I got to thinking about Nora Ephron lately over the frustration at the lack of any kind of visual media, film or television, for grownups, that represents any aspect of the lives of people over a “certain age”. Media pretty much stops telling your stories once you are creeping into your late 30’s and 40’s. You may have 50 years left on the planet but your stories have basically become irrelevant.
Your cultural references are ancient history, inconsequential, relegated to the dustbin. “Where were you when Kennedy was shot” (everyone in my generation knows where they were during this 20th century seminal event that probably changed the political direction of our country for all time), the Vietnam War (all the guys that weren’t at your ten year high school reunion because they died in 3rd world jungles. Have we learned that lesson yet?), the Civil Rights Movement (we have a black president but the old racism just finds new, less overt forms to de-legitimize), the Women’s movement (you look around at Republican politics and wonder if women’s liberation ever happened).
Current movie makers don’t seem to realize or care that there are multiple generations of grownups out there who could care less about cartoons, comic book heroes, or grown man-boys talking about or to the dangling parts of their anatomy ad nauseum, apparently the male version of a rom com. The best films, especially comedies, have cultural links from past to present, that connect and ground multiple generations. But most filmmaking today is flat and empty, it has none of this. Meaningful cultural references are few and far between.
Nora Ephron did this in her essays, journalism, and screenwriting like know one else I can think of, with possibly the exception of Woody Allen. Both New Yorkers, interestingly. The ability to comedically weave multi-level connections to our cultural landmarks – movies, music, significant political events. To elevate the mundane in our lives through wit. In her essay “The Six Stages of Email” is there anyone alive from the pre-computer generation who can’t relate to her initial elation at discovering email, “It’s so great!… Who said letter writing was dead?” to her ultimate let-down as she discovers how time wasting and lacking in intimacy this form of communication can be — “Help! I’m drowning. I have 112 unanswered e-mail messages. I’m a writer — imagine how many unanswered messages I would have if I had a real job. Imagine how much writing I could do if I didn’t have to answer all this e-mail”.
So I was thinking about Nora Ephron when I read the news of her death on June 26, 2012 at age 71 from pneumonia as a consequence of leukemia. It was a shock, the voices of a generation who thinks of itself as “forever young” are dying out. The incomparable voice of Nora Ephron has gone silent, an inconsolable loss. Who will tell those stories now in the way only she could do? She could find the humor in those little quirks of modern life and you laughed because she somehow found the humorous essence of so many of the idiosyncracies of this particular cultural moment in time.
The daughter of Hollywood screenwriters, Nora moved to New York to start her writing career in journalism after graduating from Wellesly in 1962, working as a summer intern in the Kennedy White House in 1961, and writing her first screenplay for the movie “Silkwood” starring Meryl Streep. Her next screenplay was an adaptation of her own autobiographical novel, “Heartburn”, also starring Meryl Streep on the big screen. Nora’s script for the 1989 hit movie directed by Rob Reiner “When Harry Met Sally” sealed her romantic comedy cred, leading her ultimately to directing her own films and becoming one of our generation’s most successful filmmakers.
What Nora Ephron did as a screenwriter and filmmaker goes beyond just basic romantic comedy territory. She created a kind of cultural lexicon. In “Sleepless in Seattle” the statement that “It’s easier to be killed by a terrorist than find a husband after 40” has an hilarious ring of truth to it. Meg Ryan’s infamous faked orgasm scene in the middle of a busy restaurant from “When Harry Met Sally” (see video below) prompted the unforgettable line from a nearby diner, “I’ll have what she’s having”.
From the same movie, Billy Crystal explaining to Meg Ryan on their long drive to New York after college that “Men and Women can’t be friends” because the sex always gets in the way, crudely telling her that even if a guy isn’t attracted to a woman he still want’s to bonk her. And Meg Ryan’s reply “Too bad, cause you’re the only person I knew in New York”.
This idea of the impossibility of friendship between men and women was an enduring theme through several of Nora’s films. It’s a theme that seems to have a seed of truth to it in real life but her films took a revisionist view that made that friendship come to fruition even under fairly impossible circumstances. Tom Hanks puts Meg Ryan out of business in “You’ve Got Mail” but after running into him inadvertently a number of times, she asks, “Are we becoming friends?”. Even after proclaiming “men and women can’t be friends, because the sex always gets in the way” in “When Harry Met Sally”, Billy Crystal goes on to have a 10 year platonic relationship with Meg Ryan before they ultimately realize they are in love.
Nora Ephron’s wit was as evident in person as in her writings. Check the following links for a series of clips from interviews with her on a range of subjects, as well as clips from her movies, and including an hilarious AFI riff on having Meryl Streep play you in movies and in real life:
The world is a dimmer place today, some of the light has gone out of it. Nora Ephron, whose writing always illuminated the sharp corners of our cultural voibles, had to leave early. Her wit will be forever missed.