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Saturday, April 25, 2015

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Revisiting Nora Ephron

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A year and some months after her death at age 71, the legacy of American screenwriter, journalist and blogger Nora Ephron is being spotlighted in The Most of Nora Ephron, a 560-page volume from publisher Alfred A. Knopf that presents some of her best writing.

What drew me to this attractively designed book was Ephron’s masterful talent as a writer of commercially successful romantic comedies for the movies – When Harry Met Sally… (1989), Sleepless in Seattle (1993) and You’ve Got Mail (1998). She also whipped together Julie & Julia (2009), an entertaining soufflé about famous chef Julia Child that features a stunning performance by Meryl Streep.

Ephron was the daughter of New York screenwriters Henry and Phoebe Ephron, who wrote numerous Hollywood films in the 1940s and 1950s. One of four daughters, she grew up in close proximity to many famous people including Dorothy Parker and Lillian Hellman, both of whom she writes about in this wide-ranging anthology. (Her sisters also became screenwriters and writers.)

She was married three times, most famously to Watergate investigative reporter Carl Bernstein (husband number 2). Pregnant with his child, she discovered he was having an affair, and turned the sordid divorce that ensued into a winning novel, Heartburn, which later became a popular movie; the novel is reproduced here in its entirety. So is the screenplay of When Harry Met Sally…, the recent play Lucky Guy, and dozens of articles from diverse sources.

Perhaps the surest advice her mother ever gave her was: “Everything is copy.” Ephron has put this sage wisdom into practice at every phase of her career: as writer and editor for Esquire and as freelance reporter, playwright and blogger for the Huffington Post. She first attempted screenwriting when her then-husband and his partner Bob Woodward asked her to rewrite William Goldman’s script about the Watergate saga, All the President’s Men. Her version was ultimately rejected but led nonetheless to more movie script work for television.

(Ephron was one of few people in America who knew the identity of Deep Throat, the reporters’ secret source in the Watergate scandal. Although she revealed the name publicly on several occasions, “No one, apart from my sons, believed me,” she would later write.)

Happily, the movie When Harry Met Sally… holds up well after the passage of almost a quarter century, and reading the screenplay is a joy. Like much in The Most, it seems very much a product of its times – the self-obsessed ’80s and ’90s – but also possesses certain universal elements. Much of its humour comes from its exploration of the question of whether men and women can be friends.

In many ways, When Harry Met Sally… is the closest thing to a Woody Allen movie without actually being one. The titles are in the Woody Allen style, the backdrop is New York and the soundtrack consists of American jazz standards. The characters, smart and chatty and part of the media elite, talk incessantly about themselves and their relationships and little else.

In a very interesting afterword to the screenplay, Ephron explains that although it has her name on it, much of it arose as a result of creative collaboration between herself, director Rob Reiner, producer Andrew Scheinman and actors Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan. (She modelled “Harry” after Reiner and “Sally” after herself.)

The famous “fake orgasm” scene in Katz’s Delicatessen, for example, which culminated in what the New York Times judged to be “one of the most memorably funny lines in movie history,” was the product of such a collaboration. At first, the scene was supposed to be only a conversation between the two principles. But during an actors’ reading, Meg Ryan, playing Sally, suggested that she actually fake an orgasm in the deli; then Billy Crystal, playing Harry, suggested that a nearby woman customer, seeing Sally’s display, tell a waiter, “I’ll have what she’s having.” It was one of “dozens of funny lines” that Crystal added to the script, Ephron reports.

Ephron has a genuine knack for seeing the falseness in the way we sometimes behave, and poking delicious fun at social pretension. In her piece I Feel Bad About My Neck, she explains that it’s best to pretend not to know what friends are talking about when they refer in displeasure to the “little pouches under their eyes, or jowls, or wrinkles, or flab around the middle,” even if one agrees that Botox or liposuction or a facelift is definitely required.

“My experience is that ‘I don’t know what you’re talking about’ is code for ‘I see what you mean, but if you think you’re going to trap me into engaging on this subject, you’re crazy.’”

This is the equivalent to the balcony scene in Annie Hall, when subtitles tell us the real meaning of the dialogue between Woody Allen and Diane Keaton. It works because Ephron, like Allen, is decoding social behaviour in a humorous way,  and writing about all of us, not just herself.

The Most is divided into nine sections categorizing Ephron’s pieces by subject, genre and chronology. Ephron was a lifelong cooking enthusiast and indulged her passion frequently in her writing, even passing along recipes in her novel Heartburn, many of her blogs, and, of course, Julie & Julia. She once wrote that although she was Jewish, her religion was essentially, “One cannot use too much butter.” She adored former U.S. president Bill Clinton, despised George W. Bush, and often soapboxed for progressive liberal causes. Her overriding interest in affairs of the heart and hearth, not to mention political feminism, seems to define her as a women’s writer reaching out, especially in her smaller pieces, mainly to a sisterhood of readers.

For me, The Most delivers too much of a good thing, as a number of its offerings do not stand up well. With the retrospect of time, some indeed seem trivial or terribly outdated: for instance, does anyone really care any more about Julie Nixon Eisenhower? Ephron deserves to be remembered and celebrated mostly for her various larger contributions that clearly seem to pass the test of time.

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