The Essentials: 5 Key Nora Ephron Films

It’s been touching to see the outpouring of love for Nora Ephron since the journalist, novelist, screenwriter and director passed away last night. Ephron’s films have never really been particularly trendy; you’re not going to find many hip young filmmakers naming her as an influence. But it’s clear from the last twelve hours or so that most cinephiles hold at least a few of her films close to their hearts. Ephron wasn’t just the writer, and sometimes director, behind a string of classics, she was also one of the most important women in the film industry across the last twenty years, and one of the most insightful writers of female characters that Hollywood has ever had.

Her big-screen work is only a drop in the ocean of a long and hugely impressive career; she was a prolific and brilliant prose writer, and anyone with even a slight interest in Ephron should seek out her essay collections — particularly “Crazy Salad” and “I Feel Bad About My Neck.” But to honor Ephron’s passing, we wanted to highlight her contribution to five films in particular — although there are many pleasures to be found in her other scripts and films too — which truly demonstrate what an undeniable effect she had on the movies. Check them out below.

“Silkwood” (1983)
By the 1980s, Ephron had already started to dip her toe into screenwriting waters. She and then-husband Carl Bernstein had written a draft of “All The President’s Men,” in which Bernstein was a central character, and solo, Ephron penned an episode of a TV series based on the classic Tracy/Hepburn picture “Adam’s Rib,” starring Ken Howard and Blythe Danner, as well as the TV movie “Perfect Gentleman,” starring Lauren Bacall and Ruth Gordon. In the early ’80s, with her divorce from Bernstein wrapped up and novel “Heartburn” in the works, she was offered the chance to write “Silkwood” for Mike Nichols, and brought on her friend Alice Arlen (who’d later collaborate with her on “Cookie” as well) to help. Those who know Ephron purely from romantic comedies are in for something of a surprise; the film — which tells the story of nuclear whistleblower Karen Silkwood (Meryl Streep), who goes against her employers to campaign for health and safety at the expense of personal relationships, and possibly even her own life — is a serious-minded, important drama, something of an outlier on the Ephron resume. And yet you can absolutely feel her touch on the screenplay; her journalism background means that the true-life details are neatly and plausibly woven in, and it never feels contrived and bastardized-for-the-movies in the way other films of a similar nature can. Similarly, the emphasis not on the scope of the conspiracy, but on the people it affects — not just Silkwood, but her boyfriend Drew (Kurt Russell), their friend Dolly (Cher), and others — is masterfully knitted into the central relationships. For Nichols, Ephron and Arlen, the personal is very much political. We’d be remiss in not mentioning the performances too — it’s still one of Streep’s very finest Oscar-nominated turns, and Russell and Cher are both excellent as well. Ephron got an Oscar nomination for her trouble, and put herself on the map as a screenwriter.

“Heartburn” (1986)
Three years on from “Silkwood,” Ephron reunited with Nichols and Streep for a far, far more personal project; the adaptation of her 1983 novel “Heartburn,” a (very) thinly veiled look at her marriage to Carl Bernstein. The pair had married at 1976, and had a son together, but Ephron was pregnant with their second child in 1979 when she discovered that Bernstein was sleeping with British journalist, TV producer and politician Margaret Jay. In the film version, Streep plays the Ephron surrogate, with Jack Nicholson (who replaced Mandy Patinkin, who was fired after filming began) as Mark Forman, the Bernstein surrogate. Nichols, an expert at crumbling marriages from “Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf” to “Closer,” again took the helm. To say that the screenplay is Ephron’s finest hour would be a little disingenuous; it’s a bit directionless, and perhaps a little too close to the open wound to be truly honest (despite Nicholson’s best efforts, Mark never becomes more than a philandering silhouette). But it’s the first sign of the endlessly quotable dialogue that would truly make Ephron’s name — when Streep asks a pal of Nicholson’s character “Is he single?” the response comes back “He’s famous for it.” And more importantly, there is a raw honesty to its depiction of marriage that lingers 25 years on — Ephron makes the implosion feel fresh and funny even in the most painful moments, and rewatching it is a reminder of how anodyne most screen portrayals of marriage are. Streep is, as usual, superb, and the supporting cast further demonstrates that Ephron was incapable of writing an uninteresting character, with memorable performances from Jeff Daniels, Maureen Stapleton, Stockard Channing and, in his acting debut, “One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest” director Milos Forman (plus keep an eye out for early screen performances from Kevin Spacey and Tony Shalhoub). And of course, next time Ephron went back to the relationship well, she’d well and truly knock it out of the park…

“When Harry Met Sally…” (1989)
When filmmakers or actors talk up a new romantic comedy — “Five-Year Engagement” or “Celeste & Jesse Forever” being recent examples — there’s normally one of two films that come up as a point of inspiration. One is “Annie Hall” and the other, invariably, is “When Harry Met Sally…” And so it should be. Twenty-four hours before Ephron passed, this writer had a conversation the conclusion of which was that the film (directed in the midst of his extraordinary 1980s run by Rob Reiner), is essentially perfect, one of those cases where the stars align with all the elements delivering including the performances (unforgettably charming, winning, hilarious turns by Meg Ryan and Billy Crystal obviously first among them), the jazzy soundtrack, Reiner’s sharp direction and the glorious photography by Barry Sonnenfeld. But above all else, the film soars because of Ephron’s screenplay. Arguably the biggest single influence on every romantic comedy that’s followed since (let alone the undeniable effect it’s had on the way people date — or don’t date — each other), it’s that rarest of films that you love the first time you see it, but only strikes more of a chord as you grow with it; every time you watch it, you find new insights into love, marriage, friendship, divorce, sex, men, woman and hieroglyphs. It’s almost as if the current dismal state of the genre is because Ephron said everything that could be said in her screenplay here (it feels like something of a travesty that it lost out at the Oscars to “Dead Poet’s Society,” even if it was a tough year in the category that also included “Do The Right Thing” and “Sex, Lies & Videotape“). And even more rare for the rom-com, it doesn’t skimp on the com part — everyone remembers the uproarious (and at the time, incredibly shocking) “I’ll have what she’s having” scene, but the script is stuffed to the brim with great lines, gags and exchanges, without ever sacrificing character integrity for a laugh. In short, if Ephron had only ever written “When Harry Met Sally…,” her place in cinema history would be guaranteed.

“Sleepless In Seattle” (1993)
Fortunately, Ephron didn’t stop there. After making her directorial debut in 1992 with “This Is My Life,” she reteamed with Ryan, and delivered a second romantic comedy classic with “Sleepless In Seattle.” A riff on “An Affair To Remember” (which features heavily into the plot), it sees young Jonah Baldwin (Ross Malinger) persuading his widower father, Sam (Tom Hanks) to go on a Seattle talk radio show in the hopes of finding a new wife. One of the listeners is Baltimore reporter Annie, engaged to nice-but-dull Walter (Bill Pullman), and pining for a little more in life; she writers a letter to Sam, which is accidentally mailed, and catches the attention of Jonah. It’s a touch more sentimental than “When Harry Met Sally…,” but always deftly kept this side of saccharine (indeed the absence of irony and cynicism is refreshing more than anything else), and still contains many of the same insights into dating and relationships — Hanks being tutored by Rob Reiner on the ins and outs of 1990s dating is both touching and funny, even nowl. Perhaps the most impressive trick is how Ephron manages to make her two leads seem so clearly perfect for each other despite them only tangentially meeting — in part thanks to Ryan’s performance, still one of her best. Ephron also toes the line tonally with an expertise that belies this only being her second film behind the camera; Hanks’ grief never overwhelms the picture, but gives it a weight lacking in many rom-coms. It’s a fairy-tale, certainly, but as potent and memorable as any in the genre. We’d be remiss if we didn’t mention “You’ve Got Mail,” which reteamed Hanks and Ryan with a little more screen time — the film hasn’t dated terribly well, but it’s a touch sharper than ‘Seattle,’ if less moving, and it’s just as entertaining.

“Julie & Julia” (2009)
It’s no secret that Ephron’s screen output in the 2000s mostly was made up of misfires — “Lucky Numbers” was a somewhat ill-fitting crime caper, and “Bewitched” took an interesting approach to the sitcom remake that never quite paid off. But it’s rather pleasing that what sadly turned out to be her final film (although she’d been working on a biopic of Peggy Lee, to star Reese Witherspoon, and only last October it was announced she’d write and direct the Sam Mendes-produced time-travel rom-com “Lost In Austen“) might be her most accomplished directorial effort. Based on the blog and book by Julie Powell, a young writer who set out to recreate all 524 recipes in “Mastering The Art of French Cooking,” the seminal cookbook by TV chef Julia Child, Ephron’s script ingeniously entwines Julie’s (Amy Adams) struggles in New York with Julia’s (Streep, reunited with Ephron for the first time in two decades) time learning to cook in Paris. The writer-director’s sense of young married life is still firmly intact in the modern-day segments, with Adams and Chris Messina depicting a relationship more authentic than in movies made by filmmakers half Ephron’s age, but the real heart is in the Julia Child segments, in part thanks to Streep’s wonderful Oscar-nominated performance, which manages to be a pitch-perfect impersonation without descending into caricature. The look at the creation of “Mastering The Art Of French Cooking” is compelling for foodies (Ephron had a long interest in the culinary arts, which really comes out to play here — God help you if you don’t eat before seeing the film), and Child’s marriage to Paul (Stanley Tucci, as top-flight as ever) is particularly touching. It was sneered at a little by bloggers, principally because it’s the kind of film that belies how difficult it is to pull off, but it absolutely reinforces that Ephron was one of the finest writers, and directors, of women that Hollywood’s ever seen.

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