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This story first appeared in the July 20 issue of The Hollywood Reporter.
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 [Crystal] 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.
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