R.I.P. Nora Ephron

She wasn't the lefty she thought she was.

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.

But the finest of all Ephron's pictures was Julie & Julia (2009).  I saw it under somewhat strange circumstances.  For various reasons I had not watched a picture in a movie theater in a couple of years – then, within a period of a few days, I saw two pictures in movie theaters.  One of them was This Is It, to which I was dragged by my significant other, who is a major Michael Jackson fan.  The other was Julie & Julia, to which I dragged him after giving him, a Norwegian who had never heard of Julia Child, a brief education in her life and career, consisting mainly of You Tube videos of her old shows, a wonderful, hours-long TV interview with her, and Dan Aykroyd's famous Saturday Night Live parody of The French Chef.

Both films made a strong, and surprisingly similar, impression upon me.  Part of the reason was that both turned out to have powerful, if unintentional, conservative messages, in the very best sense of the term.  Both were portraits of Americans who had made significant contributions to modern American culture.  Both were testimonies to the importance of working hard at one's art or craft.  The Jackson documentary showed just what a perfectionist Jackson was, how much he knew about every detail that went into his shows, from the musical arrangements to the lighting, and how hard he struggled every day to ensure that every aspect of his own contribution to his shows would turn out just the way he wanted it.  We saw that movie in a theater packed with children and teenagers, and I couldn't help but be warmed by the feeling that those kids were acquiring a terrific lesson in the fact that being a pop icon wasn't just about being covered in glitter and swimming in money – it was about knowing every last detail about your craft (and other people's craft, too) and about working yourself to exhaustion every day to get every last little detail, not only of your contribution but of your collaborators' contributions, absolutely right.  World-class success was about work – but it could be fun work, rewarding work, meaningful work, work that gave a life its meaning.

And Julie & Julia taught the same lesson – only it took the lesson a step further.  In the movie, Ephron recounted the story of Julia Child, who, living in Paris in the 1950s with her diplomat husband, develops from a hapless and almost universally mocked aspiring French chef into an immortal figure who changed American cuisine forever.  But that wasn't the whole film: Ephron also told the story of Julie Powell, who in 2002 decided to bring meaning to her life by spending a year tacking every recipe in Child's classic work Mastering the Art of French Cooking, and who got a bestselling book (and Ephron's movie) out of itThe film is not just about how one person's hard work and dedication can change the world – it's about how that hard work and dedication can serve as an inspiration to others who, in turn, have their own ameliorative impact upon the society around them.  The lesson being that this is how civilization, at its best, works.

There were only two discordant notes in the whole movie, and they were of a piece.  In the Julia scenes, Child's father visits her and her husband, Paul, in Paris, and we're made to understand that he's a moneyed Pasadena Republican who supports Senator Joseph McCarthy's anti-Communist crusade; since McCarthy's efforts have made things difficult professionally for Paul, a cultural attaché at the U.S. embassy, an unpleasant exchange ensues.  It felt out of place – you felt the presence of the writer and director, insistent upon making a political statement and determined to make sure we understand that our heroes are on the side of the angels.  An even less believable exchange mars the scenes about Julie.  Her boss at the New York City government office where she works, trying to deal with the problems of the victims of 9/11 and their survivors, blasts her for spending her time cooking, telling her that she's lucky he's a Democrat – a Republican would fire her.  Right.

Ephron, who both wrote and directed Julie & Julia, was better than these cheap, superfluous political touches.  It's not hard to figure out why she included these bits in the picture.  That's what can happen when you're raised in Hollywood and move in certain bicoastal showbiz (and literary) social circles.  What matters, however – what's striking – is just how conservative, nonetheless, the message of Julia & Julia ultimately is.  It's a beautiful movie about an American woman whose genius, determination, and hard work overcame all kinds of obstacles, leaving such a lasting impact on our society that her home kitchen ended up being immortalized at the Smithsonian.  It says something very admirable about Ephron that she was so passionately drawn to that story, and to many of the other stories she told in her career.  She was, in her heart, not a sneering cynic about America but a child of the Hollywood of her parents – a Hollywood that celebrated the very best of America.

So watch her movies.  Read her books.  See for yourself.

Rest in peace, Nora Ephron.

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Tags: Hollywood, Dead