Nora Ephron made her mark in a man’s world

Before Nancy Meyers, before Sofia Coppola, before Julie Delpy and Kasi Lemmons and Nicole Holofcener, there was Nora Ephron.

She was a rare woman writing and directing in what was (and still is) the male-dominated industry of filmmaking. Ephron staked out her spot on the cinematic landscape with a distinctive voice and formidable wit. Now, she leaves behind a legacy of classic moments and quotable lines after succumbing to leukaemia on Tuesday at the age 71.

They were romantic comedies, yes, but ones for smart women, about smart women, with characters who had both bite and vulnerability to them. Maybe they were a tad too hyper-analytical or neurotic but they were always highly verbal and, more often than not, destined for the happy ending they deserved.

Meg Ryan forged and reinforced her status as America’s sweetheart with roles in movies Ephron either wrote or wrote and directed: The best of these was 1989’s When Harry Met Sally (directed by Rob Reiner), followed by Sleepless in Seattle in 1993, and You’ve Got Mail in 1998.

Decades later, you can still say the line “I’ll have what she’s having” and most people of a certain age will instantly know what you’re talking about. That’s how lasting Ephron’s work has been.

“She was so, so alive,” said her friend Carrie Fisher. “It makes no sense to me that she isn’t alive anymore.”

Born into a family of screenwriters, Ephron was a top journalist in her 20s and 30s, then a bestselling author and successful director. Loved, respected, and feared for her devastating and diverting wit, she was among the most influential writers of her generation.

She wrote and directed such favourites as Julie & Julia and her books included the novel Heartburn, a roman à clef about her marriage to Washington Post reporter Carl Bernstein; and the popular essay collections I Feel Bad About My Neck and I Remember Nothing.

She was tough on others — Bernstein’s marital transgressions were immortalised in Heartburn — and relentless about herself. She wrote openly about her difficult childhood, her failed relationships, her doubts about her physical appearance, and the hated intrusion of age.

As a screenwriter, Ephron was nominated three times for Academy Awards, for Silkwood, When Harry Met Sally, and Sleepless in Seattle.

Fisher and Meg Ryan were among the many actresses who said they loved working with Ephron because she understood them better than her male peers.

“I suppose you could say Nora was my ideal,” said Fisher. “In a world where we’re told that you can’t have it all, Nora consistently proved that adage wrong. A writer, director, wife, mother, chef, wit — there didn’t seem to be anything she couldn’t do.”

Determined by high school to be a journalist, Ephron graduated from Wellesley College in 1962, moved to New York and started out as a “mail girl” and fact checker at Newsweek. She then landed a job at the New York Post.

Ephron began writing for Esquire and the New York Times and developed a national following. Part of her gift was her fresh takes on such traditional subjects for women as food and fashion.

Stars shine on Nora Ephron

* Tom Hanks and Rita Wilson, married actors: “Nora Ephron was a journalist/artist who knew what was important to know, how things really worked, what was worthwhile, who was fascinating, and why. At a dinner table and on a film set she lifted us all with wisdom and wit mixed with love for us and love for life. Rita and I are so very sad to lose our friend who brought so much joy to all who were lucky enough to know her.”

* Nicole Kidman, actress: “I will never forget the dinners, games, and laughter we all shared. [I am] grateful that she was my friend and we had the opportunity to work together.”

* Meryl Streep, actress: “She thought fast, loved new ideas, processed swiftly, [and] decided what was valuable and what was not with clarity. It’s hard to credit how very smart she was, cause she was always deflectively feminine and funny, the sharpness of mind softened and smoothed by genuine charm.”

* Billy Crystal, comedian: “I am very sad to learn of Nora’s passing. She was a brilliant writer and humorist. Being her Harry to Meg’s Sally will always have a special place in my heart. I was very lucky to get to say her words.”

* Arianna Huffington, publisher of The Huffington Post: “Professionally, her legacy will be that of an exceptionally gifted and versatile artist who could do it all, and do it all incredibly well. Personally, she’ll be cherished as a wife and mother, and a devoted, giving, treasured — and irreplaceable — friend. I know I have to accept that she’s gone — but I still can’t believe it.”

* Rosie O’Donnell, comedian: “I am devastated. Nora was a close friend and will be missed terribly.”

* Ron Howard, director: “RIP Nora Ephron — brilliant, gracious and funny.”

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