The striking thing about the loss of Nora Ephron is how personal a loss it is. “She was the best friend I never had,” fretted the writer Polly Samson on hearing the news. But in a sense, as one of the pioneers of ‘new journalism’ in the 1960s — writing from a more personal voice — she already was a friend of ours. We knew how she felt about her neck (bad), what she liked (pie, fireworks) and what she didn’t (bras, panels on women in film). Nora’s writing was exactly like sitting down with a candid and hilarious chum. And more than that, she gave such great gifts.
Loads of people might insist publicly that their favourite film is Citizen Kane, but come on, what are you more likely to find yourself rewatching for the 20th time at 11 o’clock on a school night? Yes, When Harry Met Sally, over and over again. As the writer Jon Hurwitz pointed out, it’s hard to believe one of the greatest romantic movies ever made starred... Billy Crystal. I’m even worse. For me it’s Sleepless in Seattle. I can’t not sit through that film. Her films are good bits after good bits and people have been trying and failing to make romantic comedies even a tiny bit as funny and romantic as that ever since. That’s before you even remember she also wrote the gut-wrenching Silkwood, the joyous Julie & Julia, and of course the acidic, coruscating Heartburn. She could take even her greatest pain — her divorce from Watergate journalist Carl Bernstein — and turn it into material.
“My mother,” she once said, “gave me this kind of terrific ability, not to avoid pain but to turn it over and recycle it as soon as possible.” She also described Bernstein as a man who would “have sex with a venetian blind”.
Here are how many Oscars Nora Ephron won for screenwriting: none. Matt Damon’s got one though. Here are how many she won for directing: none. Kevin Costner’s got one though.
But Nora always seemed to have so much fun. She worked in John F Kennedy’s White House, and claimed to be the only woman he never made a pass at, possibly because she was Jewish, but more likely because everybody knew she couldn’t possibly have kept it a secret.
She regularly revealed the identity of Deep Throat to just about anyone who asked her. She loved her family, her sisters, her children, New York, and said her greatest skill was being able to cook dinner for 40 people at a few hours’ notice. And she kicked astonishing arse in a man’s world where, as she pointed out, it was easier to get a film commissioned about a man with a hangnail than a woman with cancer.
Nora understood her craft explicitly: “When you slip on a banana peel, people laugh at you. When you tell people you slipped on a banana peel, it’s your laugh.” This chimed with her philosophy: “Be the heroine of your life, not the victim.” Nora became aspirational simply by being true to herself. She was a successful, hilarious, loving woman who cared about equality and fairness and female rights, and handbags and kissing and lipstick too, and wrote about it all as honestly and vividly as she could, because she loved all of those things and couldn’t see why you couldn’t enjoy high and low culture, romance and theory, fun and politics and cooking and money and bottom jokes and plastic surgery.
And that is why we will miss her so very much: because for so many of us she contained everything that we want to be — a woman with appetites and ideas and passion with work and family and friends and food and the wit to describe how all of these things are driving her crazy a woman absolutely radiating life. When it comes to Nora, feminism needs plenty of what she had. We had Nora, and we have more and more like her. Not enough though. Not yet.