Posted by Susan Doll on July 16, 2012
Before the deaths of Andy Griffith and Ernest Borgnine dealt a double blow to Baby Boomers who have fond memories of both actors, Nora Ephron passed away from leukemia. Boomers grew up on the television series of Griffith and Borgnine, and the latter costarred in a number of landmark films of the 1950s and 1960s, which accounts for the outpouring of genuine sentiment at their passing. As a screenwriter and director, Ephron was not in a position to inspire that level of collective grief. But, her career deserves an evaluation or assessment, because she was one of the few women directors in Hollywood.
Prior to poking around a bit for this article, I did not know a lot about Ephron. I have never used one of her films in any of my classes, and, truth be told, I did not find her to be a dynamic director. Her scripts may be rich in humorous observations and witty exchanges between characters, but her directorial efforts were uneven to say the least. The best of them were adequately directed and enhanced by star turns (Sleepless in Seattle; Julie & Julia); the worst (Mixed Nuts; Bewitched) suffered from static blocking, sluggish pacing, and poor staging of the physical comedy. However, as I looked into Ephron’s career, I realized that I was wrong to short-change her. After all, her scripts and characters represent a style of film humor that is far more sophisticated and universal than today’s clunky, crude comedies targeted to males or the flat, offensive chick flicks aimed at girls. Ephron’s perspective as a mature, contemporary woman represents a voice or point of view that adult women can recognize and relate to; yet, it does not alienate other factions of the audience. Ephron did not make chick flicks—instead, she wrote and directed comedies with female protagonists that had something to say. Her films offer universal observations, perspectives, and themes about relationships that are relevant to both genders and most age groups—much like the intended audience for movies during previous eras of Hollywood.
Ephron’s writer’s voice was undoubtedly influenced by her parents, Hollywood screenwriters Henry and Phoebe Ephron. The Ephrons specialized in musicals and romantic comedies during the 1940s and 1950s. A career high point for the husband-and-wife team was the script for the Tracy-Hepburn comedy Desk Set, in which Hepburn played a fact-checker who believes her job is in jeopardy due to Tracy’s newfangled computer. Because of the nature of their unusual jobs, the characters’ banter is smart and unique as well as funny. Anyone who has seen the film will recall the smartly written scene in which Hepburn reveals her tricks for memorization to Tracy; it’s performed with expert verbal agility by Hepburn.
Ephron recalls her mother telling her repeatedly that everything that happens in life is potential content for her writing, and her parents certainly practiced what they preached. In 1962, Henry and Phoebe wrote a play based on daughter Nora’s letters home from college titled Take Her, She’s Mine. The play was turned into a 1963 film starring Sandra Dee as college girl Mollie Michaelson and Jimmy Stewart as her exasperated father. Throughout college, Mollie tries out the latest phases and fads; at one point, she is a beatnik and social activist and then becomes a fledgling abstract painter. Take Her, She’s Mine is one of my favorite comedies, though I recognize that it is no classic. Stewart does a terrific comic turn in the final sequence, which takes place at a costume ball, and the film features great supporting players, including Robert Morley, Bob Denver, and John McGiver. As a major Sandra Dee fan, I love her depiction of Mollie Michaelson, whose enthusiasm for her causes and pursuits reveal a passion for life. When I was a little girl, Take Her, She’s Mine made me want to go to college, visit Europe, and experience life outside of my small hometown. After I discovered that this movie was based on Nora‘s college days, I could relate to her in a way I had not before.
Ephron followed her parents’ approach to subject matter and used her real-life experiences and observations as the basis for some of her novels, plays, and screenplays. The most obvious instance was the novel and film Heartburn, which was a fictionalized interpretation of her failed marriage to Watergate journalist Carl Bernstein. Directed by Mike Nichols, the 1986 film starred Jack Nicholson as a famous newspaper columnist and Meryl Streep as a food writer who falls in love with him. What I found more interesting than the Bernstein-Ephron connection were the details of the narrative that revealed a woman’s touch, such as the way Streep’s character expressed emotions—love, anger, sadness—through cooking. Dishes were planned, cooked, and consumed based on the protagonist’s experiences and emotions. While perusing through several reviews by predominantly male critics, I noticed none of them mentioned the connection between emotions, cooking, and eating, which seemed essential to Streep’s character. In another scene, the character leaves her philandering husband while in the final stages of pregnancy, and her condition is not romanticized as a state of bliss. Her bulk and physical condition not only make it difficult to get around on a daily basis but also cause her to feel unattractive and uncomfortable. It was obviously scripted by someone who had been pregnant.
Streep starred in Ephron’s last completed film project, Julie & Julia, a situational comedy based on the book by Julie Powell in which she relates her experiences of cooking her way through Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking. Child was as famous for her shrill voice, offbeat mannerisms, and tall, gangly frame as she was for her cooking skills. Streep did an excellent job of echoing Child’s voice and gestures without turning her into a caricature. Also, Ephron depicted Child’s husband, Paul, played by Stanley Tucci, as a loving husband who cares deeply for his wife. Paul’s affection and attraction to his wife made me forget Child’s eccentric mannerisms, giving her a femininity and likability that I never associated with the real Child. Once again, male reviewers missed these finer points when assessing the movie: The esteemed Roger Ebert began his review with: “Did you ever want to take a three-day bus trip sitting next to Julia Child? Just asking. In 30-minute programs on TV, she was priceless. But to live with her, I suspect, must have taken the patience of a saint. Her husband Paul in ‘Julie & Julia’ is portrayed as a saint, so that explains her marriage.” I found Ebert’s first sentence to be a cheap shot at Child’s offbeat vocal inflections, while his decision to make a joke about her marriage was a missed opportunity to interpret its function in the narrative.
As a writer and/or director, Ephron established well-known working relationships with several actors, including Meg Ryan (Sleepless in Seattle; You’ve Got Mail; Hanging Up; When Harry Met Sally), Tom Hanks (Sleepless in Seattle; You’ve Got Mail), and Steve Martin (Mixed Nuts; My Blue Heaven). I prefer her collaborations with Meryl Streep, despite the unevenness of Heartburn and Julie & Julia. They first worked together on Silkwood, which was penned by Ephron and directed by Mike Nichols. Based on the true story of the woman who was killed after exposing safety violations at the Kerr-McGee nuclear plant, Silkwood marked Ephron’s first big-screen script. The female characters in the film, including Karen Silkwood, were flawed and unglamorous but appealing because they were strong, courageous working-class women. Cher costarred as Karen Silkwood’s roommate, a misfit coming to terms with her newfound identity as a lesbian. And, Diana Scarwid is memorable as Cher’s eccentric girlfriend—a beautician who works at the local funeral home. The film is rich in detail regarding the characters’ personalities and daily lives. I recall how Karen tended to snatch food from other people’s lunches or plates and then nibble on it; it is an act that is at once aggressive and intimate, suggesting Karen’s contradictory nature as a character. And, the conversations and interactions between Karen and her boyfriend, played by the tragically underrated Kurt Russell, were more about the rigors of sustaining a relationship than sex. In this film, Ephron’s strengths as a writer—exchanges among characters, observations on life—worked well with Nichols’s subtle direction.
I should point out that Ephron wrote in a number of formats—essays, feature news stories, plays, novels, and screenplays—throughout her life. Sometimes, she collaborated with her sister Delia. Her sharp wit and insightful observations were revealed in conversations among her richly drawn characters who were modern-day urban-dwellers as confused and vexed by romance and familial relationships as the rest of us. I have come to appreciate her perspective and female voice, particularly considering the embarrassing lack of women in the film industry. While women make up 51% of the population, only 16% of protagonists in Hollywood movies are female. Behind the camera, only 10% of the industry’s writers and 7% of its directors are women. Nora Ephron will be missed.
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