"Remembering Nora Ephron, And How Her Essays Made Her Movies Better"
I called my mother on my way home from a dinner party last night to let her know that Nora Ephron had died. Or at least, if she already knew Nora Ephron had died, to reassure her that I still had her copies of Crazy Salad and Wallflower at the Orgy, books that I’d sneaked off her shelves years beforehand, and that followed me to college and to Washington, DC. Lots of people are remembering Ephron’s movies, and I’m watching Sleepless in Seattle as I write this, but I knew Ephron as a writer and reporter on media and the women’s movement before I knew her as a screenwriter and director, and it’s hard for me to see her movies in any other context than that writing and reporting.
Ephron wrote powerfully about the culture of politics and the politics of culture. Doing the former, covering the activities of the National Women’s Political Caucus at the 1972 Democratic convention in Miami, she captured something about the subordinate position of women in left politics that persists to this day when she wrote that “In a sense, the major function for the N.W.P.C. was to be ornamental—that is, it was simply to be there. Making its presence it felt. Putting forth the best possible face. Pretending to a unity that did not exist. Above all, putting on a good show: the abortion plank would never carry, a woman would not be nominated as Vice-President this year, but the N.W.P.C. would put on a good show.”
She could turn anecdotes into a powerful litany, as she did when writing about the feminist self-help movement in health, which in some cases advocated for untested technologies Ephron found unnerving, even as she said that women had legitimate cases against the doctors who treated them. “Ever week, it seems, I hear a new gynecological atrocity tale,” she wrote. “A friend who asks specifically not to be sedated during childbirth is sedated. Another friend who has a simple infection is treated instead for gonorrhea, and develops a serious infection as a side effect. Another woman tells of going to see her doctor one month after he has delivered her first child, a deformed baby, born dead. His first question: ‘Why haven’t you been to see me in two years?’”
She gutted executives who made dangerous so-called feminine hygiene sprays for injuring women when they couldn’t even say the word vagina. Her assessment that “Washington is a city of important men and the women they married before they grew up” is still one of the most cutting one-line portraits of the nation’s capitol, and one that remains more than a little true. And her profile of Barbara Mandel, the wife of the governor of Maryland who, when her husband decided to leave her for another woman, refused to depart the governor’s mansion in an act of defiance is an amazing meeting point of the domestic, the political, and cultural theater.
One of the reasons I write about culture is because of the way Ephron did it. She profiled the first woman to get close to becoming a professional baseball umpire, in a piece that begins, “Somewhere in the back of Bernice Gera’s closet, along with her face mask and chest protector and simple spiked shoes, is a plain blue man’s suit hanging in a plastic bag. The suit cost $29 off the rack, plus a few dollars for shortening the sleeves and pants legs.” The rest of the piece examines the real price of that mostly unworn outfit. In a visit to the Pillsbury Bakeoff, she wrote about a dated institution’s attempt to jump generations: “There was a lot of talk at the Bake-Off about how the Bake-It-Easy theme had attracted a new breed of contestants this year, younger contestants—housewives, yes, but housewives who used whole-wheat flour and Granola and sour cream and similar supposedly hip ingredients in their recipes, and were therefore somewhat more sophisticated, or urban, or something-of-the-sort than your usual Bake-Off contestant. There were a few of these—two, to be exact: Barbara Goldstein of New York City and Bonnie Brooks of Salisbury, Maryland, who actually visited the Los Angeles County Art Museum during a free afternoon.” In Ephron’s remembrance of reading The Fountainhead, she recalls that “I spent the next year hoping I would meet a gaunt, orange-haired architect who would rape me. Or failing that, and architect who would rape me. Or failing that, an architect.”She understood that cultural details didn’t mean everything, but as with New York Post publisher Dorothy Schiff’s stinginess with Christmas bonuses and preference for serving dry roast beef sandwiches to guests, they signified something, and were worth examination.
And those kinds of details were why Ephron’s romantic comedies were so fabulous. Her heroines were very specific people, unlike the generic publicists and event planners who populate today’s movies: in Heartburn, Rachel Samstat is a food critic, Sally, in the movie that bears her name, is a journalist (as is Annie Reed in Sleepless in Seattle), and in You’ve Got Mail, Kathleen Kelly runs a bookstore so achingly real it conjures up ghosts of the shelves where I browsed as a child. They have specific places and specific loves: they talk about orgasms in Katz’s Delicatessen, and visit the Temple of Dendur in its majestic, clean wing in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and cry over An Affair to Remember, and harbor passionate beliefs that Noel Streatfeild’s shoe books should live forever, passed down from mother to daughter and passionate book clerks to new readers. The men they date, and love, and leave, are real boys, too, anxious moguls who love their much younger step-siblings, widowers who stack sugar cubes before starting their first dates after burying their wives, men engaged on endless renovation projects. You’ve Got Mail gets less credit than some of Ephron’s other comedies, but Frank Navasky (Greg Kinnear), Kathleen’s partner and eventual ex, is an utterly hilarious parody of New York intellectual journalists that still stands up today.
Nora Ephron could write these movies, could write movies no one else really could, I think, precisely because she spent so much time observing other women, and turning a critical lens on herself. It says something about the era in which she wrote the columns I love so much, and the way her romantic comedies held up, that she wrote the columns for Esquire: she was passionately on women’s side, but she was explaining them to men, too. She wrote, in her column about consciousness-raising, that “it all settled into a running soap opera, with new episodes on the same theme every week. Barbara and Peter, Episode 13 of the Barbara Is Uninhibited and Peter Is a Drag Show…Joanna and Dave, Episode 19 of the Will Joanna Ever Get Dave to Share the Household Duties Show: this week Joanna refused to get out of bed and change the channel and Dave hit her and she threatened to kill herself. Claire and Herbie in the Claire Has Sexual Boredom But Loves Her Husband Show.” These might have been silly tropes in Nora Ephron’s CR group, but they were the kinds of things we don’t see on our televisions or in our movies much, and she had a rare talent for making them funny, and sparkling, and sad. I will miss her terribly, but at least my mother’s copy of Crazy Salad is here beside me.