How I Remember Nora Ephron
The actress near-synonymous with the writer-director's Hollywood career recalls the precision, love of romance and joy in their collaboration.
The last time I saw her was at a small dinner party at a mutual friend's apartment on the Upper East Side. It was funny and fun, the six of us catching up. Those are the nights -- you just don't want them to end. She always had an opinion. A love of the precisely observed moment. She got such a big kick out of people who could turn a phrase. To walk away with something quotable from a night, she just loved it. Her love of words was so ferocious. I love that she was writing a pilot in the hospital. My God! To just keep on saying what you feel. To express her experience in the pithiest, quickest, smartest possible way so as to share. It was her life's joy.
I remember When Harry Met Sally … was so tight, funny and rhythmic, all you needed to do was play the music as written. Billy and I just played the instruments. Her directing and screenwriting career was such a natural step out of her observational essays. When you write essays, you control the entire experience, every bit of punctuation. I think it made her a precision operator on a movie set, too. It matters if you take a pause or say "the" and not "a." On one movie, she went on a campaign against the color Yankee blue. She earned that perfection, and it was her pleasure to earn it. You'd go, "God, if I just wrote down all the directions she's whispering in my ear, you could submit them to The New Yorker." Not line readings; she would just sort of explain the sense of something. Sometimes it was nonverbal: a little less, a little more, faster, funnier, maybe emphasize this. It got easier and easier, a shorthand. Always precise, funny, smart.
In the When Harry script they talk about the fact that women faked orgasms. And I thought, "Well, I'm just gonna do it." It sort of came together on the day, and it was so much fun to do. But the film captured the real essence of romantic comedy: that people in love share language, they share rhythm, even though they're so different. She and [director] Rob Reiner distilled what worked about those fantastic comedies of the '30s and '40s and modernized it, brought it back. She could distill things like longing, the dream that there is someone out there for you -- living his life, looking at the moon from another angle -- and someday you'll meet. Nora made that into a movie.
She had such a sweetness. There was all that laceyness about her, and unbelievable sweetness, and then she was such a powerhouse. Such a powerful thinker and such a strong person. She had both those things going on, and it made her so interesting. A real paradox. She did not shrink ever from confrontation or anything hard. And that business is rough, man! She was just toe-to-toe. She demanded that you be as articulate. You can't have unfocused feelings. It's more powerful when you can articulate your emotional life, not just whine or blubber. It's great for an actor when you can justify the emotional arc of a character in a logical way. It's good that she did a movie about food [Julie & Julia] because with her, everything is a metaphor, right? It's important to do everything just so in a recipe, and the same thing with how you layer in elements of a movie. The just-so-ness and the timing mattered to her. She loved the precision of it.
The part of Julie & Julia that I loved was the relationship of Meryl [Streep] and Stanley [Tucci], so loving and adult and fair-minded and sweet, all the things I imagine Nick [Pileggi] and Nora were together. I mean, that is a love story. And her screenwriting collaboration with her sister Delia is so dear and fine. Sisters who love each other as people and inspire each other as writers. It made my heart so full, you know?
Whenever you worked with her, it was the same as going to a party she hosted. People were relaxed; they were well fed. They were happy and intelligent and calm. You looked forward to sitting in director's chairs between takes, talking. It was fun. Easy. Simple. And not complicated. She said, "I'm a great believer in finding what you love and doing a lot of it."
In her last book, I Remember Nothing, she said she went to L.A. in the summer, "where there are hummingbirds, and I love to watch them because they're so busy getting the most out of life." Isn't that the perfect symbol for her? The hummingbird.
IN THEIR OWN WORDS: The personal memories of friends, her son and her own best inimitable take on how she found success in a man’s world.
BIlly Crystal: "In her brilliant observation of women and their relationships with men in When Harry Met Sally …, she discerned the high notes that only the dogs of comedy could hear, if that makes any sense. The movie is such an important piece of comedy literature because Nora was open to the recipe of adding the ingredients of everybody in the room -- Rob Reiner and me and Meg Ryan -- and being the final chef. When you see in Internet polls, 'What's the best romantic couple of all time?' you see Meg and me first. I don't think any of us thought it would have that impact. She will be missed."
Carrie Fisher: "She was f--in' alert; she was on her game. She was on mine, too; she was on everybody's game. She was alert to everything you were saying and what you weren't saying. She believed in herself. She knew what was funny. She knew the bottom line of stuff. Her writing was clear; there was no gristle. She wasn't really fun, like, 'Let's go, Skippy.' She was someone who said what she meant. That's fun for me but not everybody. It's exhausting. But you'd want to meet her in a restaurant in New York, and when she'd speak with you, you'd lean in like it was a fire, to warm yourself by the fire of her personality."
Lauren Shuler Donner, producer, You've Got Mail: "She was so unique. She would throw a party at the drop of a hat. When I first met her, she told me about marrying Nick and said, 'I should have catered it.' She was an amazing cook, and her dinners always included Mafia, which was her favorite game. You'd go to London with Nora, and the next thing you'd know you'd be walking down a street in Kensington going to that shop that had the perfect glasses that she liked. She was very specific, and a one-of-a-kind, good, warm friend."
Meryl Streep: "How do you talk about a friend who said everything you wish you could say? Everything you wanted to say in the world, she could say better and shorter and funnier. … I never saw her sit down all day as a director, and it's a long day. She was literally on her toes at all times, ready with anecdotes, information, expertise, on top of everything: books, news, trends, technology, movies, plays. I wondered when she slept. And then Sally Quinn told me last night, 'Oh, she slept eight hours a night.' I thought, 'Oh, God!' "
Nancy Meyer, director: "Nora Ephron made the kind of movies I love to watch over and over. If one of them comes on TV, I can't (won't) turn it off till the end. I still wait for my favorite moments. I really don't know how many times I've seen Sleepless in Seattle or When Harry Met Sally … . And to think making movies was only one of Nora's many passions. Remarkable. I read that Billy Wilder leaving [Ernst] Lubitsch's funeral said, 'No more Lubitsch,' and William Wyler responded, 'Worse than that, no more Lubitsch films.' Not to put myself in their shoes, but I can relate."
Martin Short: "If she's a part of us, we must be more like her: Read everything, savor everything, embrace laughter like a drug, drink more pink champagne and, yes, brush up your style. Mike Nichols suggests that when people pass, keep the conversation going. That's clever because I still need Nora's advice on simply everything."
Carly Simon: "Nora was brave about her emotions and intelligent about the heart in a very particular way. She actually fed me lines that were so perfect, which I put into song for Heartburn and This Is My Life. There was always something that was going to make you smile and identify. Nora was incapable of doing anything without having a sense of humor about it, and there was never a Nora who was ever embarrassed about the romantic."