Sunday, 08 July 2012

Her way was to make ’em laugh

From When Harry Met Sally to Sleepless In Seattle, Nora Ephron, who died last week, took the most important things in women’s lives and turned them into comedy gold, says Rachel Johnson

Written by Rachel Johnson
No one wrote more amusingly about the important things in women's lives – love, betrayal, heartbreak, children, parents, sex, ageing, dating, dieting, the perfect chocolate-chip cookie, the death of romance, death itself – than Nora Ephron, who has died from acute myeloid leukaemia aged 71.

Because all these things were ripe subjects for her spritzy, witty, but never acid-dipped pen. 'Everything is copy,' as her mother, Phoebe, told the young Nora (one of four girls). The best advice, it turned out, she could give her eldest daughter.

For when life dealt her an early blow (her husband, the Watergate legend Carl Bernstein, ran off with Margaret – now Baroness – Jay, wife of Peter Jay, British Ambassador to the United States), she didn't crawl under a rock. No, she turned their epic, public divorce into a bestselling novel and film called Heartburn. As the years passed, she didn't fade away. She just became funnier, more successful, polymathic, talented and celebrated, and somehow better looking.

Over the past four decades, she was nominated three times for an Oscar (in 1984 for her screenplay of Silkwood, in 1990 for When Harry Met Sally and in 1994 for Sleepless In Seattle), and wrote several bestselling books. She directed John Travolta, Nicole Kidman, Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks, among others. 'You can't just sit there and do one thing,' she said.

She could do the big sweep and the small stuff, and mix it all up into a screenplay, or a novel or a memoir, or an essay that made you laugh out loud: think of the scene in When Harry Met Sally, when the woman at the next table watched Meg Ryan pretend to climax and said to the waiter, 'I'll have what she's having.' She could also make us wince with recognition.

Her last two books, I Feel Bad About My Neck: And Other Thoughts On Being A Woman, and I Remember Nothing And Other Refl ections, are rueful, accurate accounts of a successful woman, above all a New Yorker, contending with ageing and menopause. Both are on my bedside table, but I am banned from reading them in bed because both make me laugh out loud and disturb my husband while he's trying to get through some 400-page military history.

'Our way is to make 'em laugh,' was the Ephron family motto. Boy, she did. As her friend, Meryl Streep (who starred in Heartburn) remarked, 'Nora just looked at every situation and cocked her head and thought, "Hmm, how can I make this more fun?"'

Nora Ephron: born 19 May 1941, died 26 June 2012.


The wit and wisdom of Nora Ephron

  • 'I always read the last page of a book fi rst so that if I die before I finish I'll know how it turned out.' Heartburn
  • 'The whole purpose of places like Starbucks is for people with no decisionmaking ability whatsoever to make six decisions just to buy one cup of coffee. Short, tall, light, dark, caf, decaf, low-fat, non-fat etc. So people who don't know what the hell they're doing or who on earth they are can, for only $2.95, get not just a cup of coffee, but an absolutely defining sense of self.' You've Got Mail
  • 'Above all, be the heroine of your life, not the victim.' An address to the graduates of Wellesley College, 1996
  • 'The desire to get married is a basic and primal instinct in women. It's followed by another basic and primal instinct: the desire to be single again.' About singles
  • 'Oh, how I regret not having worn a bikini for the entire year I was 26. If anyone young is reading this, go, right this minute, put on a bikini, and don't take it off until you're 34.'
  • '...the amount of maintenance involving hair is genuinely overwhelming. Sometimes I think that not having to worry about your hair any more is the secret upside of death.' Both taken from I Feel Bad About My Neck: And Other Thoughts On Being A Woman
  • 'If pregnancy were a book, they would cut the last two chapters.' One of Nora's one-liners
  • 'Everybody dies. There's nothing you can do about it. Whether or not you eat six almonds a day. Whether or not you believe in God.' I Remember Nothing And Other Reflections

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