Nora Ephron died yesterday at the age of 71 from effects of an aggressive form of leukemia. Due to the fast and prolific news cycle these days, most of you probably already know this. You have probably already read a lot of RIP tweets and already seen numerous articles profiling her accomplishments. But here’s the thing: there can never be too many articles about Nora Ephron.
You might have read about all the hats she wore over her life: journalist, screenwriter, director, essayist, novelist, playwright, blogger. Which essentially boils down to this:
She was a writer. She was a creator. She told stories, and she told truths.
She was a feminist. The most famous scene she ever penned, the Meg-Ryan-faking-an-orgasm-at-a-restaurant scene in When Harry Met Sally, was not just hilarious, it was revolutionary in terms of what women did on screen. It wasn’t just overtly sexual, which of course was the main thing, but it was also smart and funny and empowering and just THE BEST!, all at once. The most famous quote I’ve seen floating around since the news of her death is a good one. “I try to write parts for women that are as complicated and interesting as women actually are.” And the world of entertainment is better for it. If only more people strived for this goal as well.
A still from When Harry Met Sally
I have also seen her 1996 Wellesley commencement address frequently quoted in the last 24 hours, and for good reason. It is not your typical Oh, The Places You Will Go! tribute full of shining positivity. She mentions abortions! She scorns Clarence Thomas! She scorns the sexism of her own experience at Wellesley in the 1960s! She warns the new graduates to not feel too sunny about their position in the world! She says:
She says lots of things, and they are all wonderful. I am busting at the seams, to be honest, to quote pretty much the entire address to you, but you can just read the whole thing yourself. It will be one of the best things you do today, I promise.
She was funny. On the one hand, being remembered for humor is the greatest honor one can achieve. If, when I die, people talk about how I made them laugh, I will know I have lived a worthwhile existence. The gift of being able to make people laugh is a true gift, one of the best ones you can ever have. On the other hand, I had to brace myself for all the tributes to how funny she was, because it lands so closely to the recent “Did you know ladies can be funny?” cultural brouhaha, a debate Nora Ephron herself answered years and years ago. The case was already closed long before Bridesmaids. Yet not only is this debate dumb because obviously ladies are funny, but because once that logical opinion is accepted, it then becomes another conundrum in itself as the ladies who are funny become just that: ladies who are funny. But the reason laughter is such a gift is because there is always so much more behind it. Nora Ephron was so much more than funny.
I think Judd Apatow’s movies are funny. I do. I laugh a lot and genuinely enjoy them. But sitting down to watch Knocked Up is different than sitting down to watch When Harry Met Sally, or Sleepless in Seattle, or You’ve Got Mail. They all make me laugh. But after Ephron makes me laugh, she makes me ache. She makes me cry; she makes me believe in romance even when it’s messy; she makes me feel better about the world. The realness of her characters, their intelligence and their quirks, comforts me. Her characters possess huge flaws, and not just the obvious flaws that people often throw into their characters so that they can grow up and learn something about themselves in a tidy and satisfying resolution. They are flaws that we all have, flaws that you might not be able to completely fix. They are real jerks sometimes; they lack courage sometimes when they should have it. They can make disappointing decisions. But they’re okay. They’re never perfect, but they’re okay. We’re OK.
She was a director. There are still not enough females ones of these. Not only did she co-write Sleepless in Seattle, she directed it, too. Not shabby for one of the most beloved movies of all time. Most recently, she directed Julie & Julia in 2009, working with her good friend Meryl Streep. I automatically respect anyone who can befriend Meryl Streep. Or, for that matter, anyone who can befriend Nora Ephron. My heaven would consist of being seated at a dinner table with Meryl and Nora and all the other best people in the world, with a constant ache in my belly from laughing and eating too much.
Nora Ephron and Meryl Streep
She loved food. She loved New York. She loved life and all the little things that make it. As Charles McGrath says in his excellent tribute in The New York Times, she “could make sparkling copy out of almost anything else: the wrinkles on her neck, her apartment, cabbage strudel, Teflon pans and the tastelessness of egg-white omelets.”
It is the writers who are able to celebrate these tiny things, that deem everything important to write about and then write about them well, that are the ones we really need. Anyone can write about love and hate, and everyone tries, but it is the small ordinary things in everyday life that actually keep us from despair. Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks belonging together will always make me cry, but her love letter to her apartment in New York made me cry, too. She makes me want to jump out of my chair and run outside and eat every single thing I want and write about everything I want and make damn sure I’m not missing anything.
A lot of things I’ve read have termed her a “natural,” as if her prolific successful was something that just easily happened. I believe that terming anyone a “natural” is almost always mostly hogwash; success almost always comes from hard work. Nora Ephron worked hard. Beverly Hills heiress or not, she worked for and deserved all the fame and respect she earned. But maybe there is a bit of truth in the fact that there was something naturally charming and wonderful about her. Sometimes, there are just special people in the world. She had the ability to see everything around her in a way we all should: with a combination of a constant grain of salt and heartfelt enthusiasm. It seems contradictory but it’s not. In her Wellesley address, after she discusses all the sexism that the graduates will face and that she herself has faced, she simultaneously welcomes them to the best years of their lives. She feels sorry for those people who think college is it. She tells them to do everything, to live it all, even if some of it turns out weird. You can’t write as much as she did without this heartfelt enthusiasm for everything. Most of us just can’t do it as well as she did.
As Meryl Streep says, “She was an expert in all the departments of living well.” What a worthy ideal to live up to. And I thank the heavens that through her movies, her plays, her essays, her books, and endless Internet archives, Nora Ephron will always continue to teach us how to do the same.