Nora Ephron: A Life in Film

27 Jun

Well, I guess we all got word late last night that popular screenwriter-director Nora Ephron had passed way at the age of 71. Cause of death? Leukemia.  There has been a lot of coverage today,  and I don’t know what I can add, but I’ll try. Before Ephron became famous in her own right as an Oscar nominated screenwriter, she’d actually grown up in a showbiz family….

RIP: Nora Ephron, 1941 – 2012

Nora Ephron was born to screenwriters Henry and Phoebe Ephron. Among their many collaborations is the Katharine Hepburn-Spencer Tracy comedy about love and office politics circa 1957, Desk Set. Interestingly, Heburn was in her 50s when the movie was made though her age is scarcely, if at all, mentioned. If the movie were being made today, her age would be a critical story element since 50 year old single women are some kind of anomaly that must  be explained in modern-day Hollywood.

The Ephrons received their only Oscar nomination(s) for Captain Newman, M.D (1963), which featured, as well, an Academy nominated supporting performance by singer-actor Bobby Darin. The duo earned multiple Writers Guild noms for such films as Carousel (1956), Daddy Long Legs (1955), and There’s No Business Like Show Business (1954).

The Ephrons also wrote Take Her, She’s Mine, a “wild” 1963 comedy about an over-protective dad (Jimmy Stewart, lower left) who has to learn how to let his college age daughter (Sandra Dee, upper right) take care of herself through one crazy adventure after another. The movie is reportedly based on the Ephrons’ experience with their own Nora. There are worse things than being represented onscreen by Sandra Dee.

After establishing herself as a writer in other media, Nora Ephron broke into screenwriting with 1983’s Silkwood, the fact-based account of Karen Silkwood, the Oklahoma based nuclear power worker and would-be whistle blower who died under mysterious circumstances in the 1970s; the film earned Oscar nominations for Ephron (shared with co-writer Alice Arlen), director Mike Nichols, Meryl Streep, as the title character, and Cher (bottom right), in the supporting role of a  composite character named Dolly.

Ephron’s rather tumultuous marriage to famed Watergate era Washington Post reporter Carl Bernstein was the basis for her novel, Heartburn, which was then adapted for film in 1986. The movie was yet another collaboration with director Mike Nichols. This time, Ephron’s alter ego was played by no less than Meryl Streep (l).  Jack Nicholson (r) stood-in for Bernstein.

Ephron received her second Best Original Screenplay nomination for 1989’s When Harry Met Sally…, a Rob Reiner film starring Meg Ryan (l) and Billy Crystal (r). The movie became famous for, among other things, a scene in a NY Deli in which Sally simulates an orgasm. It also introduced many moviegoers to the smooth stylings of crooner Harry Connick Jr. One of the most popular romantic comedies of the past few decades, its detractors insist it’s just a Woody Allen retread.  It’s a cute movie, but, yes, at times it at least resembles an Allen film. Dig Ryan’s Annie Hall look.

After divorcing Bernstein, Ephron eventually married–and stayed married to–writer Nicholas Pileggi, whose non-fiction mob expose, Wiseguy: Life in a Mafia Family, became the basis for Martin Scorsese’s acclaimed Goodfellas (1990). Interestingly, the same year that Goodfellas was released, Ephron wrote a comedy about a mobster in the witness relocation program, My Blue Heaven starring Steve Martin (l) and Rick Moranis (r). The movie was directed by Herbert Ross, and Ephron reportedly drew upon the real-life figure, Henry Hill, who was the source for Pileggi’s book. (Hill just passed away on June 12 at the age of 69.)

Ephron’s first foray as a director was 1992’s This Is My Life (which she also wrote), starring the great Julie Kavner as a stand-up comic trying to raise two daughters, played by Samantha Mathis and Gaby Hoffman. Of course, Ephron was, at least for awhile, a single mom with two children. Hmmm…. Though not a huge hit, the movie is worth a look–or two. At the end of 1992, when all the critics were complaining that there had not been enough good roles for leading actresses to deliver a suitable slate of Oscar nominees, I don’t recall anyone rushing to this film’s defense, which is too bad for Kavner, and her fans, as she has never been given another great big juicy film role like this one.

Ephron hit the jackpot with her second directorial effort, 1993’s Sleepless in Seattle–starring Tom Hanks (l) and Meg Ryan (r). Though barely more than a tribute to 1950s weepie An Affair to Remember, with Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr as lovers whose plans for a romantic rendezvous go horribly wrong, the movie casts a spell in its own right. (Besides, An Affair to Remember is actually a remake of 1939’s Love Affair with Charles Boyer and Irene Dunn.) Sleepless… is actually my favorite Ephron pic largely, I think, due to the wonderful performances by Hanks and Ryan, who seem more evenly matched than do Ryan and Crystal in When Harry Met Sally. A nifty trick, that, since they are separated for much of the movie. Not only did Sleepless in Seattle earn more money than When Harry Met Sally…, it played in theatres longer as well. We enjoyed a lovely run with it at the old UA: it opened in June and then ran through the summer and on into September.  Five years later, Ephron, Hanks, and Ryan reunited for You’ve Got Mail, a cyber-age update on The Shop Around the Corner (a 1940 Lubitsch comedy starring Jimmy Stewart and Margaret Sullavan), in which professional rivals unwittingly become romantic pen-pals.

Ephron produced 2000’s Hanging Up, which was written by her sister Delia and directed by Diane Keaton (l), who also starred alongside Meg Ryan (center) and Lisa Kudrow (r). Delia Ephron’s filmography also includes credits as co-producer of Sleepless in Seattle and You’ve Got Mail. Hmmm…sisters are as sisters do. Not only was this movie a family affair for Nora and Delia, the three big name stars also play siblings.

Ephron’s final film was 2009’s Julie and Julia starring Meryl Streep (center) and Amy Adams (r) in a story that intercuts the rise of celebrated “French” chef, Julia Child (Streep) with the ups and downs of an aspiring blogger (Julie Powell, played by Adams) who is inspired by Child to expand her own culinary skills. The movie helped Streep earn her 16th Oscar nomination.

Nora Ephron was born into a family of Oscar nominated screenwriters and grew up to become an Oscar nominated screenwriter herself. Portions of her life were even dramatized for film. Some of her most famous movies were either inspired by or adapted from other motion pictures. She married a writer whose work influenced her own, and she also collaborated with her sister on a few projects, including one about sisters. Yes, hers was truly a life in film.

Thanks, Nora…

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2 Responses to “Nora Ephron: A Life in Film”

  1. Dale 27 June 2012 at 6:39 pm #

    Keep up the Good Work Melanie !!

    “My Blue Heaven” is an Underrated Trifle !!

    -Dale

    • listen2uraunt 27 June 2012 at 9:34 pm #

      Thanks, Dale! Though not a huge success in its day, My Blue Heaven is an important film in the context of Ephron’s life. Btw, have you seen This Is My Life? Not great, but a movie doesn’t have to be great to be worth a few hours.

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