Nora Ephron: A Life of Voice and Detail

The star of Ephron's films "Sleepless in Seattle" and "You've Got Mail" reflects on the genius of a colleague and friend

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L.A. Collection / Sygma / Corbis

Tom Hanks and Nora Ephron during the shooting of the movie You've Got Mail.

As wives are wont to do, mine announced one evening in 1992 that we were going to a movie.

The movie was This Is My Life, the writer and first-time director was Nora Ephron, and within the hour, there we were in the cinema watching the opening credits of a middle-aged-chick flick about a woman (played by the wonderful Julie Kavner) who becomes a stand-up comic, moves to Manhattan from one of the not-Manhattan boroughs and sort of neglects her kids in the process but actually makes everyone’s life better in the long run. Though that movie would be considered only a middling success, it was inexpensive to make, had wonderful, real performances, looked great (though Nora said to me years later, “Why didn’t I move the camera?”) and made some money.

I thought it was much more, an ideal debut film that sparkled with bits of genius. Take one otherwise unremarkable scene in which the lead character moves across the East River, her dreams, courage and household items packed into a rental trailer she is towing across the 59th Street Bridge. She steers uptown on First Avenue, then turns left toward Central Park, winding through it on one of the familiar cross-park routes, turns right on Broadway, then left onto an Upper West Side street, finally stopping in front of the family’s new home. What’s so special about that? Here’s what: this was the first time I had seen a geographically correct moving montage in a movie — real cars in real traffic in the actual order of transit required to get from point A (the ordinary life in not — Manhattan) to point B (Manhattan), a distance of miles physically but light-years culturally.

(MORE: Remembering Everything: Nora Ephron’s Legacy)

Nora, with her sense of story, understood the value of the turn-by-turn realism of her character’s trek, transforming what could have been a standard moving-the-kids-and-couch bit into a journey of hope and glory. When I was told she was going to direct a second movie — Sleepless in Seattle — and wanted to meet, I actually hollered at my agent, “She shot that geographically authentic move into Manhattan!”

It was her journalist’s curiosity that made Nora the directing talent she was. Her writing was always voice and detail. I once sent her a piece I was trying to write, and her response was three words: “Voice! Voice! Voice!” Reading her work from the 1960s is like listening to her over dinner last February, except the old stuff pulls you back with its vibrant social history. She covered the Beatles’ arrival and Pan Am press conference at JFK airport along with most of the reporters who showed up to work that day. But read Nora’s coverage and you’re in the Rockaways in February 1964. Her plays — all that voice and detail — are so universal. Love, Loss and What I Wore played Mexico City, Paris and Australia and, I bet, killed.

Nora’s films, of course, mine the same veins of society’s gold. Go back and watch Sleepless in Seattle. Notice as Rosie O’Donnell and Meg Ryan talk about the guy with the shop that sells only soup, but it’s so good, people line up for it. That was Seinfeld’s Soup Nazi years before Seinfeld discovered him. Nora’s sharp eye helped her in more prosaic ways as well. While shooting in Seattle, the crew found this great new place for coffee called Starbucks. As we bought lattes, Nora bought stock in the company. After reading her screenplay (co-written with her sister Delia) for You’ve Got Mail, I told her I was in. “Good,” she said, “but we have to start shooting in the next five minutes, before AOL disappears and something else takes the place of e-mail.”

(LIST: Nora Ephron’s Best Film Moments)

Knowing and loving Nora meant her world — or her neighborhood — became yours. She gave you books to read and took you to cafés you’d never heard of that became legends. You discovered Krispy Kremes from a box she held out, and you learned that there is such a thing as the perfect tuna sandwich. She would give your kids small, goofy parts in movies with the caveat that they might not make the final cut but you’d get a tape of the scene. For a wrap gift, she would send you a note saying something like, “A man is going to come to your house to plant an orange tree — or apple or pomegranate or whatever — and you will eat its fruit for the rest of your days.” Rita and I chose orange, and the fruit has been lovely, sweet and abundant, just as Nora promised — a constant and perfect reminder of the woman we loved so much.

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