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.

Remembering Julia Child

August 10, 2009 § 6 Comments

Julia Child

Julia Child

I started watching Julia Child’s show “The French Chef” at 6, while visiting my grandparents in North Carolina, and started cooking not long afterwards.  While I don’t remember the first show I saw, the first one I took detailed notes on concerned puff pastry. My grandmother wanted to make croissants; in lieu of sending money for the recipe, she ordered me to write everything down. I dutifully filled several notebook pages with instructions, which involved lengthy breaks for refrigeration between rollings and a mindboggling amount of butter. As far as I know, my grandmother never tried it. When I finally got around to making puff pastry years later, I used Lindsey Shere’s recipe. But it was Julia’s cheerful, can-do manner that guided me through the process.

Seeing the film “Julie and Julia” this weekend not only brought back memories but made me miss Julia Child more than ever. A big part of the reason is Meryl Streep’s uncanny performance, which is less an act of impersonation than a resurrection. Streep goes beyond mastering Julia’s concertina-like vocal cadences; among other feats, she somehow manages to walk exactly like Julia despite lacking her tremendously long legs.

I can attest to that fact that Streep replicated her gait perfectly because I once found myself walking directly behind Julia and Paul Child as they made their way along Massachussetts Avenue in Cambridge. I was twenty, a visiting scholar of Japanese studies at Harvard and an avid cook revelling  in my first, bare bones kitchen. Harvard’s relaxed schedule (compared with that of Wellesley, where I had spent the past two years) gave me plenty of time to cook and bake, while the TV my father had insisted on buying for me brought Julia Child back into my life. Between studying all things Japanese and cooking with Julia, I was in heaven.

But because she was a Cambridge neighbor, Julia Child was more than a TV personality or a name on a cookbook. A slight detour on the route that took me from my Mt. Auburn Street apartment to Japanese class on Divinity Avenue took me by the Childs’ house on Irving Street. That sprawling clapboard house–its location was common knowledge–contained the famous kitchen that now resides in the Smithsonian; passing by, I had to fight the urge to peer through the window at it. To the extent I could afford to, I also shopped where Julia did, at  Savenour’s, a specialty market famous for its meat. The hugely flirtatious proprietor would report to me on what Julia had bought on her last visit and what she planned to make with it.

One night that year, I made Julia’s stewing hen–which was stuffed with bread and herbs and simmered in stock, rather than roasted–and served it to my boyfriend and his best friend. “Do you cook like this every night?” the friend asked incredulously.  Not wanting to seem domestic (though I was) or unstudious (because I wasn’t), I stammered, “Not really.” “Yes,” my boyfriend replied proudly.  He was the only person who truly valued my kitchen prowess, so I quickly changed the subject.

The following year, a Wellesley friend who came over to a party mocked me for cooking all the food myself. “You’re so domestic,” she said acidly. “For roasting a turkey?” I asked. My penchant for making Julia’s Swordfish a la Grand Chartreuse would remain a secret until well after graduation.

During my fall semester in Cambridge, I struggled with my desire to write a fan letter to Julia Child. Though my boyfriend thought she would be flattered, I eventually deemed the the idea creepy and gave it up.  I kept watching “Julia Child and Company” on WGBH but assiduously avoided  going by her house on my way to and from class. (Recently I learned that Julia kept her phone number listed and happily talked to strangers who called with questions about her recipes; perhaps if I’d known this, I would have been bolder.)

It was around this time that my boyfriend and I found ourselves walking behind the Childs in Harvard Square. It was late fall. Julia walked arm-in-arm with Paul, who wore a cap and scarf. Aside from their height difference–she was noticeably taller–the thing I noticed immediately was their closeness; unlike many older couples, they seemed enthralled by each other and kept up a steady stream of conversation. “That’s Julia Child,” I whispered, thrilled.  We lost them in a crowd around Boylston Street; that was as close as I ever came to meeting her.

Twenty years later, while finishing work on my documentary, “Jim Thompson, Silk King,” I learned that Julia Child, who like Jim Thompson had served in the OSS, was posted to Ceylon during the same period as Thompson in World War II. I also knew that she was now widowed and living full-time in Montecito. When my mother called to report that a family friend had invited the French Chef to lunch and was having a nervous fit over it, I asked if I could contact Julia for my documentary.

“She’s awfully old,” my mother said dubiously.

“But she’d remember meeting Jim  Thompson, wouldn’t she?”

“Oh, honey, don’t bother her. Say, how’d you like to have to cook for Julia Child?”

“I’d love to.”

“It wouldn’t make you nervous? I’d be a wreck.”

“No. Why would it?”

Apparently my mother missed Julia Child’s essential message: I learned to cook the classics and so can you. Unlike today’s TV chefs, who fall into two camps–the pros whose cooking says don’t try this at home and the non-pros for whom processed foods and shortcuts trump technique–Julia didn’t see the need for either snobbery or dumbing-down. Her cuisine was classic French as handed down by Escoffier; there was no pretense or trendiness in it. The recipes, though sometimes difficult and time-consuming, were accessible to any home cook in possession of basic techniques and a desire to learn. In every episode of “The French Chef” and “Julia Child and Company,” as well as every cookbook she wrote, her point was that we–the home cooks–could do it too.  

I’m proof of this. And though I’ve learned from Alice Waters, Ken Hom and many other chefs, Julia Child remains my guiding spirit. If I’ve often failed to heed her dictate, “never apologize, never explain,” I’ve certainly upheld her can-do spirit through thousands of meals. Soon I’ll be making yeast for pain levain, something I’ve been wanting to try for years. I’m not sure Julia Child ever made her own yeast; at any rate, it’s not her recipe. (It comes from Steve Sullivan of Acme Bread in Berkeley, one of the world’s greatest bakers.) But it’s a sure bet I’ll be thinking of her when I do it.

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