NOT JUST A FUNNY LADY – REMEMBERING NORA EPHRON

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Nora Ephron: The Last Interview and Other Conversations

Melville House 2016
ISBN: 9781612195247
RRP: $30 pb

Reviewed by Anne Henderson

It’s a slim volume – 84 pages and a Sunday morning’s easy reading. Just four in-depth interviews with one of America’s greats among journalistic and movie world achievers – Nora Ephron, the warm, witty lady with the withering eye and comic sense of life’s limitations. Scriptwriter for When Harry Met Sally, Silkwood, Sleepless in Seattle, among many others, and director of Sleepless in Seattle and Julie & Julia, also among many others. Also nominated for and a winner of a number of awards for scriptwriting.

Ephron’s lack of sentimentality was her trademark, as in her view of marriage that it took away small distractions, interruptions in her day – “[marriage] frees you from all that energy that you use to put into dating. You can put it into work. You don’t have to worry who is going to take you to the dinner party tomorrow. It takes time to be single, it seems to me,” she told Michael S Lasky for Writer’s Digest in 1974.

For all that, it would be the breakup of her second marriage in 1979 (The Washington Post’s Carl Bernstein of Watergate fame) which would popularise her name globally when she turned the experience into the novel Heartburn – later made into the movie of the same name starring Meryl Streep and Jack Nicholson.

Growing up with parents who were renowned Hollywood script writers – Henry and Phoebe Ephron – Nora had a pedigree to die for in taking on a journalistic career and later moving into films. Her surroundings in LA, however, were never to her liking as a child and, after graduating from Wellesley, she based herself in New York writing for newspapers and magazines on poor rates of pay – a start she would later thoroughly recommend rather than film school for would-be screen writers.

These four interviews in Nora Ephron: The Last Interview and Other Conversations – done in 1974, 2007, 2010 and 2012 – give a snapshot of a life of energy and artistic pioneering at the very heart of America’s elite.

Ephron came to script writing in the early 1980s after cutting her teeth and extending her experience covering stories as a freelancer across the globe. “At thirty-two, Nora Ephron is everywhere and it didn’t take her very long to get there,” starts Michael Lasky – and it’s only 1974.

Already she had published a collection of her writings titled Wallflower at the Orgy – a title that would echo years later after her marriage to Bernstein collapsed and she had worked out the identity of “Deep Throat” as being Mark Felt. No matter whom she told, they never believed she could know. Even though she had seen Bernstein’s notes and guessed correctly. Only the Bernstein sons ever realised their mother had it right. In the male environment of Washington politics, Ephron was indeed something of a wallflower, despite her brains and intellectual and creative talents.

Moving through male environments was Nora Ephron’s lifetime endurance course, but one from which she took away quite a few glittering prizes. Asked about this and the way women have had to hurdle higher barriers in the screen writer/director field, Ephron at no time plays the victim in her interviews. Her choice is firmly her own:

… it was so clear in my house that we [sisters] were all going to end up being writers. And that my extremely powerful, albeit eventually fairly wacky, parents would be disappointed in us if we weren’t. And since our mother was a writer, you know, it all seemed like maybe this could be done, to me.”

While recognising the odds were stacked against women in journalism – “there was a tremendous amount of competition among the handful of us that were climbing the greasy pole … There was never any sense that there was room for all of you” – Ephron wasn’t one to wait to be asked. As she explained it to Kathryn Borel for The Believer in “The Last Interview” in 2012:

… there’s no question I really wanted to be a newspaper reporter. And I really wanted to get a movie made. And I really wanted to direct a movie. If you don’t want something it’s hard – in the movie business, especially. Sometimes I speak at film schools, and I speak to rooms of women. And they’re very nice, but you can see that they don’t understand that it takes this huge amount of will and energy for anything to happen.

It was never Ephron’s style to complain about the poor statistics on women filmmakers, directors or script writers. Her answer to those who came looking for comment was to avoid them and “write the next movie and try and get it made.” As she recollects her parents and their achievements, it is clear Ephron’s mother was her spur:

… if you have a mother who’s as powerful as ours was – and as simultaneously withholding – or powerful on account of that  … part of your ambition comes from a desire to please her. Long after she’s on the planet, by the way.

Ephron came to see her life in stages moving across her adult life. Each decade she moved to another level. But through all of that, the Ephron humour and take on life remained much the same. Her obsession with small details kept her touching both the big issues and the tiny ones in any ordinary life. In her interview with Kerry Lauerman for Salon, in November 2010, she shifts from considering the ultimate big question of God and death to advising on how to order her favourite Nate ‘n’ Al’s hot dogs – online and posted. This is Ephron classic and she never fails.

For the Nora Ephron fan, Nora Ephron: The Last Interview and Other Conversations is a delicious petit fours alongside a double espresso. For those who haven’t followed Nora Ephron, the volume is a wonderful appetiser before a really good read of her best.

Anne Henderson is Deputy Director of The Sydney Institute and author of Menzies at War