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Scott Larson

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Sleepless in Seattle (1941-2012)

When the radio came on this morning and informed me that Nora Ephron had died, I knew that I would not get through the morning without hearing a woman have an orgasm. Or, more accurately, without hearing an actor playing a woman faking an orgasm.

And I did hear it—while listening to BBC radio of all media outlets. If Ephron will be remembered for anything, it will be for writing the scene in When Harry Met Sally… in which Meg Ryan loudly simulated la petite mort in a restaurant, much to Billy Crystal’s discomfort and prompting director Rob Reiner’s mother to quip drily, “I’ll have what she’s having.”

When Harry Met Sally… was a huge success, but I will confess that, at least when I saw it in 1989, I wasn’t that into it. I found the two main characters pretty obnoxious and that kept me from caring whether their relationship worked out or not. I had many discussions about it with a friend who loved it. She had lived in New York and had had a relationship with a Harry Burns type, and she found it the movie delightfully cathartic.

I think it is safe to say that Ephron will be remembered more for her writing that her directing. And, among some people, she may be even more remembered for her parties, at least by the people who attended them, since I have heard that they were really good.

Ephron had a big hand in the evolution of that entrenched movie genre called the romantic comedy. That is largely on the strength of her screenplay for the abovementioned Reiner film and, even more so, for her second movie as a director, Sleepless in Seattle, a title that became a catchphrase for romantic longing. That movie made Ryan and Tom Hanks the ultimate romcom couple of 1990s, leading to a reprise five years late in You’ve Got Mail. For some reason Seattle struck a chord in the popular culture, probably because of the city’s prominence at the time (grunge, coffee, software) and the attractiveness of its stars. A deconstruction of the oft remade Love Affair (aka An Affair to Remember), it played on the popular Hollywood theme of love as destiny. There was some great writing in the movie, including a memorably funny scene in which Hanks and Victor Garber mock chick flicks by talking about how they cried at the end of The Dirty Dozen.

You always got the feeling that Ephron’s stories were at least partly autobiographical. Like maybe the Billy Crystal character in When Harry Met Sally… was really Washington Post reporter Carl Bernstein, to whom she was married for four years. Or maybe he wasn’t. On the other hand, there is no question that her novel Heartburn, which she adapted for a movie directed by Mike Nichols and starring Meryl Streep and Jack Nicholson, was based on that marriage and divorce.

Ephron didn’t just write and direct romcoms and relationship movies. She was already established as a journalist when she worked with her then-husband on a film adaptation of Woodward and Bernstein’s All the President’s Men. It didn’t get used, but Ephron went on to write the TV movie Perfect Gentlemen (Lauren Bacall, Ruth Gordon and Sandy Dennis rob a bank) followed by Nichols’s Silkwood. Others followed, including the ones mentioned above plus Susan Seidelman’s Cookie (with Peter Falk and Emily Lloyd) and Herbert Ross’s My Blue Heaven (with Steve Martin and Rick Moranis).

Beginning with This Is My Life (Julie Kavner as a comedian coping with success and parenthood) in 1992, Ephron mostly directed her own screenplays. Other films she directed include Mixed Nuts (co-written with her sister Delia, about a crisis hotline office) and Michael (John Travolta as an angel). You’ve Got Mail was an overt attempt to recreate the magic of Sleepless in Seattle. It not only brought back Hanks and Ryan and a romance mediated/frustrated by modern technology (email, as opposed to phone-in radio in Seattle). And, like the earlier movie, it was an update to a romantic classic, Ernst Lubitsch’s The Shop Around the Corner.

A rare movie she directed but had no credited hand in the writing was 2000’s Lucky Numbers, a caper comedy in which Travolta and Lisa Kudrow scam a lottery. The same year she worked again with Delia to adapt Delia’s book Hanging Up for a film directed by Diane Keaton. Criminally under-appreciated, the movie told the story of three sisters (Keaton, Ryan and Kudrow) coping with the illness and eventual demise of their father, played by Walter Matthau at his most irascible in his final role. The film spoke tons about the state of families at the turn of the millennium.

Most people seem to agree that her penultimate movie, an adaption of the old TV show Bewitched, was a misfire. Her final film, a mash-up of memoirs by Julia Child (with Alex Prud’homme) and Julie Powell, was more successful. Julie & Julia earned Meryl Streep her umpteenth Oscar nomination.

Condolences to her husband, Nicholas Pileggi, who is also a writer. He is best known for adapting his book Wiseguy for the screenplay of Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas. May he take some solace from what Ephron told the 1996 class of her alma mater, Wellesley College, in a commencement speech: “Above all, be the heroine of your life, not the victim.” As a success is so many different areas, she was clearly a heroine to many.

-S.L., 27 June 2012

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