Writer and director Nora Ephron died on Tuesday of pneumonia, which had developed during her battle with acute myeloid leukemia. She was 71.
Born in 1941, she was the oldest of four daughters born to Henry and Phoebe Ephron, who were both Hollywood screenwriters. Nora quickly learned that nothing was off limits in the Ephron household. To her parents, everything was potential copy, and when Nora wrote letters from Wellesley College, her parents used her descriptions to form the basis of the character Sandra Dee in their 1963 stage play “Take Her, She’s Mine” (NY Times).
Nora Ephron began her writing career as a journalist; however, I wasn’t exposed to her work until 1983, when I saw the screenplay she had written together with Alice Arlen turned into a Hollywood blockbuster in the film Silkwood, starring Meryl Streep. I remember the frustration and anger I felt watching the story of Karen Silkwood, a worker at a plutonium processing plant who was purposefully contaminated, psychologically tortured, and possibly murdered to prevent her from exposing safety violations. I left the theater that day with a growing sense of cynicism about the world of work I was about to enter as a young adult, and a newfound respect for those who were courageous enough to fight the system and draw attention to the wrongs being committed for the sake of making a profit.
Ephron’s work was not always so serious, and in the late 1980s and early 1990s she turned her attention to romantic comedies, including writing the screenplay for the film When Harry Met Sally, and directing Sleepless in Seattle, and You’ve Got Mail. Everyone who has seen Rob Reiner’s When Harry Met Sally, which hit the theaters in 1989, remembers the scene that takes place between Meg Ryan and Billy Crystal in Katz’s Delicatessen on the Lower East Side. After Sally loudly fakes an orgasm in front of a horrified Harry, a woman at a nearby table–who was actually played by Reiner’s mother–grabs a waiter and tells him, “I’ll have what she’s having” (When Harry Met Sally). Ephron’s female characters, while they were always strong and capable, were also very real, sometimes even bordering on neurotic. Women could identify with these characters in a way that they could not with other female characters being portrayed at the time. Ephron’s women were multi-dimensional; they had flaws and they knew what those flaws were. They were portrayed as subjects of their own lives, not as objects attached to a more important male character’s life. It was Ephron’s realistic portrayal of women that made her work unique.
She also was not afraid to take her own life experiences, which were often quite painful, and put them out there for others to learn from. After her second husband, Watergate journalist Carl Bernstein, had a blatant affair while she was pregnant with their second child, Ephron divorced him and dealt with her pain and humiliation by writing about the experience in the novel Heartburn, which was later made into a film starring Meryl Streep and Jack Nicholson. She took other life lessons and compiled them into a number of books, including I Feel Bad About My Neck: And Other Thoughts on Being a Woman, Crazy Salad: Some Things about Women, I Remember Nothing: And Other Reflections, Scribble Scribble: Notes on the Media, and Wallflower at the Orgy.
Ephron’s last film, Julie & Julia (2009), starring Meryl Streep as famed chef Julia Child, was the best reviewed film of her career. She worked up until her death, leaving many unfinished projects that hopefully her family will someday share. Nora Ephron shed light on the complicated internal and external lives of women, and her work had an incredible influence on the path my own life has taken. For that I am extremely grateful. When asked about the status of women and feminism during an interview, Ephron replied, “The women’s movement may manage to clean up the mess in society, but I don’t know whether it can ever clean up the mess in our minds” (LA Times). As we continue to struggle with the social construction of gender, as a larger society and as individual women, I know that Nora Ephron’s work has made a positive difference.