It’s always sad when a public figure within the film industry passes away. When someone iconic who was never seen on screen passes though, it’s difficult to present the news without everyone asking: who? In the case of Nora Ephron, all you have to do is mention the names Sleepless in Seattle and When Harry Met Sally, and recognition is instant.
Nora Ephron was a journalist, screenwriter and film director who penned the screenplays for both of these iconic movies. She even directed Sleepless in Seattle, starting a 20-year career of writing and directing her own movies. Revered by the likes of Tom Hanks and Meryl Streep, both of which starred in more than one of her films, she will be sorely missed by the industry.
Born on 19 May 1941, Nora Ephron died at the age of 71, after suffering from acute myeloid leukaemia. Her last film Julie and Julia was widely loved by critics, and earned Meryl Streep yet another Oscar nomination.
To celebrate the life and successes of Nora Ephron, we decided to give you a lowdown on this extraordinary woman’s life.
Born in Manhattan, New York City, Nora was the daughter of screenwriters Phoebe and Henry Ephron. Her parents were known for their romantic comedies, including 1954’s There’s No Business Like Show Business, starring Marilyn Monroe. They no doubt influenced her later work. The eldest of four girls, her family moved to Beverley Hills, California where she stayed up until her high school graduation, before attending Wellesley College in Massachusetts.
Having first become interested in journalism during her junior year of high school, she began her career as a journalist rather than in the movies. She majored in political science in college, and wrote for the weekly Wellesley newspaper, before moving to New York to become a ‘mail girl’ at Newsweek. She later went on to write for a friend’s satirical newspaper, where she caught the eye of New York Post publisher, Dorothy Schiff, who shortly hired Ephron as a reporter. During her career, she also wrote for Esquire and The New York Times magazine.
She was very much still a journalist when she first got the screenwriting bug; Washington Post journalists Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein (her then husband) asked her to help Bernstein re-write William Goldman’s script for All the President’s Men. Sadly it was never used, but it did generate enough attention to earn her another screenwriting job for a television movie. And while she is well respected for her screenplays nowadays, it was a case of trial and error for a long time while she attempted to make her mark in the film industry. She worked diligently throughout the 80s, never quite getting a hit until 1989.
When Harry Met Sally
Her first major screenwriting hit was the rom-com When Harry Met Sally starring Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan. Released in 1989, it was based loosely on director Rob Reiner’s romantic past. He asked Ephron to adapt the script, and she derived much of it from interviews with the director.
The film asks the question “Can men and women be friends, or does sex always get in the way?” A concept that has been repeated time and again on screen, but never to the same success. Why? Perhaps they lack the keen observation and wit that Nora included in her screenplays? Even the tiniest details can be comedy gold, if you know what they are and how to use them. Nora knew, although her sense of humour reportedly had to be reigned in by film bosses at times.
Sleepless in Seattle – a change in direction
After When Harry Met Sally, Nora’s next couple of films didn’t spark the same interest. So she decided to take charge of the films she wrote, and direct them herself, in a bid to make the final product true to the vision she wrote in the screenplay.
She had learnt from watching her parents just how powerless a screenwriter is over the final product, and went on record as saying: “one of the best things about directing movies, as opposed to merely writing them, is that there’s no confusion about who’s to blame: you are.”
Sleepless in Seattle was a big enough hit to solidify her status as a director, and prompted her to continue directing all of her screenplays, up until her last, Julie and Julia, which starred Meryl Streep and Amy Adams.
Nora Ephron’s hits are inspiring to future screenwriters and film lovers, because they contain iconic moments that are quoted, parodied and revered across the world to this day.
For example, in When Harry Met Sally, you have the classic scene were Meg Ryan fakes an orgasm in the middle of a diner. Which prompts a fellow customer to utter the famous line: “I’ll have what she’s having.”
Meanwhile the ‘meet-cute’ (the moment the couple officially meet in a movie) on top of the Empire State Building in Sleepless in Seattle is memorable, because it happens at the end of the movie, rather than the beginning. Ephron keeps the two main characters apart until that iconic moment when they look upon one another, and know this is the right person for them. It’s unusual to keep them apart for so long, so no wonder the moment is so poignant.
Clever, funny and talented, Nora was a credit to the industry, and while not all of her endeavours were successful (Bewitched and You’ve Got Mail were notable flops, despite the latter starring Hanks and Ryan again), when she got it right, there was no equal to her.
May her work continue to entertain us for years to come.