This is not the news I wanted to wake up to first thing this morning: Nora Ephron, the writer and filmmaker, died on Tuesday, June 26, at age 71 of pneumonia brought on by acute myeloid leukemia.
After my mother, Ephron was perhaps the most influential woman during the first two decades of my life. More than anyone else, she’s the one who made me want to become a writer and a journalist — in that order. I first fell for her literary charms in college when I read her books Scribble Scribble and Heartburn, which had been made into a 1986 Meryl Streep/Jack Nicholson movie that I enjoyed more than most of the comedies Streep has made in the years since, including 2009’s Julie & Julia, Ephron’s final directorial effort.
“I want to be able to write like this,” I remember thinking over and over as I flipped through the pages of both books, utterly impressed, and envious, too, because she had such a sly, subtle way of wringing humor from the most depressing, heartbreaking situations (humiliation with dignity, I call it — for a modern example, check out Jane Elliot and Finola Hughes’ jaw-droppingly awesome scenes on yesterday’s episode of General Hospital), like extricating yourself from a cheating spouse.
Every time I think about the bit in Heartburn (the book) where Ephron complains about the mate who sheds bread crumbs (I know him!), it still brings a smile to my face before I erupt into full-on laughter. In college, Tom Wolfe and Hunter S. Thompson were considered the coolest cats of the ’60s “New Journalism” movement, but Ephron was the one I gravitated to most. I wanted to emulate her writing years before I ever heard of David Sedaris.
As one of my first editors once told me, “You can’t hit a home run every time,” and that seemed to apply double to Ephron as a film director. Although some of her movies were incredibly successful (Sleepless in Seattle, Michael, You’ve Got Mail), she received more thumbs downs than thumbs ups. (Surely even Ephron must have wanted to delete the dreadful Bewitched from her resume!)
Regardless of how the critics felt, she had her moments. The orgasm scene in 1989’s When Harry Met Sally…, which Ephron wrote and Rob Reiner directed, comes immediately to mind, but for me, the most indelible one arrived at the end of 1998’s You’ve Got Mail, which my boyfriend at the time slept through when we saw it together in a theater on Long Island.
After spending the bulk of the movie sparring like meant-to-be’s always do in successful romantic comedies, Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan finally meet the people they’ve been courting online (he already knows it’s her, but she doesn’t know it’s him). Once they’re face to face, Ryan’s character looks at Hanks’ and says, “I was hoping it would be you.”
I couldn’t have written a happier, more beautiful ending to my own story.