All achievers

Nora Ephron

Humorist, Screenwriter and Director

For years, I just wrote scripts that didn’t get made. I got paid for them, but I thought, ‘Am I ever going to get a movie made?’

Nora Ephron: journalist, novelist, screenwriter, director.

Nora Ephron was born in New York City and lived, for the first four years of her life, on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, a neighborhood that figures prominently in her writing. She was the first of four daughters of Henry and Phoebe Ephron, writers who moved to Los Angeles when Nora was three to work in the film industry. Although the Ephrons enjoyed success in Hollywood, young Nora did not feel at home in the Southern California of the 1950s and longed to return to New York, which she always regarded as her real home.

After graduating from Wellesley College in 1962 with a degree in journalism, she served briefly as a White House intern during the administration of John F. Kennedy. Returning to New York at last, she found work in the mailroom at Newsweek magazine and was soon promoted to researcher. When New York City’s newspapers suspended publication during a strike by the International Typographical Union, Nora Ephron and some of her friends, including the young Calvin Trillin, put out their own satirical newspaper. Ephron’s parodies of New York Post columnists caught the eye of the Post‘s publisher, Dorothy Schiff. When the strike was over, Schiff hired Ephron as a reporter. The 1960s were a lively time for journalism in New York, and Dorothy Schiff’s Post, a liberal-leaning afternoon tabloid, offered Ephron a free hand to explore her favorite city from top to bottom.

Nora Ephron in the 1960s. After graduation from Wellesley College in 1962, she moved to New York, a city she always adored, intent on becoming a journalist. Her first job was at Newsweek and soon after The New York Post.

While working at the Post, Nora Ephron also began writing occasional essays for publications such as New York, Esquire and The New York Times Sunday Magazine. Her work as a reporter won acclaim as part of the “New Journalism” movement of the 1960s, in which the author’s personal voice became part of the story. Her humorous 1972 essay, “A Few Words About Breasts,” made her name as an essayist. As a regular columnist for Esquire, she became one of America’s best-known humorists. Her essays, often focusing on sex, food, and New York City, were collected in a series of bestselling volumes, Wallflower at the Orgy, Crazy Salad and Scribble Scribble.

Nora Ephron at a party at the venerable Gotham Book Mart in 1976.(Credit: William E. Sauro/The New York Times)

An early marriage to humorist Dan Greenburg ended in divorce, and Ephron married investigative reporter Carl Bernstein of Watergate fame. After the birth of their first child, Ephron curtailed her activities as a journalist and devoted more of her time to screenwriting, scripting occasional television episodes and selling a number of screenplays that were never produced. Midway through Ephron’s second pregnancy, her marriage to Carl Bernstein ended, and she found herself alone with two small boys to raise. Her screenplay for the film Silkwood (1983), based on the life of an anti-nuclear activist who met a violent end, was made into a successful film by famed director Mike Nichols, starring actress Meryl Streep.

Ephron’s When Harry Met Sally script earned her a reputation as a leading Hollywood writer of romantic comedies.

The same year, Ephron published a comic novel, Heartburn, clearly based on the marriage to Bernstein and its painful dissolution. A film adaptation, starring Streep and Jack Nicholson, soon appeared, directed by Mike Nichols from a script by Ephron. With two high-profile screenplays to her credit, Ephron became one of the most sought-after writers in the business. Her personal life took a happy turn in 1987, when she married author and journalist Nicholas Pileggi, best known for his true-crime stories, including two that formed the basis for films by director Martin Scorsese, GoodFellas and Casino.

2000: Screenwriter and director Nora Ephron at work on the set of her film Lucky Numbers. (Paramount Pictures)

Nora Ephron enjoyed her greatest success yet with When Harry Met Sally (1989), a romantic comedy directed by Rob Reiner, starring Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan. The film struck an instant chord with audiences and became an international hit. Ephron had seen her parents’ writing careers falter in their 50s, as they both fell prey to alcohol and the fickle fashions of Hollywood.

Director and screenwriter Nora Ephron and her husband, Nicholas Pileggi, at the premiere of her film, <i>Lucky Numbers</i> (2000). (© PACHA/CORBIS)
2000: Nora Ephron and her husband, Nicholas Pileggi, at the premiere of her film, Lucky Numbers. (Pacha/Corbis)

Ephron contemplated a transition to directing, in part to protect her own writing career in an industry still largely inhospitable to films by or about women. Unfortunately, her directing debut, This Is My Life, about the struggles of a single mother working as a stand-up comic, was a box office disappointment. Ephron knew her future as a director would stand or fall with her next assignment.

2008: Nora Ephron shares with us her ups and downs in I Feel Bad About My Neck, a candid look at women who are getting older and dealing with the tribulations of maintenance, menopause, empty nests, and life itself.

Sleepless in Seattle (1993) was co-written by Nora Ephron and her younger sister, Delia. Director Nora cast When Harry Met Sally star Meg Ryan, teaming her with Tom Hanks. The resulting film was an enormous success, and Ephron was now established as Hollywood’s foremost creator of romantic comedies. A follow-up film, Mixed Nuts, was a commercial disappointment, but Michael, starring John Travolta as an angel, enjoyed solid success at the box office. In You’ve Got Mail (1998), Ephron re-united Sleepless stars Hanks and Ryan in a contemporary variation on the classic comedy The Shop Around the Corner. With You’ve Got Mail, the team of Ephron, Ryan and Hanks scored another huge success; Ephron’s film also served as a love letter to her beloved Upper West Side.

In the following years, Nora Ephron pursued a wide variety of projects. She made an unexpected foray into writing for the stage with her 2002 play Imaginary Friends, based on the turbulent rivalry of authors Lillian Hellman and Mary McCarthy. She took another unusual tack with an offbeat big-screen adaptation of the 1960s television series Bewitched, starring Nicole Kidman and Will Ferrell. Her 2006 collection of essays, I Feel Bad Abut My Neck: And Other Reflections on Being a Woman, immediately shot to number one on the New York Times bestseller list.

Nora Ephron (right) directs actors Michael Caine and Nicole Kidman in <em>Bewitched</em> (2005). (Courtesy of Columbia Pictures/Photofest)
2005: Nora Ephron directs actors Michael Caine and Nicole Kidman in Bewitched. (Columbia Pictures/Photofest)

In her film Julie and Julia, she returned to a favorite subject — food — by telling the parallel stories of famed food writer Julia Child and a contemporary Manhattan woman who sets out to cook her way through every recipe in Childs’s classic Mastering the Art of French Cooking. The 2009 film starred Ephron’s friend and previous collaborator Meryl Streep as Julia Child. In addition to her books, plays and movies, Ephron wrote a regular blog for the online news site The Huffington Post. Her 2010 collection of essays, I Remember Nothing, took a humorous look at the aging process and other topics.

Awards Council member and filmmaker George Lucas presents Nora Ephron with the Golden Plate Award at the 2007 International Achievement Summit in Washington, D.C.
Awards Council member and famed filmmaker George Lucas presenting award-winning director and screenwriter Nora Ephron with the Golden Plate Award at the 2007 International Achievement Summit in Washington, D.C.

Nora Ephron was one of a handful of successful women film directors working in Hollywood, and one whose films consistently featured women in strong, decisive roles. She lived to see all three of her younger sisters —Delia, Amy and Hallie —build successful writing careers. Nora Ephron died in Manhattan, from complications of leukemia, at the age of 71.

Inducted Badge
Inducted in 2007

Nora Ephron achieved international success as a director and writer of feature films, a field that had been effectively closed to women for over half a century. Her earlier work as a journalist and essayist had already won her a reputation for sharp-eyed social observation and sharp-tongued humor. It also introduced a distinctive approach to her favorite subjects: New York City, food, and the baffling ways of men and women in love.

She was pregnant with her second child when her husband left her, and she found herself at home with two babies to take care of while trying to break into screenwriting. In 1983, her script for the film Silkwood was nominated for an Oscar, and her novel Heartburn, a comic fictionalization of the end of her marriage, became a bestseller. Ephron’s original screenplay, When Harry Met Sally, solidified her reputation as a screenwriter, but she wanted something more. She soon made her name as a director with Sleepless in Seattle and You’ve Got Mail, runaway successes that established her as Hollywood’s premier creator of modern romantic comedies. Her 2009 film Julie and Julia recounts the life of the author and television personality Julia Child, who introduced Americans to French cooking in the 1960s.

Ephron’s 2006 book of essays, I Feel Bad About My Neck: And Other Thoughts on Being a Woman, topped the New York Times hardcover bestseller list for over nine months. Although her subject was the aging process, her approach to the human condition was unchanged. “When you slip on a banana peel, people laugh at you,” she said. “But when you tell people you slipped on a banana peel, it’s your laugh.”

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You’ve written that you learned from your parents’ friends that at the age of 50, screenwriters’ careers sometimes nose-dive. Was that what drew you to directing, the need to extend or protect your career as a screenwriter?

Nora Ephron: I think it was two things. It wasn’t just that I wanted to go on writing, but I wanted to write about things that were hard to attach directors to, if you wanted to write about women in any way.

Ninety percent of the men directing movies have no interest in women in any real way, except as girlfriends or wives. They don’t really want to make movies about them, and they don’t. So the arduous task of getting someone to commit to something that had anything to do with my life was very frustrating. Then, when I did When Harry Met Sally with Rob Reiner, I wrote that script, and I thought, “Well, I don’t really want to direct, but if I did direct, this would be a good movie to start with, because there aren’t a lot of people in it, and there aren’t a lot of people in any of the scenes, and it wouldn’t be that complicated shooting it,” and all of that. But then Rob did it, and he was so brilliant. He did such a brilliant job. He changed the script. He made it so much better than it was, and so I thought, “Well, I guess if I get to work with the Robs of the world, why direct?” And then my next movie I did with someone else who didn’t make the script better. So, at about that time, I thought maybe I should think about directing.

If I became a director, I could at least get my own movies made, my own scripts made, and the sense that I would be interested in subjects that men might not be interested in. It’s very hard to get people to direct your movies if you are a screenwriter. First, you have to write the script. That’s almost the easy part.

Ephron’s When Harry Met Sally script earned her a reputation as a leading Hollywood writer of romantic comedies.

Speaking of When Harry Met Sally, you’ve used Meg Ryan in several films to great effect. What was it about her as an actress that kept you coming back to her for those roles?

Nora Ephron: Well, Meg can do everything. Meg is both funny and smart, and you rarely get that in one person. She’s a brilliantly gifted actress. She really is.

That script also got an Oscar nomination and is famous for a scene involving a fake orgasm. Did that come off as you wrote it?

Nora Ephron: I’d been working on this script with Rob Reiner, and Rob had told me all this stuff about guys, right? And how horrible they are and how unwilling they are to commit in any way, even to the bed of the person they’ve just had sex with for the rest of the night. So one day, we were sitting around, and Rob said, “You know, we’ve told you all this stuff about guys. Now you tell us anything about women that we don’t know,” and it was like, “I dare you, I dare you. You will never be able to tell me anything about women I don’t know, but try.” So I said, “Well, women fake orgasms,” and he said, “Not with me.”  So I said, “Yes, with you,” and he said, “No, no, no.”  I said, “Yes, yes, yes.”  Well, he went completely crazy.  He really did.  I mean, he did a total Meathead moment and went thundering out to the bullpen at Castle Rock Pictures, where all the women were, and said, “Get in here,” and they call came in.  He said, “Is it true that women fake orgasms?” And this group of six completely terrified assistants all looked at him and went like this.  It was just an amazing moment.

So we took that fact and put that into a scene. It was a very simple scene where Sally tells Harry that, and Harry says, “Not with me,” and she says, “Yes, with you,” and he says, “I don’t believe it,” and she says, “You better believe it.” It was very simple.

We had a read-through, and Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan read the script, and at the end of the read-through, Meg said, “You know, I think this scene would be much funnier if it took place in a restaurant,” and Rob said, “That’s a great idea.  Let’s do it in a restaurant,” and then Meg said, “And then I think at the end of the scene, she should have an orgasm,” and Rob said, “Well, that’s a really good idea,” and Billy Crystal said, “And one of the customers can say: I’ll have what she’s having,” and Rob said, “And I know just the actor to play that part: my mother.” Now, you know, I had started out in the movie business thinking, “Oh please don’t let them change my lines. Please don’t let them do anything to me.” And you know, you hear an idea like that, and you think, “I am so lucky to be working with these people.”  Thank God people believe in collaboration.  Of course, I get all the credit for that line which I had — well, I’d like to think I had something to do with it, because if I hadn’t broken the news about faking orgasms, there might be millions of men still walking around the earth not knowing it, and they do know it because of that movie.

It was a brilliant performance by Meg Ryan as well.

Nora Ephron: It was, wasn’t it? She’s great.

You’ve said that despite the great success of When Harry Met Sally, you had a tough time getting financing for your first directorial effort.

Keys to success — Perseverance

Nora Ephron: It wasn’t a really commercial movie.  It would have been more commercial had it had a more commercial cast, but I didn’t have a very commercial cast. In fact, I had Bette Midler who wanted to do it, and Jeffrey Katzenberg at Disney would not let her out of her contract to do it.  I think the movie would have done better if Bette had been in it. I loved Julie Kavner in it, but I begged Jeffrey Katzenberg to let (Bette Midler) out of her contract, or for him to make it, and he simply had no interest in the subject matter of that movie and told me so.  He had no interest in what it was about, which was balancing a career and work.  It was about a woman stand-up comic, who had two children.  It’s a very funny script, and a good script, and Jeffrey isn’t really interested in women.  His wife is a housewife.  He just wasn’t there, and it was heartbreaking to me. I went through — it seemed like forever — trying to get it made, and then suddenly one day a guy named Joe Roth at Fox said, “I’ll make this movie with Julie Kavner,” and he did it.

It was a wonderful movie.

Nora Ephron: Thank you.

Nora Ephron addresses the student delegates at the 2007 International Achievement Summit in Washington, D.C.
Nora Ephron addresses the student delegates at the 2007 International Achievement Summit in Washington, D.C.

The next year came Sleepless in Seattle. That was a great success. How did you come to write Sleepless in Seattle?

Nora Ephron: Sleepless was a script that had been written by three or four other writers before me, and it never really worked, but it had this amazing ending on the top of the Empire State Building that just worked, no matter what came before it. It’s kind of amazing, because the characters were sort of gloopy and unfunny, and yet you got to the end and you went, “Wow, this is amazing!” And I needed the money.

I had done my first movie, This Is My Life, which I had done for scale, which is not very much money, and I was completely out of dough, and my agent said, “Oh gee, here’s a rewrite,” and it’s supposed to happen. It had a director. It had casting attached to it, and not Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan, and so I read it, and I thought, “Oh, I can fix this. I can make this better.” So I did a rewrite on it, and basically made it into a comedy, or made it into — not a comedy, but a movie that had laughs in it, which it didn’t at all. And suddenly, it was a “go” picture, and the director who had been attached to it — who had no interest in making a comedy, I guess — bowed out of it. He was gone, and the actors were gone, because they weren’t really funny, and it was suddenly a script that a lot of people wanted to be in.

It wasn’t like I thought, “I have to direct this.”  In fact, I thought, “Well, this isn’t really good enough yet,” and they kept saying, “Don’t you want to direct this?” and I kept saying, “But it’s not ready to be directed.  I’ve got to do another rewrite on it.”  I only worked on it three weeks.   “No, no.  It’s fine.  Do anything you want to.”  I said, “Well, I’ve got to bring Delia, my sister, in on it, because I need a lot of help if I’m going to direct it.”  “Bring Delia in. That’s great!” Delia brought a huge number of hilarious things to it, and suddenly — I have never had anything like it happen.  It was instant.  It was like, I think I gave them the script — the first pass in March — and we were scouting in Seattle in early June, and we were shooting in August.  It was unbelievable.

Looking back, it seems like an effortless vehicle. What was it like to direct it?

Nora Ephron: I have no idea what it was like to direct it, because all of my experiences as a director are filtered through food, and the food was great in Seattle.  That’s all I can tell you, and the sun was shining all the time, because it was summertime in Seattle. We had to — actually, of course — have some rain in the movie, and we had to bring in water trucks, and everyone got really angry at us because there was a drought, and we were wasting water, making rain in the movie. It was this movie where you just thought, “I wonder if this is going to work? Who knows?”  You know, I had no idea.