In Memoriam: Nora Ephron
"Well, it was a million tiny little things that, when you added them all up, they meant we were supposed to be together... and I knew it. I knew it the very first time I touched her. It was like coming home... only to no home I'd ever known... I was just taking her hand to help her out of a car and I knew. It was like... magic." — Sam, speaking of his late wife, in Sleepless in Seattle.
This one hurts. We're getting used to the idea that people are living, and working, longer, and I guess that's why it's a shock, strange as that may seem, when a beloved writer dies at 71. But she was so young! you want to say, and really what you mean is: She wasn't done yet! and - We hadn't had enough of her.
Ephron's career as an essayist has gotten its props over the years, i.e. People who know humor, and how hard it is to make it seem so effortless, have long admired and praised her work in this often gnarly and abused form. But Ephron's career as a screenwriter has never gotten the respect it deserves.
Say what you will about Sleepless in Seattle, her collaboration with Jeff Arch and David S. Ward, but it's got one of the most original story concepts in romantic comedy-dom, and it's chockful of wonderfully modulated comedic and poignant moments. And in case you've forgotten (or for shame, are not familiar with it), I've got one word for you: Silkwood (written with Alice Arlen). It's a killer screenplay, period, with superb characterization work.
The big one, of course, is When Harry Met Sally... I've written extensively about this classic, in my book on writing rom-coms, and on this blog. If you've just re-viewed it, in tribute to Nora, you might enjoy this post about one of the greatest set-pieces in rom-com history ("I'll have what she's having"), and this post about the movie's climax, which contains one of the most influential speeches in the genre.
But the screenplay as published, with an insightful and profoundly witty introduction by Ephron, quietly exposes what's a true tour de force. WHMS is arguably the greatest dialogue-driven, talking heads-fest of a romantic comedy ever penned - a grand exception to the rule that movies must be primarily about action and images.
The finished film has all that, too, due to some canny directing by Rob Reiner. But my god: Just look at all the white space on these pages! Do you have any idea how hard it is, to pull this off? Many a rom-com screenwriter since has attempted such a feat and failed. Yes, the structure is brilliant, and the thematic hook remains marvelously compelling, but this is a film that lives and dies almost entirely on the strength of its spoken words. And it's just loaded with great lines.
For this film alone Ephron joins the comedy immortals, but as many other memorials are no doubt detailing, her books and her essays will live on, as well. What many of us will miss is her presence. I never knew Nora personally, but had the honor of sharing the screen with her, so to speak, in a British documentary on the rom-com genre: There are a few moments over the course of it where the filmmakers cut from me pontificating, to her talking, and in truth, that's the thing about the doc that I've always treasured the most. Me and Ephron - we were like this!
The presence I'm talking about, though, has more to do with knowing she was around, as a female screenwriter and director, making movies - making the point that women could be funny, for god's sake, and brilliant, and powerful, and indelible in the culture at large. She was anything but the norm in an industry that's still laughably sexist. And she leaves a big space that will never be filled - not the way Nora Ephron filled it.
Woman-shwoman, she was a class act. And one of the things most endearing about her work was how she drew our attention to a million tiny little things - those peculiar, funny details found in everyday life that another writer might have ignored, often because they were so seemingly small and "normal."
Her very attention to the quotidian is probably what made a lot of cinefiles and hipsters fail to take her seriously, but it's just this that I'll always love about her work. She found a little bit of magic in the mundane. She held these tiny things up to the light and made them sparkle, and made us laugh and cry. What more can you ask of an artist in this crazy world? I've admired her all my life, and now I'm always going to miss her.