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Remembering the Life and Work of Writer, Director Nora Ephron

June 27, 2012 at 12:00 AM EDT
Author, director and screenwriter Nora Ephron, known for her wistful romantic comedies including "When Harry Met Sally," died Tuesday at age 71. Gwen Ifill and Charles McGrath of the New York Times discuss the life and legacy of a woman whose movies, books and essays captured the spirit of changing times.

GWEN IFILL: Finally tonight, remembering the remarkable career of Nora Ephron.

Essayist and humorist, bestselling author, movie director, Nora Ephron became all three in fields where few women soared as so high. Born in 1941 to screenwriting parents, she began her career as a journalist in New York. In short order, she gained notice for biting humor and a gift for turning a phrase.

In essay collections, “I Feel Bad About My Neck” and “I Remember Nothing,” she expounded on everything, from divorce, to aging, to failure.

By the early ’80s, Ephron, who was born and still lived on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, had turned to screenwriting.

She explained to PBS’ Charlie Rose in 2010.

NORA EPHRON, Writer: I think there was a certain moment when I knew that I had to write movies in order to make enough money to live as a writer in New York City, and not have to move to some — someplace like New Jersey.


CHARLIE ROSE, Host, “The Charlie Rose Show”: New Jersey, there’s nothing wrong — nothing wrong with living in New Jersey.

NORA EPHRON: I’m just saying, you don’t live there and I don’t live there.


CHARLIE ROSE: Well, that’s true.

NORA EPHRON: So, you know, it would have been OK, but it wasn’t what I had in mind.

GWEN IFILL: Her first movie was “Silkwood” in 1983, directed by Mike Nichols and starring Meryl Streep.

MERYL STREEP, Actress: You didn’t even have the decency to hide the evidence. You just threw it in a drawer, hotel, motels.


MERYL STREEP: You couldn’t even pay cash, like a normal philanderer. You charged everything. I mean, look at this. Flowers? Look at all these flowers that you bought for her!

GWEN IFILL: That collaboration continued with “Heartburn,” a film based on Ephron’s scathing novel about her second failed marriage.

In 1989, her screenplay for “When Harry Met Sally” touched a popular chord and brought an Oscar nomination.

BILLY CRYSTAL, Actor: What I’m saying is — and this is not a come-on in any way, shape or form — is that men and women can’t be friends, because the sex part always gets in the way.

MEG RYAN, Actress: That’s not true. I have a number of men friends and there’s no sex involved.

BILLY CRYSTAL: No, you don’t.

MEG RYAN: Yes, I do.

BILLY CRYSTAL: No, you don’t.

MEG RYAN: Yes, I do.

BILLY CRYSTAL: You only think you do.

GWEN IFILL: Ephron was nominated for another screenwriting Oscar for “Sleepless in Seattle,” the 1993 film which she wrote and directed.

Even after being diagnosed with leukemia six years ago, she collaborated with Meryl Streep once again, directing “Julie and Julia” in 2009.

MERYL STREEP: I’m Julia Child. Bon appetit.


ACTRESS: Bon appetit.

ACTOR: Bon appetit.

GWEN IFILL: A year later, in the Charlie Rose interview, Ephron said she never stopped challenging herself.

NORA EPHRON: I think that keeping yourself fresh is a difficult thing in the aging process, and finding things that are hard for you is something that you have to do, or else you just repeat yourself.

CHARLIE ROSE: Or else you don’t grow.


GWEN IFILL: Nora Ephron died Tuesday in Manhattan. She was 71 years old.

We close with some additional thoughts on Nora Ephron.

Charles McGrath is a writer at large for The New York Times, former editor of its book review, and he was head of “The New Yorker”‘s fiction department, wrote a story about Nora Ephron’s passing today.

Charles McGrath, it seems that in many ways Nora Ephron had nothing in common with most of the people who loved her work so much. She was raised in Beverly Hills. She was born in New York. She was a creature of New York’s Upper West Side. What was it about her that was able to — that people were able to reach in and connect?

CHARLES MCGRATH, The New York Times: Well, first of all, she was funny, and you can’t pay enough attention to that.

She was honest. She said the things that you weren’t supposed to say. She said that old age wasn’t a wonderful growth opportunity. It was often kind of crummy. And I think you also saw — in the movies, you saw something that you didn’t necessarily see in her writing, which was a kind of sweetness, and maybe even a hint of sentimentality.

And she had these things as a person. She was a marvelous friend to a great many people. And I think that readers and people who watched her movies sensed that about her. They kind of felt that they knew her.

GWEN IFILL: But where did she find that voice? Many journalists find it in reporting it out and figuring it out and in interviewing other people. Or did she find hers from within herself?

CHARLES MCGRATH: Well, I guess from within herself.

She always — she had it. I mean, she had it from the very beginning. I can remember — and I wasn’t the only one — back in the late 60s, when she had moved from writing for The New York Post to writing these wonderful, very original essays for “Esquire” and for “New Yorker,” and thinking, where did this person come from?

Nobody was writing like that back then. And her writing voice was, in some ways, a kind of distilled version of how she spoke. She was a wonderful conversationalist. And, as I said before, she told the truth. She said the things that you weren’t supposed to say and she said them in a disarming way.

And even when she wrote profiles of people, she wasn’t mean. She was funny and honest.

GWEN IFILL: How rare is it in the arts to be able to do all of the things she did? She was an essayist. She was a humorist. She was a playwright even. She was obviously a screenwriter. And she wrote these fabulous essays whenever she seemed — she never stopped writing for print. How rare is it that someone does all of those things?

CHARLES MCGRATH: Completely rare.

I can’t think of anybody like her. I mean, all writers dream maybe one day, oh, maybe I will have a screenplay. She had a bunch. And then she actually became a director. I mean, many of us who knew her were astonished when that happened. And then it turned out she did it so well. It was as she were born to do it.

I talked yesterday to Mike Nichols. And he said something interesting. He said that he thought that Nora completely understood the process of filmmaking. She may have already learned that at home from her parents, but what that made her so good was her people skills. She could build a team. She knew how to cajole people, how to get them through the tough parts.

And he said that these are the skills that people don’t realize go into the making of a movie, and she had those in great abundance.

GWEN IFILL: One of the things she liked to tell people is that she was sick of appearing on panels about women in film, and yet she’s one of the rare birds, one of the rare women at her level in the film industry.

Is that something she just resisted, this notion that she was this breakthrough female?

CHARLES MCGRATH: Yes, I think so.

I mean, Nora was a — was a feminist. I think she would say that. Early on, she sometimes wrote some funny pieces about feminism. But she was very aware that, as a female in the film business, she was a rarity. And she didn’t think that was right, but she also didn’t think that she should be stopped.

And I think one reason why she became a director was to get more control over her material. She had seen with her parents what happens if you’re just a screenwriter, and how Hollywood can roll over you. So she became a director and a producer. And though she did make fun of panels about women in film, she was very proud of the fact that she was doing this and was so successful at it.

GWEN IFILL: I have to ask you one more question that she would probably hate, which is, what is her legacy?

As someone who was so much out front doing this kind of work and who everyone can recite the words from their favorite Nora Ephron movies, books, and plays and essays, what do you think she left behind as a legacy to other people who might want to do it or other people who might want to learn from the way she did it?

CHARLES MCGRATH: I think the greatest legacy may be just her own example. She did it. She got things done.

She hated whining and self-pity. She was a great believer in pulling up your socks and getting things done and not letting people tell you that you can’t do them. She did them. And I think that example may linger the longest. But I think people will continue to watch these movies. I doubt that they will date ever. And the same thing is true for the — many of the essays.

GWEN IFILL: And maybe that’s why we didn’t know about her illness as well, because she just decided you put one foot in front of the other and do what you need to do.

CHARLES MCGRATH: That’s right.

No, she — very few people, even people who knew her very well, knew about the illness until they began to get called late on Monday or yesterday. I talked yesterday to Steven Spielberg, who was very close to Nora. They never worked together, but they kind of showed each other their scripts all the time.

He didn’t know until yesterday afternoon. She didn’t want people to know. She didn’t want to be treated any differently. Two weeks ago, she was still working on a pilot in her hospital room.

GWEN IFILL: And this is the way she wanted to leave. And — but she left so much behind.

Charles McGrath, thank you so much.