Nora Ephron, a Filmmaker With a Strong Voice

Kate Aurthur celebrates the writer and director’s work, from ‘You’ve Got Mail’ to ‘Silkwood’ to ‘Heartburn.’

Warner Bros. Home Video / AP Photo

INT. SONY LINCOLN SQUARE THEATRE—NIGHT. That’s a script heading from the screenplay for You’ve Got Mail, which Nora Ephron co-wrote and directed. I saw it on Christmas night in 1998, one week after it had opened. The story, as everyone knows, was about a big chain bookstore encroaching on an independent bookstore, and how the two opposing owners—Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks—fell in love on the Internet without knowing who the other was. Having worked at Shakespeare & Co. for years, the one on 81st and Broadway that had been put out of business by a Barnes & Noble two blocks away, I already felt like Nora Ephron, a regular customer at Shakespeare, was speaking to me.

So it was a true out-of-body experience when the Meg Ryan character and her not-right-for-her boyfriend (Greg Kinnear) walked into the movie theater, Sony Lincoln Square (now the AMC Loews), in which my friends and I were watching the movie. Everyone in the theater giggled in recognition; as the characters went up the escalator we had all recently ascended, talking all the while, and then walked into the exact theater where we were watching You’ve Got Mail, blasé New Yorkers were alternately gasping and laughing. The entire crowd broke into applause. Merry Christmas to us.

You’ve Got Mail was the fifth movie Ephron, who had been an essayist, directed. She was prolific in film in the 1990s; she directed her first, This Is My Life, in 1992, and it’s an underappreciated movie. It’s homey and has a great cast. And if you can imagine a film coming out now starring someone like the great Julie Kavner, then you have more hope for this world than I do. It didn’t do well, which might have damned her forever, considering how few chances women directors got 20 years ago.

But thank God it didn’t. Because Sleepless in Seattle was released the following year, and not only was it a huge hit, but it solidified Ephron’s voice as a filmmaker, particularly of romantic comedies. So much so that I noticed that when the news of her death broke, she was credited in several hastily prepared obituaries (and in many tweets) as having directed 1989’s When Harry Met Sally. (Rob Reiner directed it; Ephron wrote the screenplay.) Retroactively, though, we can see that When Harry Met Sally had some key Ephronian elements—dating dilemmas, relatable friendships, Meg Ryan, and a big ending. It also had one of the most famous scenes of the past 25 years (do I need to specify?); no one has looked at Katz’s Deli, or Meg Ryan, the same since.

Despite the strong point of view she had as a filmmaker, Ephron wasn’t limited. Remember, the first screenplay she co-wrote that got made was for the activist Silkwood, which is as far away from New York City–based romance and Meg Ryan as you can get. She was nominated for an Oscar, and to me, it’s my favorite of the Meryl Streep/Ephron collaborations, which also includes the recent Julie & Julia. Looking back at the Oscars for 1983 movies, Ephron should have won for best original screenplay—she and her writing partner, Alice Arlen, lost to Horton Foote for Tender Mercies, which is a wonderful film, but it’s no Silkwood. (Cher should have won for best supporting actress, too, for her part as Karen Silkwood’s lesbian friend, but for god’s sake, Linda Hunt played a man that year in The Year of Living Dangerously. That’s not fair competition.)

Heartburn, Ephron’s wonderful autobiographical vengeance novel about her marriage to Carl Bernstein, was the next film she wrote. Streep starred in it, Mike Nichols directed it—he had directed Silkwood, too—and Ephron adapted her own book for the 1986 movie. It’s not great. Part of the problem is that the witty, sometimes internal rage Ephron had achieved in the book was impossible to enact. I flipped through it tonight and found this bit from a dinner party scene toward the end when the Ephron character, Rachel, has finally had it.

I don’t remember the conversation. I do remember realizing that no one seemed to be noticing that I hadn’t said anything the entire evening, and that no one seemed to mind. I must try this again, I thought; I must try again someday to sit still and not say a word. Maybe when I’m dead.

We’re very lucky that she didn’t sit still—and left us so many words.