Filmmaker Nora Ephron, who died on Tuesday, made you feel good, even if you didn’t want to. She also made you laugh, and at the most inappropriate moments, she would squeeze a tear from your eye. Andrew Josef pays tribute to a fine auteur
There’s a scene in 1993’s Sleepless in Seattle when Meg Ryan’s character Annie Reed tells her friend Becky: “Now that was when people knew how to be in love. They knew it! Time, distance… nothing could separate them because they knew. It was right. It was real. It was….” Becky quickly interjects: “A movie! That’s your problem! You don’t want to be in love. You want to be in love in a movie.”
And that’s the crux of Nora Ephron’s films. You fell in love with them. Even if you were a person who believed that films should be steeped in reality; walking the fine line between gratuitous violence and the need for gore; even if you were the sort who believed Hollywood was the epicentre of cinematic schlock… even then, you’d find your eyes wandering over an Ephron film like a voyeur who knows he’s about to be caught but can’t help himself because of the way the object of his desire makes him feel.
Ephron just made you feel good, even if you didn’t want to. She also made you laugh, and at the most inappropriate moments, she would squeeze a tear from your eye. Just one, but it always threatened to be at the vanguard of a more Biblical flood. Men hated Ephron, women loved her, but as humans we just couldn’t get enough of her.
Ephron was so much more than just a director and writer who tugged at our heartstrings likes a gloriously mush puppet master. In 1983 she wrote Silkwood, a sublime tale about Karen Silkwood, a nuclear plant worker who was allegedly contaminated and murdered after she exposed safety oversights at the plant she worked in. Silkwood was played by Meryl Streep in a towering performance, but it was the script that shone like a beacon cutting through the fluff of the early 80s.
In 1989 Ephron wrote arguably one of the finest comedies ever to hit screens. At first glance When Harry Met Sally would seem like the stereotypical boy-meets-girl, boy-hates-girl, boy-loves-girl piece of vacuous story-telling, but it would go on to become a seminal tale of everyday people attempting to come to terms with everyday issues with hilarious results.
This was way before TV series like Friends and How I Met Your Mother captured that space and brought it kicking and screaming into the TV domain. The scene from the film where Meg Ryan (playing Sally) fakes an orgasm at a diner in front of a stunned Billy Crystal (Harry) has become as legendary as any other. When Harry Met Sally marked a watershed moment in romantic comedies, proving that they could be risqué without being obscene.
In 1993 Ephron stormed on to the directorial stage (it wasn’t her first outing as director) with a film that was a reinvention of the classic, An Affair to Remember. Starring Meg Ryan (who was swiftly on her way to becoming the world’s sweetheart) and Tom Hanks it pretended to be nothing more than it was: a heart-warming tale of love in a world where cynicism was the norm, and films had lost that magical ability to make you feel good.
Sleepless in Seattle was to pave the way Ephron’s 1998 hit, You’ve Got Mail, which jumped on the e-mail bandwagon so early, it was the only one on the coach. You’ve Got Mail has slowly receded from memory unlike Sleepless…, but it cemented Ephron’s place in the pantheon of directors who knew more about the secret identity of cinema’s Dr Feelgood than most mortals.
In 2009 Ephron’s career reached its zenith when she wrote and directed the film based on chef Julia Childs. Julie & Julia was a masterpiece of storytelling and acting (courtesy Meryl Streep and Amy Adams). It was also the last film Ephron would write or direct before she died from complications arising from acute myeloid leukaemia on Tuesday.
Ephron will always be remembered for two films: When Harry Met Sally and Sleepless in Seattle, but she was so much more talented than their sum.
For me her best film has always been Michael: The tale of the archangel, Michael who comes down to Earth for one last jaunt before he leaves forever. Played by John Travolta, Michael is an archangel with attitude. Imagine Milton’s Lucifer with a sense of humour and you will understand Michael. Through Michael Ephron channelled the vision that without humour, life is just a series of cataclysms that inevitably end in death.
Ephron also understood the magic of the little things, the pieces that hang around the periphery of our existence, often blurred, but almost always quintessential to the tapestry of our life. All her films and screenplays personified this, but it was Ephron herself who epitomised the wonderment of life.
In a 2009 interview with the Guardian, she was asked about the one extinct thing she wanted to bring back to life: “In the 60s, there was a store on Eastern Long Island called Besart, after the couple who owned it — Bess and Art. Bess used to make an orange layer cake with orange butter cream frosting, and it was divine. The recipe is lost forever.”
Unlike that cake, Ephron will not be lost in the mists of time; her legacy will live on with every peal of laughter and stream of tears. Ephron’s films will always be about filling the emptiness we sometimes feel inside of us, filling the spaces. As Kathleen Kelly (Meg Ryan) writes in an e-mail in You’ve Got Mail: “Sometimes I wonder about my life. I lead a small life — well, valuable, but small — and sometimes I wonder, do I do it because I like it, or because I haven’t been brave? So much of what I see reminds me of something I read in a book, when shouldn’t it be the other way around? I don’t really want an answer. I just want to send this cosmic question out into the void. So good night, dear void.”
And good night Ms Ephron.