A love letter for Nora Ephron

By Kayla Upadhyaya, Senior Arts Editor
Published July 2, 2012

Last week, novelist-director-screenwriter-playwright-producer-all-around-badass-feminist-heroine Nora Ephron died following complications from acute myeloid leukemia. For a celebration and remembrance of her most acclaimed work, you won’t read anything better than the obituary published in the New York Times.

This is not an obituary. I wouldn’t even call it a eulogy. No, this, I believe, is the closest I’ve ever come to writing a love letter.

I can’t remember where I was or what I was wearing or how old I was when I read my first Nora Ephron essay. Dammit, I can’t even remember which one it was. I think I might have an even earlier-onset case of severe forgetfulness, which Ephron once wrote — in an essay part of her “I Remember Nothing: And Other Reflections” collection — has plagued her since her thirties. “I know this because I wrote something about it at the time,” she wrote. “Of course, I can’t remember exactly where I wrote about it, or when, but I could probably hunt it up if I had to.”

In any case, it doesn’t really matter which one I read first, because by this point, I feel like I’ve read them all … which is probably impossible considering the sheer multitude and expansiveness of her writing. Though aging became her go-to theme in much of her later work, Ephron has written about everything imaginable — from fine dining, to presidential debates, to raising (and eating!) children, to being the only White House intern J.F.K didn’t make a pass at.

The common thread? An unfailing, super-ability to make me laugh and laugh and laugh. And think. And cry. And laugh some more.

For somewhat obvious reasons (two, to be exact), “A Few Words About Breasts” remains a personal favorite, and I think I’ll always be searching for the opportunity to end an essay with “They are full of shit.”

Though I have a strong attachment to Nora Ephron’s essays and short stories, they are not where our relationship began. No, it was at a sleepover in middle school when I was first introduced to her work — her movies to be exact. And it’s her movies that first came to mind when I heard of her passing, movies that influence — more than any other work by anyone else — my own attempts at screenwriting (emphasis on “attempts”), movies I’ve fallen for despite all odds.

My relationship with the romantic-comedy genre is not an easy one. I tend to pass over feel-good formulas like “Definitely, Maybe” and “He’s Just Not That Into You” in favor of “Vicky Cristina Barcelona” and “American Beauty”, which I’m told don’t really make the rom-com cut.

In fact, when I found out the theme of Crystal City’s (where I’m currently living) summer film series would be romantic comedies this year, I was disappointed. That is, until I saw the schedule and was reassured by the presence of Ephron’s rom-com trifecta: “You’ve Got Mail,” “Sleepless in Seattle” and “When Harry Met Sally.”

I love these movies. Yes, all three of them, though “When Harry Met Sally” takes the cake (or pie) as not only my favorite of the three, but as one of my favorite comedies of all time. It’s the one that I saw at that middle-school sleepover, at a time when my parents probably wouldn’t have permitted me to watch such a raunchy, grown up film. And fittingly, it’s the very last film scheduled for the Crystal City film series.

I’m constantly told “You’ve Got Mail” isn’t a good movie — that it’s trite and clumsy. And while that’s probably true, I don’t care. I still secretly dream of bouquets of sharpened pencils and not so secretly quote the movie as often as the others. “ ‘The Godfather’ is the answer to any question” are wise words to live by. I’d be lying if I said I’ve never walked into a Starbucks and ordered a “Tall! Decaf! Cappucino!” And I really do love New York in the fall.

Ephron’s rom-coms are far from perfect representations of real-life romance: impossible in the unwavering wit of their characters, too-neat in their conclusions and about as subtle as a super symbolic butterfly on a subway. Her worlds — in which two strangers can fall in love atop the Empire State building thanks to a persistent 12-year-old, or where a random chat room meeting can develop into a wonderfully complicated relationship — certainly exist within the grander rom-com universe, where love at first sight and happy endings are bountiful. And let’s face it, try as I might, neither I nor anyone in the real world speaks with the eloquence and cleverness of an Ephron-penned character (I’m still waiting for the right time and place to order a pie Sally-style and also to meet a Sheldon, so I can tell him that humpin’ and pumpin’ just aren’t his strong suits).

But it’s the honest (sometimes brutally so) moments, themes and character quirks that populate her films that I love so dearly, so unconditionally. “When Harry Met Sally” gives love a beautiful specificity — “I love that it takes you an hour and a half to order a sandwich,” while also treating the subject as a nebulous, changing force.

Her screenplays capture the complexity of friendship, dating, falling in and out of love, and ring with a sense of unmistakable sincerity, the result of influences from her own experiences. Married three times, divorced twice, she once wrote: “People always say that once it goes away, you forget the pain … I don't happen to agree. I remember the pain. What you really forget is love.”

But her rom-coms never forget love, nor do they forget the thing that the genre just never seems to get right: dimensional, developed women. “I try to write parts for women that are as complicated and interesting as women actually are,” Ephron once said.

Romantic comedies like “Morning Glory” and “I Don’t Know How She Does It” claim to have “strong” female characters, while actually perpetuating sexist stereotypes. If I have to watch one more film that represents career women as desexualized and unfeminine … well, as Sally might ask: “Why is this necessary in life?”

Ephron’s women, on the other hand, are as complex, smart and empowering as she was herself.

In her 1996 commencement speech at Wellesley, Ephron urged the young women to understand that attacks on Hillary Clinton are also attacks on them and imparted: “Above all, be the heroine of your life, not the victim.”

The strong female characters she wrote were indeed heroines. They’re women I can relate to or who remind me of the women in my life. I am Sally Albright, I once insisted to a friend.

But I also see parts of myself in “Sleepless in Seattle” ’s Annie. I don’t want to be in love. I want to be in love in a movie.

A Nora Ephron movie, to be exact.