  And Mixed Nuts (1994), which she wrote with her sister Delia and directed, was an offbeat, darkly comic, weirdly touching – and not at all PC – study of a group of oddballs living in Venice, California.

Ephron’s echoes of old Hollywood became explicit in Sleepless in Seattle (1993), which she both co-wrote and directed, and which unabashedly references the old Cary Grant-Deborah Kerr weepie An Affair to Remember (1957).  It’s a full-fledged tribute to old Hollywood, unashamedly romantic and genuinely sweet in a way that was exceedingly unusual for the time.  The story of You’ve Got Mail (1998), which she wrote with her sister Delia and directed, was widely viewed as up-to-the-minute because it was about a couple (Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan) meeting online, but the plot was a cherished Hollywood staple: two people who can’t stand each other in real life are at the same time, unbeknownst to them, conducting a romance by mail under assumed names.  The same sentimental tale had earlier been told in two very charming old movies, The Shop Around the Corner, (1940), starring James Stewart and Margaret Sullavan, and In the Good Old Summertime (1949), starring Van Johnson and Judy Garland.  Sleepless in Seattle and You’ve Got Mail made it clear that Ephron, whatever her professed politics, was still very much, in her heart, a filmmaker whose work was far more influenced by the values of Golden Age Hollywood than by the celluloid progeny of such films as Bonnie and Clyde, Easy Rider, and Midnight Cowboy. 

Bewitched (2005) was perhaps one of the most horrible, unwatchable films ever made; I can’t imagine what Ephron was thinking.  But the other two of the last three films in which she was involved were nothing less than beautiful.  The terribly underrated Hanging Up (2000), about the travails of the three adult daughters (Ryan, Diane Keaton, Lisa Kudrow) of a now-divorced screenwriting couple (Walter Matthau, Cloris Leachman), was obviously highly autobiographical, and was also at once very comical and – especially in its closing moments – profoundly and surprisingly moving.  Written by Ephron with her sister Delia, and directed by Keaton, it was an unusually intelligent and mature movie about family values in the truest sense – about the need to keep one’s family bonds intact, despite differences and resentments, until the end.  It was also, as the title suggests, about the need to “hang up” – to accept that the end has come when it has, finally, in fact, come.  Yes, there was some intrusive political content that didn’t belong at all – the Ryan character, an event planner, is arranging a do at the Nixon Library, and so we are treated to some tired Nixon humor – but this doesn’t detract too seriously from what is really a lovely movie in the best tradition of American filmmaking.

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  • BS77

    I really liked Silkwood…that was intense!! RIP Nora…..

  • H&R_ Barack

    The act of glorifying the Left is an occupational hazzard among the bow-tie Right.

  • mlcblog

    I really appreciate this article. I have been an Ephron fan forever, since I first noticed her name somewhere. To paint a true portrait of her character as I feel the author has done here is lovely.

    I am saving it to share with those younger people in my life who may aspire to hard work, lovingly devoted.

    Thank you! and I do agree that the two political scenes were jarring, to say the least. It seems they were merely obligatory and may or may not have had much to do with facts.

  • Questions

    Nora Ephron, like Nancy Meyers ("Private Benjamin," "What Women Want," "It's Complicated"), was a witty non-Leftist feminist observer of modern romance among the urbane middle-class. While I don't share Bawer's view that the old movies were all that great shakes — I consider the most recent 20 years to be the Golden Age — his take on Ephron, for the most part, is quite accurate and affecting. R.I.P. Nora.

  • Ghostwriter

    I liked this article. It was great and sweet. Ms. Ephron deserved a send-off like that.

  • Jim Strom

    Her clever and bittersweet writing is always a pleasure. As to politics, perhaps she revealed herself best in the theater scene in YGM. There Meg Ryan/Kathleen Kelly confesses that she neglected to vote in a recent mayoral election, suggesting that a lot of personal stuff is more important than the political. Her lapse provokes a split up with her loveable but highly politicized boyfriend. Yeah, Nora Ephron was a human being more than an ideologue.

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