Hollywood's leading lady


Nora Ephron shattered plenty of glass ceilings, with her acerbic essays, razor- sharp scripts and inventive filmwork, and established herself as one of the most important women in Hollywood and the archetypal New York wit, writes DONALD CLARKE

NORA EPHRON, WHO re-energised the romantic comedy genre with her script for When Harry Met Sally, would never stoop to such appalling clichés, but the spiky writer built her career on an ability to turn lemons into lemonade.

By the late 1970s, Ephron, who has died at the age of 71, was already well established as a columnist in such outlets as the New Yorker and Esquire. Moving from sex to food to second-wave feminism, her writing combined wry wisdom with poisonous aphorisms. A Few Words About Breasts, a famous 1972 article from Esquire, worked Ephron’s concern about the smallness of her own bosoms into a hilarious dissection of post-war sexual politics. Lemons into lemonade.

In 1979, a personal catastrophe helped launch her towards a more elevated class of celebrity. Four years previously, Ephron had married journalist Carl Bernstein, then stratospherically famous after helping uncover the Watergate conspiracy. The revelation that the priapic Bernstein – “capable of having sex with a Venetian blind” according to Ephron – was conducting an affair with Margaret Jay, the married daughter of UK prime minister James Callaghan, inspired Ephron to write an acerbic, mildly fictionalised account of the subsequent break-up entitled Heartburn. A movie starring Jack Nicholson and Meryl Streep followed. Bernstein consulted his lawyers, but was advised not to waste the court’s time. Ephron became rich and was able to savour her lemonade in a new mansion in the Hamptons.

In 1983, the same year that Heartburn was published, Ephron helped write the script for Mike Nichols’s Silkwood. But it was in 1989 that she really made her mark on Hollywood. Ephron’s screenplay for When Harry Met Sally masterfully weaves social observation around a romantic arc that never quite drifts into sentimentality. Following the stuttering relationship between Billy Crystal’s smart wiseacre and Meg Ryan’s prim moralist, the film undoubtedly owed something to Woody Allen’s Annie Hall.

This was, however, a more mainstream effort. Ryan’s faked orgasm in Katz’s diner became one of the decade’s key scenes. A whole generation wondered if Harry’s notion that sex destroys friendships could really be true.

If one were being unkind, one could blame When Harry Met Sally for Hollywood’s subsequent addiction to a formulaic class of romantic comedy. It is worth remembering that, to this point, the rom-com (as it wasn’t then abbreviated) was not seen as a particularly lucrative format. When Harry Met Sally changed all that and ensured that, for years to come, cinemagoers were deluged with drab pictures in which apparently ill-suited couples gradually came to realise they were, in fact, made for one another.

But Ephron’s work on When Harry remains untouchable: the structure was certainly familiar, but the dialogue never slips into predictable beats.

Ephron began to direct and mined that rom-com seam with such hugely successful pictures as Sleepless in Seattle and You’ve Got Mail. Three years ago, she directed Meryl Streep to an Oscar nomination in the unusual Julie Julia.

The triumph of When Harry Met Sally and her early career working for Manhattan publications established Ephron as an archetypal New York wit. Although born in the city, she was largely raised in Los Angeles. He parents, Henry and Phoebe Ephron, distinguished screenwriters, were behind such hits as Carousel and There’s No Business Like Show Business. After attending Wellesley College, the super-posh liberal-arts college in Massachusetts, she worked briefly for president John F Kennedy’s White House and eventually battered her way into the male-dominated world of upmarket journalism.

An early marriage to writer Dan Greenburg ended in 1976. The Bernstein debacle distracted her in the late 1970s. In 1987, she and Nicholas Pileggi, screenwriter of Goodfellas and Casino, married and the relationship lasted until her death.

Ephron gave the world some delicious work: Heartburn, the early columns, recent pieces for the Huffington Post. And she also managed to change the cinema business. When Harry Met Sally persuaded producers that grown-up comedies could be as huge as science fiction (a lesson they later betrayed by inventing the patronising “chick flick”).

Moreover, by securing high-profile directing jobs without undergoing a sex change, she managed to crash through a glass ceiling that still contains only a few isolated holes.

More important than all that, she was darn funny. I’ll have what she’s having.

Ephron's wit and wisdom

“You know, I have a theory that hieroglyphics are just an ancient comic strip about a character named Sphinxy.”

– When Harry Met Sally

“If pregnancy were a book, they would cut the last two chapters.”

– Heartburn

“Above all, be the heroine of your life, not the victim.”

– Commencement address to Wellesley College

“When your children are teenagers, it’s important to have a dog so that someone in the house is happy to see you.”

– From the column

I Feel Bad about my Neck

“The whole purpose of places like Starbucks is for people with no decision-making ability whatsoever to make six decisions just to buy one cup of coffee.”

– You’ve Got Mail

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