Perfect Wit

Joan Juliet Buck on Being in Awe of Nora Ephron

Joan Juliet Buck on being paralyzed by admiration and finally working with her icon on ‘Julie & Julia.’

Charles Sykes / AP Photo

I don’t even know what tense to use to write this.

I didn’t know Nora Ephron well because I was paralyzed by admiration. She’d crossed the divide between journalism and fiction, and then the one between fiction and screenplays, and then the one between screenplays and directing, without ever losing the beat of her own voice. She’d scattered the culture with markers that will forever be hers, “I’ll have what she’s having” among them.

She also had a real life, two early marriages and then one great one, and two sons, one of whom I know and adore. And she cooked.

I admired Nora Ephron’s candor and balls as far back as her pieces in Esquire, was devastated by her Silkwood script, loved her movies, and marveled at the way she plainly stated truths that no one else had seen.

She was confident and she was consistent. Her voice proved that clear logic combined with stark honesty creates the most perfect wit. I think she’ll be an even bigger icon than Mark Twain.

She also turned out to be the best thing that happened to me in New York. One day at one of those Peggy Siegal lunches that you shouldn’t go to because daytime is for writing, not for eating lunch to celebrate a film you haven’t seen, I found myself placed next to Nora. I knew her slightly, but my awe had kept me at a distance. While I dawdled away my life in uncertainties, obligations, and improv classes, Nora never stopped writing books, plays, and screenplays, directing, working. She didn’t mess around. She meant everything she did, and everything she did had a life.

I asked a real question: “How do you manage not to get in your own way?”

The answer was simple, direct, down to earth. I wrote it down so I wouldn’t forget it, and then I lost the notebook.

She must have said something about French Vogue and I must have said something about French being my first language, because a month later she sent me a three-word email that said only: “Can you act?”

“Trained,” I answered, trying for her terse clarity.

She asked me to come in and read for three parts in the film she was preparing, Julie & Julia.

Real actors and actresses sat mumbling to themselves in the waiting room. In another room, Nora sat in the corner, while the casting director wielded a video camera.

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The first part I read, a minor Cordon Bleu instructor, required me to say the words “an egg.”

The second part was the American woman who introduces Julia Child to Louisette Bertholle and Simone Beck at a party. I did her eager and a little slurred; they drank a lot in Paris in 1949.

The third was the bitch, the head of the cooking school. I could see Nora in her chair in the corner and I could feel a kind of glee coming off her, which was great because it matched what I was feeling. I pulled my hair back into a rubber band and let rip with every bit of French nastiness I had inside me.

When I was done, I looked over at Nora and saw a smile. Writing this now I am so glad I caused that smile. It is possibly the smile her vinaigrette saw when she tasted it. It was glee and it was pleasure and it was mischief and it was victory.

“Give her the script, she’s got the part.” said Nora, and added, to me: “You’ve got all three parts if you want them.”

I left with the script. I thought this was how auditions went.

For three days of unremitting bliss, Nora directed me opposite Meryl Streep. She must have already been ill. No one knew it.

Nora worked wearing high heels and made it look easy. Once she had what she wanted in the can, she’d say: “Now do one for you.”

I was so overcome with gratitude for the chance to be in Julie & Julia that I became intimidated all over again. I never got to be Nora’s friend.

But I might have been one of her vinaigrettes.