Nora Ephron — author, playwright, filmmaker, three-time-Oscar-nominated screenwriter — was a pioneer for women movie directors. In a time when men (still) dominate the profession, Ephron broke through with a string of hits that included Sleepless in Seattle, Michael, You’ve Got Mail, and Julie & Julia.
In the ’80s she became one of the industry’s top screenwriters after penning three award-winning films. Her first two screenplays — Silkwood and Heartburn, the latter based on her novel of the same name — were made into award-winning movies starring Meryl Streep. The Oscar-nominated screenplay for Silkwood by Alice Arlen and Nora Ephron is delicate in its handling of Karen’s controversial death. While the film doesn’t offer any answers, it also doesn’t glorify the death in any way or use it in a tacky manner to create unnecessary tension. Other screenwriters might have used the car crash as a wrap-around to the central story, possibly opening the movie with the accident and then coming back to it in the end. But screenwriters Arlen and Ephron are interested in Karen’s human story, and so the film plays out more like a drama than a thriller.
1986’s Heartburn isn’t as successful as Silkwood, although there’s still a lot to like. It’s not a secret that Ephron’s novel and later screenplay were based on true life experiences — Ephron said at Meryl Streep’s 2004 AFI Lifetime Achievement Award ceremony, “the true stretch (for Meryl), if I do say so, was playing me, in Heartburn.” Sometimes writers are able to infuse even more honesty into their work when the experiences of the narrative come from their own lives, but other times, writers get so close to the real events that they struggle to give the story personality, or any surprises. Heartburn is a case in which another ten years might have given Ephron distance to write a more biting, satirical story.
Ephron’s third screenplay was made into my favorite romantic comedy of all time, When Harry Met Sally, starring Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan. Since my introduction to the 1989 Rob Reiner-directed romantic comedy in my high school years, I’ve probably watched it more than fifteen times. It’s one of the few romantic comedies ever made that I find nearly perfect, with great chemistry between the two leads, terrific pacing, the sharpest of dialogue, and a fabulous ending. I love this movie so much, and for her screenplay, Ephron netted her second Academy Award nomination.
In 1992 Ephron directed her first feature — This is My Life, starring Julie Kavner — and she went on to direct seven more movies. Sleepless in Seattle, which earned her a third Academy Award nomination for her script, is considered by many her best, but I have a soft spot in my heart for You’ve Got Mail, which is just so damn delightful I’ve never been able to get enough of it. Back in my middle school days, when I was chasing after girls (gasp!), You’ve Got Mail played a major role in wooing not just one but two girls. On one occasion, I put a VHS copy of You’ve Got Mail in a girl’s mailbox, as my birthday gift to her!
Ephron was known to be a foodie, and an incredible cook, so it seems fitting her last film would be 2009’s Julie & Julia. None of Ephron’s movies are necessarily considered masterpieces; they’re comfort viewing, almost like comfort food, and Julie & Julia was able to mix in both. The Julia Child segments in the film were probably the best moments Ephron ever caught on film, with Meryl Streep giving one of her most memorable performances as the famous chef and television personality.
Julie & Julia marked Streep’s only film with Ephron that Ephron directed as well, which makes this being her swan song as a filmmaker particularly poignant. It may be silly to suggest that a writer/director’s final movie has to be one of his or her better ones, but after the two unfortunate bombs Lucky Numbers in 2000, with John Travolta, and Bewitched in 2005, with Nicole Kidman, it’s a relief that Ephron’s last movie marked a return to form for the artist, who had achieved success with Sleepless in Seattle and You’ve Got Mail, and especially her screenplay for When Harry Met Sally. Julie & Julia shows everything that makes Ephron wonderful — her attention to detail, her infectious sense of humor, her fantastic way with actors, and, of course, her obsession with food. And what better way to end a directing career than to work with the best, Meryl Streep.
Ephron was a noted author of fiction and essays as well, and some of her titles include Crazy Salad, Wallflower at the Orgy, I Feel Bad About My Neck, and, her last, I Remember Nothing: And Other Reflections. She also wrote the stage-plays Imaginary Friends, in 2002, and Lucky Guy, which premiered on Broadway with Tom Hanks in 2013. She was one of the funniest writers of her generation, a fabulous director and voice for the cinema, and six years since her passing, her status as a legend only continues to grow.