Crazy Salad: Some Things About Nora Ephron’s Career

August 8, 2012 § Leave a comment

Nora Ephron 1941-2012/Photo copyright Illona Lieberman

Nora Ephron’s death in late June came as a surprise not only to those who didn’t know her but apparently to many of her friends, as she had decided (in a very old-fashioned but canny way–more on that later) to keep her cancer a secret. As the news sank in, I felt very sad to think that Ephron, who seemed perennially youthful, would no longer enliven whatever subject was at hand with her wit, and found it hard to imagine anyone taking her place as an essayist and commentator. In the many tributes to Ephron that were published in the following weeks, there was appropriately high praise for her body of work as a journalist, essayist, screenwriter and director, but one quote in particular, from 2004, stood out. About her collected essays from the 70s (most of them written for Esquire, where she was the first woman columnist) the Washington Post critic Jonathan Yardley wrote:

At the time Epron started movie work, I thought that Hollywood’s gain was journalism’s loss, and a rereading of all three of her collections leaves me even more firmly convinced of that. Journalism today has too many self-important, humorless, money-grubbing bigfeet, most of whom are far less interested in the story than in the storyteller. Ephron, as a columnist charged with expressing her own opinions, managed to strike the right balance between story and self.

I first discovered Ephron through her Esquire essays, which are collected in three volumes: Wallflower at the Orgy, Crazy Salad and Scribble Scribble. Though she wrote about a wide range of subjects–feminism, food, breasts, Pat Loud, her mother’s mink coat, and Julie Nixon Eisenhower, and that’s just in Crazy Salad–she approached each in an incisive, original manner. Like an older, funnier, cleverer friend, she had a knack of zeroing in on her subjects and saying, in the pithiest possible way, the perfect thing:

I’m not sure you can make a generalization on this basis, which is the basis of twice, but here goes: whenever I get married, I start buying Gourmet magazine. I think of it as my own personal bride’s disease.

There is something very moving about Julie Nixon Eisenhower–but it is not Julie Nixon Eisenhower. It is the idea of Julie Nixon Eisenhower, essence of daughter, a better daughter than any of us will ever be; it is almost as if she is the only woman in American over the age of twenty who still thinks her father is exactly what she thought he was when she was six.

It is generally agreed…that the entire civic scandal of Richard Collin and the mysterious spaghetti sauce recipe could only have happened in New Orleans…and for fairly obvious reasons. For one thing, New Orleans is one of the two most ingrown, self-obsessed little cities in the United States. (The other is San Francisco.)

Ephron’s importance as an essayist is proven by her imitators, who are legion. In the New York Times alone, the long shadow of her influence stretches, with varying degrees of success, from the Op-Ed pages (Maureen Dowd, Frank Bruni) to the Style Section, where it touches everything, even the execrable Modern Love column.

If she had written nothing but essays, Nora Ephron would have left a powerful legacy, but she forged on, becoming a successful screenwriter in her forties with “Silkwood,” and “When Harry Met Sally.” With the latter she single-handedly revived the romantic comedy, for better or worse, spawning countless paler imitations. Screenwriting made her famous in a Hollywood way, which is to say hugely so, and paved the way for an even more improbable (given her sex and age) third act: her leap into directing. As a director, Ephron made eight films in seventeen years, including successes like “Sleepless in Seattle,” “You’ve Got Mail,” and “Julie and Julia,” and failures like “Bewitched,” and “This is My Life.” Which brings me back to Yardley’s lament: Ephron’s career in film, though probably vastly more satisfying (and certainly more lucrative) than journalism, didn’t really showcase her strengths.

While her screenplays are technically adept, the comedies tend toward the derivative (“When Harry Met Sally” contains echoes of Heartburn, her only novel, which she also adapted for the screen, while “You’ve Got Mail” is an updated version of “The Shop Around the Corner”). As a director, Ephron turned out films that were competent and generally well-acted but not visually memorable, which is a problem in a visual medium. The fact that she approached fimmaking through words rather than images manifests itself not only through her workmanlike shot selection but also glaring errors such as the repeated shots of Meryl Streep’s high-heeled platform pumps in “Julie and Julia.” As most people know, Julia Child was extremely tall (6’2″) while Streep (5’6″ or 5’7″) is not. Showing Streep in the kind of shoes Child didn’t need and never wore, instead of framing the shots from her ankles up, was not an incidental matter: it was a directorial mistake that broke the spell of Streep’s superb performance.

Happily, Ephron took up essay writing again in the last years of her life, publishing two collections, the excellent I Feel Bad About My Neck (2006) and its seemingly hastily written follow-up I Remember Nothing (2010). The essays showed she had lost nothing of her old skill. Although the subjects were more personal than those of the Esquire era, the observations were no less keen:

Most everyone wears black–except for anchorwomen, United States senators, and residents of Texas, and I feel really bad for them. I mean, black makes your life so much simpler. Everything matches black, especially black.

Another good thing about divorce is that it makes clear something that marriage obscures, which is that you’re on your own.

Every so often I read a book about age, and whoever’s writing it says it’s great to be old. It’s great to be wise and sage and mellow; it’s great to be at the point where you understand just what matters in life….What can they be thinking? Don’t they have necks?

It’s clear in re-reading these essays that Ephron, in her increasing preoccupation with old age, sickness and death, was saying goodbye. As for why she kept her cancer a secret, it probably had more to do with a desire to keep working in film than a need for privacy. At the time of her death, she was working on a TV series and several other projects; news of a serious illness would have stopped them from going forward. By then an old Hollywood pro, Ephron knew the score.

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