“It is true that you are wiser when you are older. That is true. The wisdom arrives at the same moment your mind is a blank. It’s a very ironic confluence of things. It’s kind of a wash.”
Nora Ephron’s career was never the stuff that Oscars are made of. For one thing, the Oscars don’t support women who create their own genres, as Ephron did. Hollywood barely opened the door that let her in. Three Oscar nominations for Ephron don’t hardly say it. When you deconstruct what it takes to win an Oscar for, say, writing or directing, you know you are dwelling in not only a man’s world, but a group of people whose idea of a narrative pathway is usually centered around a man. This is especially true lately, because there was a time in Oscar/Hollywood history when that wasn’t necessarily true. But it is true now, and it was mostly true during the time Nora Ephron became one of the only “bankable” female writer/directors.
But Oscar/Hollywood never really knew what they had in Ephron. They couldn’t have been aware of who was among them, a Mark Twain/Jane Austen/Dorothy Parker amalgam who never felt satisfied with doing what was expected of her. If they’d known, they would have showered her with awards the way they have Woody Allen.
The truth of it is, Woody is closer to home for the voters because his voice is distinctly male; Ephron’s was unapologetically female. Vive la difference.
Ephron was nominated three times for an Oscar. Once for Silkwood, then for When Harry Met Sally, and finally for Sleepless in Seattle. She was not nominated for Hanging Up, Julie & Julia and Heartburn.
Silkwood did not win because it went up against Tender Mercies by Horton Foote. I’m not saying Silkwood should have won, necessarily, but Tender Mercies was just okay. It was mostly about Robert Duvall’s performance, which won him an Oscar.
The other nominees were Fanny and Alexander, War Games and The Big Chill. Because of Ephron’s passing, it seems harder to not say she should have won that year.
The screenplay for When Harry Met Sally was that film’s only nomination. I don’t know how Meg Ryan wasn’t nominated, nor Carrie Fisher for supporting. This film might be only second to Annie Hall as one of the most memorable of the modern romantic comedies. The critics were not kind to it, as I recall. Critics. Can’t live with them. Can’t live without them.
Dead Poet’s Society won instead. That was a major movie during its time but it didn’t last anywhere near as long as When Harry Met Sally. The other nominees were Crimes and Misdemeanors, Sex, Lies and Videotape and the film that should have won this category, Do the Right Thing.
Finally, Ephron was again nominated for Sleepless in Seattle, which she co-wrote and directed. Jane Campion’s The Piano won instead. That Sleepless was nominated at all shows the kind of love Ephron had built up in the industry by then. It wasn’t really that worthy of an Oscar nod but appreciation had to be paid to this American writer/director who’d come so far, who’d done so much, and who was now a force to be reckoned with at the box office. And besides, two of the other nominees were In the Line of Fire and Dave. Surely, Sleepless was better than those two.
Why wasn’t Ephron nominated for Heartburn? She’d written the book and then the screenplay. The film was directed by Mike Nichols and starred Meryl Streep and Jack Nicholson. It is filled with moments that linger. Those, for me, consist of the midnight bowl of pasta carbornara. Maybe no one knew what an affinity Ephron had for good food but if you go back and watch her films you see it everywhere.
Carl Berstein probably overshadowed the whole project. I’m guessing it got lackluster reviews, maybe because of the lengthy song Jack Nicholson sings when finding out he’s becoming a father. Maybe the robbery scene during a support group. Or maybe it had nothing to do with that. Maybe it has to do with the majority of the Academy being made up of white middle aged men not unlike Carl Bernstein who were either getting divorced or trying to work things out after cheating on their first wives.
Who knows what the reason. But it’s worth mentioning, always, when a film that is well-remembered years later wins no awards during the time of its release.
That year, believe it or not, there were two female screenwriters nominated in what looks like a pretty great year for scripts; back then, screenplay was not attached to Best Picture so much as it is now, except when it came to winning. It has long been attached to the winning Best Picture.
A Room with a View: Ruth Prawer Jhabvala (winner) (best picture nominee)
Children of a Lesser God: Hesper Anderson, Mark Medoff
The Color of Money: Richard Price
Crimes of the Heart: Beth Henley
Stand by Me: Raynold Gideon, Bruce A. Evans
The last screenplay Ephron wrote was the adaptation of blogger-turned-author Julie Powell’s book, Julie & Julia. The best part of that movie are the parts Ephron created, the Julia parts (based on Julia Child’s own book about being in Paris). Julie might be one of the most annoying characters ever to grace the screen, although I’ve softened to her in the days since Ephron’s passing. That’s what death can do to you. I always thought Ephron’s masterpiece might have been a whole movie on Julia Child in Paris.
But the only nomination the film could muster was a Best Actress nod for Meryl Streep, in truly one of her best roles. To me, the dream team was Nora Ephron, Meryl Streep and Mike Nichols. That she then went on to direct films too shows that she lived up to her own advice when she wrote, “Whatever you choose, however many roads you travel, I hope that you choose not to be a lady. I hope you will find some way to break the rules and make a little trouble out there. And I also hope that you will choose to make some of that trouble on behalf of women.”
She made more than a little trouble out there. Her female characters were always well written, if they weren’t already heroes. Maybe they were always looking for love but in Ephron’s world that didn’t mean everything. It didn’t mean nothing. She innately understood that women are complex, silly, and as much concerned with saving the world as men.
Julie & Julia is a fitting film to be Ephron’s last as it celebrated the thing she loved to do more than anything else: to cook. Her essays are full of stories about cooking. The vivacious Julia Child was her perfect muse and Streep the perfect avatar.
Ephron did not go at life lightly. She lived it fully, as fully as a person can. But did it with the kind of humility that is rare among people, particularly now, when ego trumps humility, at least online. Is it any wonder Ephron hated the internet.
Who knows why she didn’t also chase Oscar. Maybe she saw early on that winning a gold statue from a group of mostly men didn’t really much. Maybe she somehow knew that what she said to the world directly mattered more. And it did.
This article was reprinted with permission.