11:00pm

Tue June 26, 2012
Remembrances

Ephron: From 'Silkwood' To 'Sally,' A Singular Voice

Originally published on Wed June 27, 2012 5:59 pm

Nora Ephron brought us two of the most indelible scenes in contemporary cinema — and they're startlingly different.

There's the infamous "Silkwood shower," from the 1983 movie, with Meryl Streep as a terrified worker at a nuclear power plant, being frantically scrubbed after exposure to radiation.

Then there's the scene in which Meg Ryan drives home a point to Billy Crystal at Katz's Deli, in 1989's When Harry Met Sally. You know — the one that ends with "I'll have what she's having."

Ephron, who died Tuesday at age 71 of complications from leukemia, took romantic comedies to a new level. The heroines of When Harry Met Sally and Sleepless in Seattle were dreamers and strivers. They were women other women recognized. In 1998, Ephron talked with NPR on the set of her film You've Got Mail about being one of the few women in Hollywood to write, produce and direct.

"One of the things I'm completely fascinated by," she said, in her characteristically wry way, "is the determination of many film directors — mostly men — to believe it's like fighting a war.

"If you have a caterer along," she said, bringing the joke home, "it is not quite a war. I think we have to remember this."

Ephron's parents were screenwriters, but she started off in newspapers. She wrote such a dead-on parody of the New York Post that she was hired there soon after graduating from Wellesley.

Her second marriage was to Washington Post reporter Carl Bernstein, of Watergate fame; when it crumbled after an affair, she used it for fodder for her best-selling novel Heartburn, which became a movie starring Meryl Streep.

In real life, Ephron remarried happily, to writer Nicholas Pileggi. She based her script for the movie My Blue Heaven on stories she heard from him when he was writing the book that became the movie Goodfellas. And the marriage in one of her last movies, Julie and Julia -- also starring Streep — is a radiantly happy one.

When she wasn't writing or helming Oscar-nominated movies, Ephron was writing essays — about food, which she loved, about her home in New York City, and about growing old.

"I think it's like a lot of things about getting older — you have absolutely no imagination that this is actually going to happen to you," she told NPR's Neal Conan several years ago. "You think for quite a while you're going to be the only person who doesn't need reading glasses, or the only person who doesn't go through menopause ... and in the end, the only person who isn't going to die. And then you suddenly are faced with whichever of those things it is, and you can't believe how unimaginative you have been about what it actually consists of."

But Ephron's life was defined by imagination — by freewheeling wit, and by her ability to write her way into the worlds she wanted to live in and make them more welcoming places.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

Writer and director Nora Ephron has died. She was best known for hugely successful romantic comedies, and best-selling collections of essays. Ephron died last night in New York City, after a struggle with leukemia. She was 71 years old. NPR's Neda Ulaby has this remembrance.

NEDA ULABY, BYLINE: Nora Ephron brought us two of the most indelible scenes in contemporary cinema, and they're startlingly different. There's the infamous "Silkwood" shower, from the 1983 movie...

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "SILKWOOD")

SUDIE BOND: (As Thelma) Stop!

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (As character) We have to take off the contamination.

BOND: (As Thelma) (Screaming, Crying ) Why are you doing this?

ULABY: ...when a terrified worker at a nuclear power plant gets exposed to radiation. Then there's the scene when Meg Ryan drives home a point to Billy Crystal at a deli, in 1989's "When Harry Met Sally."

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "WHEN HARRY MET SALLY")

MEG RYAN: (As Sally Albright) Oh, yes, yes, yes.

ESTELLE REINER: I'll have what she's having.

ULABY: Nora Ephron took romantic comedies to a new level. The heroines of "When Harry Met Sally" and "Sleepless in Seattle" were dreamers and strivers. They were women other women recognized. In 1998, Ephron talked with NPR on the set of her film "You've Got Mail," about being one of the few women in Hollywood to write, produce and direct.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

NORA EPHRON: One of the things that I'm completely fascinated by, are - is the determination of many film directors, mostly men, to believe that making a movie is like fighting a war. If you have a caterer along, it is not quite a war; I think we have to remember this.

ULABY: Ephron's parents were screenwriters, but she started off in newspapers. She wrote such a dead-on parody of the New York Post, she was hired there soon after graduating from Wellesley. Her second marriage was to Washington Post reporter Carl Bernstein. But when it crumbled after his affair, she used it for fodder for the best-selling novel "Heartburn," that became a movie starring Meryl Streep.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "HEARTBURN")

MERYL STREEP: (as Rachel Samstat) Look at this - flowers. Look at all these flowers that you bought her! And you occasionally brought me home a bunch of wilted zinnias. How can you do this?

ULABY: But in real life, Nora Ephron remarried happily, to the writer Nicholas Pileggi. She based her script for the movie "My Blue Heaven" on stories she heard from him, when he was writing the book that became the movie "Goodfellas." And the marriage in one of her last movies, "Julie and Julia," also starring Meryl Streep, is a radiantly happy one.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "JULIA AND JULIA")

STANLEY TUCCI: (as Paul Child) What is it that you really like to do?

STREEP: (as Julia Child) Eat. (Laughter)

TUCCI: (as Paul Child) (Laughter) I know...

STREEP: (as Julia Child) That's what I like to do.

TUCCI: I know. I know. I know. And we're so good at it. Look at you!

STREEP: (as Julia Child) I am good at it.

ULABY: When she wasn't helming Oscar-nominated movies starring Meryl Streep or Meg Ryan, Ephron was writing essays about food - which she loved, her home in New York City, and growing old. Nora Ephron discussed aging and her book "I Feel Bad About My Neck," on NPR six years ago.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

EPHRON: I think it's like a lot of things about getting older, is that you have absolutely no imagination that you're actually - this is actually going to happen to you. You sort of think for quite a while you're going to be the only person who doesn't need reading glasses, or the only person who doesn't go through menopause and, in the end, the only person who isn't going to die. And then, you suddenly are faced with whichever of those things it is, and you can't believe how unimaginative you have been.

ULABY: But Nora Ephron's life was defined by imagination; freewheeling wit; and her ability to write her way into the worlds she wanted to live in, and make them more welcoming places.

Neda Ulaby, NPR News.

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

Nora Ephron spoke to us on this program in 2010. She had just published her book "I Remember Nothing." And to maintain her memory and her sanity, she told us she had decided on a list of things she refused to learn anything more about.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

EPHRON: The former Soviet Republics; the Kardashians; Twitter; all "Housewives," "Survivors," "American Idols" and "Bachelors"; Karzai's brother; soccer; Monkfish; Jay-Z; every drink invented since the Cosmopolitan, especially the drink made with crushed mint leaves - you know the one.

MONTAGNE: Right, the mojito. She also took a serious turn in that conversation - reflecting on getting older, and mortality.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

EPHRON: You do get to a certain point in life where you have to realistically, I think, understand that the days are getting shorte. And you can't put things off, thinking you'll get to them someday. If you really want to do them, you'd better do them. There's simply too many people getting sick. And sooner or later, you will. So I'm very much a believer in knowing what it is that you love doing, so that you can do a great deal of it.

You know, when my close friend died - you know, we'd always sit around and play the game, what would your last meal be? Mine happens to be a Nate & Al's hot dog. But Judy was dying of throat cancer, and she said, I can't even have my last meal.

And that's what you have to know - is, if you're serious about it, have it now. Have it tonight, have it all the time, so that when you're lying on your deathbed, you're not thinking oh, I should have had more Nate & Al's hot dogs.

MONTAGNE: Nora Ephron was 71 when she died yesterday in New York.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.