Nora Ephron followed an unusual career trajectory in Hollywood, and the single greatest compliment I can pay to her on the occasion of her passing is that you can clearly identify what makes something a Nora Ephron movie. Her voice was strong and distinct, and from the start of her Hollywood career to the end of it, she did personal work that somehow also managed to fit comfortably into the ever-changing modern studio system. That is no easy feat, no matter what the gender of the artist, and when you praise Ephron, it should be as a writer and not just a woman writer.
She came from Hollywood stock, of course, with parents who were part of the old Hollywood studio system, and I have no doubt she learned all you would ever need to know about navigating the political system growing up that way. She was around for the production of films like “Desk Set” and “Carousel” and “There’s No Business Like Show Business,” and her parents worked on TV variety shows as well. She couldn’t have been any more ground zero for a career in film, but for a while, she worked more as an essayist. She was part of the world of politics and journalism, married for a time to Carl Bernstein, and her first theatrical feature, “Silkwood,” was a very smart and angry portrait of famed nuclear industry whistle-blower Karen Silkwood. She was working with Mike Nichols, with Meryl Streep. Talk about hitting the ground running. Her journalist’s background made her an inspired choice for “Silkwood,” and it’s a really good script.
She was a “serious” writer, and I remember how much weight there was placed on the release of “Heartburn,” and how all of its “this is important” buzz evaporated the moment it was released. I saw the film several times, but only because I was a projectionist and usher at the theater where we played the film, and I ended up seeing almost everything that played there repeatedly, even if only in bits and pieces. I thought “Heartburn” was a decent, solid little movie with no real drive to it. There was nothing particularly wrong with the way Ephron told the semi-autobiographical story… there just wasn’t anything particularly compelling about it, either. The book’s much better, and Ephron’s writing was acknowledged as superior in pretty much every review I remember reading at the time.
1989 was a big year for her. She had two movies come out, one directed by Susan Seidelman, one directed by Rob Reiner. The Seidelman film, “Cookie,” was a misfire, but an interesting one, with a wildly miscast central performance by Emily Lloyd and Peter Falk trying desperately to make the material work anyway. The Reiner film, “When Harry Met Sally,” was a monster hit, and it propelled Nora Ephron to a surprisingly high-profile for a writer. There was a lot of publicity about her as the writer and Rob Reiner made it a point to talk about her in every interview and she was nominated for her second Oscar for the film’s endlessly quoted dialogue. That was one of those comedies that people kept coming back to see theatrically, and again, I was working at a theater, and I watched the way the crowds just stayed steady, word of mouth and the success of the soundtrack driving new viewers and repeat viewers for months.
That film’s impact is what gave her the rest of her career. I think she had an uneven career, but a genuine one. She started directing her own work with 1992’s “This Is My Life,” a charming little mother-daughter relationship movie, and then had another huge monster hit cultural moment with “Sleepless In Seattle,” which got her the third Oscar nomination of her career. That film became an iconic thing, passed virally, almost completely absorbed overnight. Audiences… and not just women, but audiences in general… really fell for the film’s set-up, the way it commented on not just the fragility of relationships but also our relationship with movies and how we take our cues about romance and love from them. Of all the films in which Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan appear together, it is by far the biggest and most successful of them, and beloved in a way that only happens a few times in any career. For Ephron to do that two times marked her as someone capable of real greatness on the page, able to execute her work as well as any director she’d worked with before that.
She also directed “Mixed Nuts,” so nobody’s perfect.
I know many people who worked with or for Ephron over the years, and I’ve never heard an angry word about her. She inspired a real dedication in people, and when she found the right way into a piece of material, she was great at writing big movie moments tempered with a dark and bent sensibility, a sharp edge to her wit that left a mark. She was great on the page, and the last time I remember thinking distinctly that I appreciated her was when she published her book, “I Feel Bad About My Neck,” a title that made me laugh standing in the middle of a bookstore. She was brutally honest and brutally funny. She opened a lot of doors for writers of all types, and her success is the sort of thing that I worry Hollywood is rendering obsolete in the current climate. I’m not sure there’s a studio out there that would make “When Harry Met Sally” today. I’m not sure they’d have the stones to let Reiner shoot her script the way they did.
So thank god she happened when she did, and the way she did. Ephron’s best moments are gifts, and even her lesser work still had a distinct voice and attitude, and I think her essays and books are going to have a real shelf life.
Nora Ephron was 71. She was and will be adored.