CATEGORIES Movie NewsI got to meet Nora Ephron 20 years ago when she was promoting her directing debut, "This Is My Life," and I found her to be exactly like one of the heroines of her movies: smart, worldly, self-effacing, and as wittily eloquent as we all wish we could be in real life but almost never are.
Actually, she was the heroine of most of her movies, since she specialized in the thinly veiled autobiographical roman a clef. Ephron, who died at 71 on June 26, made herself a trailblazer -- as a writer of influential romantic comedies (notably, "When Harry Met Sally," "Sleepless in Seattle," and "You've Got Mail"), as a successful director at a time when few women held that distinction, and as one of the most powerful women in the film industry -- but she did it all simply by being herself.
The urge to transform her life into art came naturally to Ephron. Her parents were playwrights/screenwriters Henry and Phoebe Ephron, who drew upon Nora's life as inspiration for their play "Three's a Family" (about her infancy) and their play and movie "Take Her, She's Mine" (inspired by Nora's letters home from Wellesley College). How she and her three sisters (including Delia Ephron, Nora's frequent screenwriting partner) felt about having their lives turned into fodder for public laughter and tears can be grasped from "This Is My Life," about a stand-up comic whose young daughters are mortified by their mom's too-close-to-home jokes and alienated by the showbiz success that has disrupted their family life in their cozy Manhattan apartment. The Ephron sisters' alternately embarrassing and endearing father is also clearly the inspiration for Walter Matthau's character in "Hanging Up," a senile and cantankerous screenwriter whose three daughters find him both lovable and exasperating.
Ephron began her writing career in the 1960s as a journalist, but at a time when the literary New Journalism movement was making it more acceptable for reporters to inject humor, subjectivity, and autobiographical detail into their writing. Within a few years, she was famous for her funny, personal essays.
Her sideways entry into film was also derived from her personal life. Her second husband, reporter Carl Bernstein, had her working on rewrites of the 1976 movie "All the President's Men," based on his book with Bob Woodward about the pair's work in uncovering the Watergate conspiracy. (For years, Ephron boasted that she had figured out that confidential Watergate source "Deep Throat" was really FBI bigwig Mark Fetl, based on clues in Bernstein's writings.) Ephron's revisions didn't make it into the film, but she'd found a new calling. She was not, however, giving up journalism for a glitzier career; in fact, she spoke of screenwriting as the kind of job she could do at home while taking care of her kids.
By 1983, she'd earned her first Oscar nomination for "Silkwood," a based-in-fact drama that called upon her old reportorial skills. It also marked her first pairings with Mike Nichols (her first directing mentor) and Meryl Streep, who would collaborate with her again to bring her novel "Heartburn" to the screen in 1986. "Heartburn," a very thinly veiled account of the bitter and humiliating breakup of her marriage to Bernstein, was her most autobiographical work. Clearly, she had overcome whatever pain or embarrassment she may have felt about dredging up such unhappy memories; there's no revenge as sweet as having Meryl Streep play you in the movie you wrote of your life.
Ephron's marriage to Nick Pileggi, obviously a much happier union (it lasted from 1987 until her death), also inspired her work. While Pileggi was transforming his book "Wiseguy" into Martin Scorsese's mafia epic "Goodfellas," she wrote two mob-themed comedies, "Cookie" (about a gangster's teenage daughter) and "My Blue Heaven" (about a mobster in the witness protection program who's bored with suburban life and who can't stay out of trouble, much like "Wiseguy"/"Goodfellas" inspiration Henry Hill). But she was about to find her biggest success writing about the life she knew from experience, that of a smart, accomplished New York woman who's been unlucky in love and who takes years to find the right guy.
When it came out, 1989's "When Harry Met Sally" seemed like Woody Allen-lite: privileged white New Yorkers, wisecracking and talking endlessly about their feelings, with a soundtrack of pre-rock jazz/pop standards (but sung by Harry Connick Jr., Frank Sinatra-lite). Today, however, the movie looks like the inspiration for all modern romantic comedies. Every rom-com of the past quarter-century that features a Type A heroine (a big-city gal, driven in her career but whose personal life is a mess) and a jaded hero redeemed by love (who also teaches the high-strung heroine how to loosen up) owes a debt to "When Harry Met Sally." So do Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan, since it elevated them from second-stringers into A-list stars.
As positive as her experiences were working with Nichols on "Silkwood" and "Heartburn" and with Rob Reiner on "When Harry Met Sally," Ephron still clashed with her directors over script changes. She became a director at 50, fairly late in life, not so much out of a desire to change careers again, but rather, to protect her own writing from the interference of other directors. "I thought, 'I could've screwed that up just as well as he did, so why am I not making the money to do this?" she explained in a 1998 interview.
"This Is My Life" wasn't a hit, but her next film was huge. "Sleepless in Seattle" revived the formula she'd created with "When Harry Met Sally," including the casting of Meg Ryan, the oldies soundtrack, and a valentine to New York City (where the climactic sequence takes place). As with "Harry," it earned her an Oscar nomination for screenwriting (her third) and validated her as a director at a time when very few women had broken through the profession's glass ceiling. What's more, it proved that a female-driven movie about romance and emotion could be as big a blockbuster as a male-driven movie about action and mayhem. ("Sleepless" has some self-aware fun with this notion of gender-divided movie audiences, in its discussion of "An Affair to Remember" and "The Dirty Dozen" as movies that make one sex cry and leave the other sex indifferent.)
Ephron had another big hit with "Michael," which, beneath its angelic/spiritual trappings, was another movie about careerist big-city journalists who have to learn to stop and smell the roses in order to find romance. And then came another "Sleepless"-sized blockbuster, the romantic comedy "You've Got Mail." Ostensibly an update for the AOL age of the 1940 Ernst Lubitsch film "The Shop Around the Corner," the movie was actually inspired by the closing of one of Ephron's favorite independent book shops, the Upper West Side's Shakespeare & Company, after a Barnes & Noble opened across the street. (You can still see the store in the bookstore scene in "When Harry Met Sally.") Filmed almost entirely on locations within a few blocks of Ephron's Upper West Side apartment, "Mail" was not only Ephron's ultimate work-from-home job, it also made her Manhattan neighborhood look, once again, like love's own playground. (When the movie came out in 1998, I was living on the Upper West Side, a couple blocks from Ephron, and I had been a frequenter of many of the restaurants, shops, parks, and other area hangouts shown in the film. Suddenly, they had taken on a surreal aura, as if they belonged to history now. In an ever-changing neighborhood, Ephron had managed to save some of her favorite places from the fate of that quirky bookstore by preserving them on film. Once again, she had turned life into art, and not just for herself, but for a whole community.)
With "Sleepless," "Michael," and "Mail," Ephron had earned the ultimate freedom Hollywood offered: the freedom to fail and still get to make more movies. (Really, that's how a previously underrepresented group in Hollywood knows it's arrived.) Like some of the other women directors who had blossomed in the early '90s (Penny Marshall, Kathryn Bigelow), Ephron had a resume littered with duds ("Mixed Nuts," "Lucky Numbers," "Bewitched"); unlike them, she got to keep making big-budget studio movies, films about smart and strong women.
Ephron's last film was the 2009 hit "Julie & Julia," a based-in-fact comedy drama about two of her favorite things: food and writing. Its heroines (Streep, once again, as Julia Child and Amy Adams as Julie Powell) were both late-bloomers who found success as authors with the moral support of husbands who didn't mind being overshadowed. One of them, Powell, was a New Yorker and a blogger; Ephron had become a popular blogger herself as one of the first celebrity byliners at the Huffington Post.
It's not clear yet what will become of the projects Ephron was reportedly working on during the last year of her life. One was a film adaptation of the British series "Lost in Austen," about a time-traveler who finds herself in the world of "Pride and Prejudice." Another was a Broadway play for her frequent leading man Tom Hanks, a based-in-fact story about a New York journalist.
Her legacy may be just as precarious. Two decades after "Seattle," after the rise of women to top jobs at several Hollywood studios, women directors are still a rarity and commercially bankable women directors rarer still. (There's Nancy Meyers, who mines much of the same geographical and romantic turf as Ephron, and then there's.... um... ) What's more, in our current age of sexual bluntness, lack of privacy, and social media, the romantic comedy formula she perfected is starting to look creaky and in need of an overhaul. (Or, as Mila Kunis put it in "Friends With Benefits," "Shut up, Katherine Heigl!") Boundary-shattering scribes, from Judd Apatow to DIablo Cody, are coming up with new rom-com templates, and the genre is likely to evolve into something Harry and Sally wouldn't recognize.
Still, Ephron must have been happy that someone like Powell was following in her footsteps -- stumbling onto a new career by accident, becoming a pioneer in a new format, doing it all without having to leave her New York apartment, and getting to cook and eat beef bourguignon in the process. Not only had Ephron already written that story, she'd already lived it. Which was, to Ephron, essentially the same thing.