A Savvy Humorist, Nora Ephron Became One of Hollywood's Few Successful Woman Directors
Nora Ephron, the witty and acerbic writer who found a second career as a screenwriter and director of such popular romantic comedies as When Harry Met Sally... and Sleepless in Seattle, died Tuesday at New York Presbyterian/Weill Cornell Medical Center of pneumonia brought on by acute myeloid leukemia. She was 71.
The daughter of Hollywood screenwriters, Ephron established herself as an original voice with an idiosyncratic take on modern manners with the personal essays she wrote in the 1960s for such publications as New York, Esquire and the New York Times Magazine. She made her feature screenwriting debut in 1983 with Mike Nichol's Silkwood and went on to win Oscar nominations for three of her screenplays – Silkwood, Harry and Sleepless.
When Sleepless, starring Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan as bicoastal lovers, turned into a huge hit in 1993, Ephron also became one of the few successful woman directors in Hollywood. Most recently, she directed 2009's Julie & Julia, which starred her frequent collaborator Meryl Streep as Julia Child.
Both in her essays – collected in such books as 1970’s Wallflower at the Orgy and 1975’s Crazy Salad: Some Things About Women – and in many of her movies, Ephron drew upon her own foibles and experiences as a modern woman. Her 1983 autobiographical novel Heartburn was an only-slightly-fictionalized account of the break-up of her second marriage to Watergate investigative reporter Carl Bernstein. She adapted it for the film version, directed by Nichols and starring Streep and Jack Nicholson.
Ephron was born on May 19, 1941 in New York to screenwriters Henry and Phoebe Ephron. She studied at Wellesley College, where her letters home to her parents inspired them to write the hit 1961 Broadway comedy Take Her, She's Mine, which was later made into a movie, starring Sandra Dee.
After graduating Wellesley, Ephron worked as a general-assignment reporter for the New York Post, where she first displayed her gift for keen-eyed humor as she lampooned celebrity journalists and criticized her alma mater Wellesley for turning out a generation of “docile” women.
Crossing the gender line, Ephron wrote a column on women for the male magazine Esquire, where she became a contributing editor. Her columns were often parodies of social and sexual mores. Later, she compiled 25 of her best columns into a book Scribble, Scribble: Notes on the Media.
Her screenwriting phase began in the late 1970s with a television movie called Perfect Gentleman (1978). Because of her journalism background, she was chosen to write the screenplay for Silkwood, which she co-scripted with Alice Arlen, about the nuclear power whistle-blower Karen Silkwood.
With her screenplay for Rob Reiner’s 1989 film When Harry Met Sally…, Ephron discovered a talent for giving romantic comdies a contemporary edge as she told the story of two friends who fear sex will ruin their friendship.
"I am very sad to learn of Nora's passing," When Harry Met Sally star Billy Crystal said in a statement. "She was a brilliant writer and humorist. Being her Harry to Meg [Ryan]'s Sally will always have a special place in my heart. I was very lucky to get to say her words."
And after testing the waters with her first directorial effort, This Is My Life, starring Julie Kavner as a stand-up comedian, she demonstrated her ability to direct winning romantic comedies herself, beginning with Sleepless in Seattle in 1993.
“When she began directing, Nora was an inspiration for women filmmakers at a time when there were few female directors working in Hollywood," Directors Guild of America president Taylor Hackford said in a statement. "Nora once said in the New Yorker, ‘You look at a list of directors and it's all boys; So I thought, I'm just going to become a director, and that'll make it easier.’ Nora, thanks for making it easier for the many directors who will continue to follow in your footsteps.”
Ephron was nominated for four WGA Awards for Julie & Julia; Sleepless, which she scripted with David S. Ward and Jeff Arch; Harry; and Silkwood.
The WGA also presented her with its Ian McLellan Hunter Award in 2003.
"In her life and in her work for print, stage and especially screen, Nora was the epitome of the New York writer: smart, funny, sophisticated, committed, driven and direct," WGA East executive director Lowell Peterson and president Michael Winship said in a statement. "Nora and her husband Nick have been stalwart members of the Writers Guild, East -- our love and sympathy to him and Nora's family. She was a friend, a colleague and a mentor and she will be deeply, deeply missed."
Ephron was married three times, and all her husbands were writers: Dan Greenburg, Bernstein and her current husband Nicholas Pileggi. She had two sons with Bernstein: Jacob and Max.
Her family requests that donations can be made in her honor to the Public Theater and the Motion Picture and Television Fund.