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Why Nora Ephron Matters

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Jeanne reflects on the legacy of screenwriter Nora Ephron on the anniversary of her death…

There’s a scene in When Harry Met Sally that strikes such a core with my female self I look away everytime. And I don’t mean that scene. While popular culture remains obsessed with Meg Ryan’s fake hair mussing orgasm in New York’s now famous Katz’s Delicatessen it always struck me as not-very-Sally. In every other frame she’s neurosis on legs wearing sensible shoes. That public display for attention just doesn’t slot into the slack-wearing paradigm. No, the scene that jolted me and made me immediately love the movie’s screenwriter, Nora Ephron, is when Sally sits down to order a meal in the first few moments of the film. The movie’s eternal man-child and Sally’s soulmate Harry is trying to quiz her about her sexual experience. Sally is indignant but actually more concerned about getting her salad dressings on the side. She immediately establishes exactly who she is – a waiter’s worst nightmare, and my new favourite heroine. I’m the pickiest eater I know, wholly unadventurous when it comes to gastronomy. I have a virulent dislike of sauces drenching my food unless poured there by my own hand. The sight of dressing on my salad makes me gag. I suspect my boyfriend assumes selective deafness when I start my list of specifications in restaurants.

Every romantic comedy up until then had been teen movies set in ridiculously well funded high schools with inexplicable song and dance routines in the third act. When Harry Met Sally was so grown up and clever. Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher), Sally’s best friend, had a responsible yet sexy short haircut. Couples passionately argued about interiors. Divorces were just little blips on the road to true love. Friends went on excursions to museums. After turning off the DVD player I became a Nora Ephron devotee and sought out her other movies and her essays in collections such as Crazy Salad, Scribble ScribbleI Remember Nothing: And Other Reflections and I Feel Bad About My Neck: And Other Thoughts on Being a Woman. When she died two years ago today aged 71 at New York Presbyterian Hospital of complications associated with acute myeloid leukemia and pneumonia I was one of many women who felt a wrench at her loss.

I’m such a professed fan of her email romantic comedy You’ve Got Mail among my circle of acquaintance that the summer she died I received anonymous emails on my birthday referencing the messages the characters unknowingly send to each other. I sourced Meg Ryan’s character’s replies from IMDB but eventually let the back and forth fizzle out. I didn’t want to know who was pretending to be Tom Hanks’ Joe F-O-X Fox. This was about me saying goodbye to Nora. I’m ignoring the possibility my correspondent may have been a complete nutcase overstepping real-life boundaries.

At the time Ephron’s death prompted blog entries and social media posts all saying the same thing: I knew this woman, I will miss her dreadfully, I will cherish the work she left behind. Nora Ephron’s legacy is a simple one. Women adored her. She inspired countless writers and brought comfort to so many readers with her sharp writing and acerbic attitude that never strayed into meanness. Her quotes became mantras, “Above all, be the heroine of your life, not the victim”, her life a handbook for any aspiring writer. She always wanted to be a reporter and after a summer interning in JFK’s White House – “I was probably the only person in the entire Kennedy White House that JFK had not made a pass at” – she found herself working as a mail girl at Newsweek, with stints at the New York Post and Esquire after that and before Hollywood. Her son Benjamin recalled in a powerful essay last year that she possessed “a belief in self-sufficiency above all else”. In her writing nothing was more marked than an instinct for survival and never-ending good humour. Her mother once told her “everything is copy” and it was in taking apart her personal life in a knowing way that brought her admiration. She wrote in an 1970s issue of Esquire about her breasts: “If I had them, I would have been a completely different person”. The collapse of her marriage to noted journalist and unfaithful second husband Carl Bernstein was fictionalised in her novel Heartburn with her hit movie adaptation starring Jack Nicholson and Meryl Streep. Ephron later joked, ”I highly recommend having Meryl Streep play you. If your husband is cheating on you with a carhop, get Meryl to play you. You will feel much better.” She was adamant about keeping your stories for yourself. That’s where a writer retains power. “When you slip on a banana peel, people laugh at you. But when you tell people you slipped on a banana peel, it’s your laugh.” While she never wrote about her illness she tackled ageing in her inimitable way, “There’s a reason why forty, fifty, and sixty don’t look the way they used to, and it’s not because of feminism, or better living through exercise. It’s because of hair dye.” In her later years she wrote about her mother, also a screenwriter, and her descent into alcoholism. Everything is copy.

Lena Dunham, she of HBO’s Girls and upcoming memoir/thinkpiece fodder Not That Kind of Girl: A Young Woman Tells You What She’s ‘Learned’, is often cited as Ephron’s heir. The two enjoyed a regular friendship during Ephron’s final year that Dunham wrote about in the aftermath of her mentor’s passing. In a conversation about filmmaking and the limitations of the label ‘woman director, Dunham told Ephron “I’ve been lucky enough to exist in a world where you exist.” When other women were hardly being recognized in the industry and relegated to the indie circuit Ephron was amassing Oscar nominations and getting studios to listen to her. Thanks to Ephron Mindy Kaling gets to run riot with while subverting romantic comedy tropes in her hit series The Mindy Project. Hannah Horvath of Girls can deliver monologues naked, literally and emotionally. Cate Blanchett wins an Oscar and tells Hollywood to change their attitude towards so-called women’s stories instead of making a simpering thank you speech. Nora Ephron prepared Hollywood for Bridesmaids and women like Miranda July. Her influence has been immeasurable. After all Orange is the New Black’s Piper Chapman is just a modern Sally Albright looking for everything messy on the side.

Jeanne Sutton @jeannedesutun

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