Nora Ephron, who wrote and directed iconic modern romantic comedies and served as the wry voice of multiple generations, died on Tuesday, June 26 of pneumonia, a complication from the acute myeloid leukemia she’d been diagnosed with in 2006. Her illness had been a private matter, known to close friends and family only. This meant that those of us who considered her to be a best friend, albeit one we could reach only by opening up the New Yorker or one of her books or going to the multiplex, were gobsmacked by the fact that she was gone.
Her death feels like a kind of robbery, not of things you have, but of gifts you were expecting. She was 71, but surely there would be another collection of essays, two or three more movies to watch repeatedly, as comforting as a bowl of the mashed potatoes and cold slices of butter she loved? If she were preparing to die, wouldn’t this most graceful sharer tell us about it, in some strangely comforting way?
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In hindsight, there were signs. Go to her IMDB page and you’ll find there was nothing pending, despite the solid success of her big, generous 2009 film Julie & Julia. Her 2010 book I Remember Nothing ended with a list titled “What I Will Miss” and a thank-you to “my doctors.” Because these were Ephron’s words, we took them as little jokes, a nod to her readily acknowledged neuroses, to her grudging acceptance of aging.
Before I began writing this appreciation, I had various teary business to conduct, starting with weeping over Ephron’s obituaries, then rereading Ariel Levy’s excellent 2009 profile of the writer/director/essayist/home cook from the New Yorker, dipping back into Ephron’s own essays. I stopped crying to laugh at her hilariously befuddled column about the Coen brothers’ version of No Country for Old Men. In between I sent texts to my sister, who I knew would be poring over the same material some 200 miles away from me. We both expected that we would grow old with Ephron, with her holding up a torch — aflame with wit — to illuminate the way as we followed her through the caverns of decline. Her essays felt like aged Lucinda Williams songs, the rawness sanded down, the comedy born of wisdom that softened the angst, but the voice still frank and strong.
As a writer-director, Nora Ephron was not Ingmar Bergman, which is to say, you might never discuss her films in a graduate seminar on identity in cinema. On the other hand, you never worried that, should fate deposit her at your house, she’d sit in a corner being Swedish and dour. Also, while a Netflix copy of The Seventh Seal might remain in your possession for months, while you wait for the right (or dutiful) mood to watch it, When Harry Met Sally requires no emotional preparation beyond being human. Ephron didn’t technically make all that many romantic comedies, but she was the undisputed queen of the genre. She made movies about falling in love and did it so well that these idealized relationships actually seemed like possibilities instead of implausible annoyances. What unattached romantic has been to the top of the Empire State Building since 1993, when Sleepless in Seattle came out, without looking around for their Tom Hanks or Meg Ryan, even if not immediately conscious of that sweet spark of hope?
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She was nominated for an Oscar for three of her screenplays but never won. I wanted so much for her Julie & Julia screenplay to be recognized by the Academy. She took a gimmicky memoir of a woman who cooked her way through Julia Child’s The Art of French Cooking and stewed it up with the story of the real Julia. No one likes the Julie bits even one-tenth as much as they like the Julia bits, but Ephron diluted much of Julie’s whining and incorporated it into a beautiful whole. She made much of something minor while making it look effortless.
That was one of her talents, a sort of effortless (seeming) processing of pain. Ephron’s novel Heartburn, a fictionalized, highly comic account of her disastrous split from her second husband, journalist Carl Bernstein, came out in 1983. My mother brought it home sometime in the next year or so. She laughed so much over it that I read it too, even though I was a college student blissfully in love with my first serious boyfriend and thus had little expectation that I’d relate to the story of some crazy, cooking-obsessed woman who had been cheated on while vastly pregnant. I howled with laughter and thereafter gave the side-eye to Bernstein, Dustin Hoffman (just for good measure, since he played Bernstein in the movie version of All the President’s Men) and to some degree, the boyfriend. Much later in life, when I could truly relate, I was grateful to Ephron for Heartburn and the example she had set: everything is copy, or can be, and disaster can and should be mined for comedy. Black comedy beats the blues. “My religion is Get Over It,” Ephron wrote in I Remember Nothing. In this church, she has many followers.
I realized, in the hours after Ephron’s death, how present she is in my daily life. She is the background hum when I look in the mirror and notice the neck that I am just beginning to feel bad about. (Who calls an essay collection I Feel Bad About My Neck? Some kind of genius.) She’s in the kitchen, where I can’t fry a steak without recalling the funny lament she wrote for Teflon in 2006, when experts determined that Teflon frying pans were bad and should be replaced with the Le Creuset pan I now use. I bought it because Ephron said she was going to buy one. More significantly, she is in virtually every conversation about women in film, even though she didn’t particularly want to be. Kathryn Bigelow is the first woman to win an Academy Award for Best Director, but for decades, if you started a conversation about female filmmakers with clout, Ephron was the first, and often the only, name anyone brought up. She hated being asked to appear on panels called Women in Film and didn’t want to be referred to as the most successful female director (she tried to push that title off on director Nancy Meyers). “The main thing is that it just seems like a sad thing to be called,” she told Levy in that 2009 New Yorker profile. It made sense that she didn’t want to be put on a pedestal; she delighted in knocking herself off them to put others at ease.
There are many who dismiss her films. Some are bad. I commute on a bus line that shows Michael, her ridiculous 1996 John Travolta-as-angel film, four trips out of 10. I look up at the screen and think, What was Nora thinking?, but my affection for her remains undiminished. The great films she wrote, like Mike Nichols’ Heartburn and Silkwood and Rob Reiner’s When Harry Met Sally, are good enough to make you want to go back and watch the lesser ones she wrote and directed, like Hanging Up (2000) and Bewitched (2005). Sleepless in Seattle, her ode to An Affair to Remember, can be watched over and over again. Even You’ve Got Mail, something I’m sure I disdained upon release, seems entirely delightful when you sit down to watch it with your family. Ephron had an uncanny ability to please, repeatedly.
In one of the closing chapters in I Remember Nothing, Ephron described the joy of the summers she used to spend at her house in Long Island, N.Y., with her third husband, writer Nicholas Pileggi, and her kids: “We were always there for the end of June, my favorite time of the year, when the sun doesn’t set until nine-thirty at night and you feel as if you will live forever,” she wrote. Later she interpreted nature’s messages differently, saw them as a reminder of the end of all things, and stopped spending her summers there. And she did not live forever. But she died at her favorite time of year, at the end of June, and even, it seems, right around sunset. There is some exquisite magic in that timing. And she left us wanting more, final proof of a great comic.