FEINBERG: Remembering Nora Ephron (and Fundamental Decency)

Nora Ephron Julie and Julia Premiere - H 2012
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Nora Ephron Julie and Julia Premiere - H 2012

I met Nora Ephron on several occasions over the years -- Peggy Siegal, New York's great social doyenne and a longtime friend of Ephron's, was nice enough to seat me at the same table as her at a number of her famous lunches and dinners. But I can't claim to have known her much better than most other people who simply enjoyed her movies. I can, however, say that I was very shocked and saddened to learn of her death last night -- shocked because Ephron looked so good when last I saw her, approximately a year ago, as regal and well-coiffed as ever, though she apparently already was sick; and saddened because I got the impression from those meetings that she still had a great deal that she wanted to say through her writings, literary and cinematic.

When a well-known person dies these days, there is an increasing tendency among pundits to share their unvarnished assessments of the deceased's looks, work and legacy before they are even buried. It is very rare to find someone who emerges from such dissection virtually unscathed, with almost exclusively kind and positive things said about them, but, as someone noted on Twitter last night, that is how Ephron is being remembered by famous friends and anonymous strangers alike.

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What I can tell you about Ephron, based on what I witnessed of her on the occasions that we met, is that she earned this sort of esteem the old-fashioned way: by treating famous friends and anonymous strangers with just the same kindness and respect, even when she thought that no one else was watching -- and they gravitated towards her as a result. At a luncheon honoring Sofia Coppola, Coppola could hardly wait for the formalities to be over before rushing over to Ephron to meet her and chat about her work. (Ephron took out a copy of one of her books from her purse and signed it for her.) At another, a pompous -- and probably tipsy -- producer spent the entire afternoon loudly talking about himself and his work, but, while everyone else at the table grew exasperated and zoned out, Ephron playfully engaged him, apparently relishing the ridiculousness of it all. And, on every occasion on which we met, she made sure to say hello to me and engage in at least a little bit of small talk. She had no idea who I was, nor should she have, but I appreciated the gesture.

Ephron, as her articles and books demonstrate, was anything but innocent and old-fashioned, but the movies that she wrote (and sometimes directed) tended to be -- in the best sense of the words. Sure, When Harry Met Sally (1989) is most remembered for a woman faking an orgasm in a deli -- followed by the famous line by Rob Reiner's elderly mother, "I'll have what she's having." But the film is really an examination of the question: "Can men and women ever just be friends?" (Would such a movie even be greenlighted today?) Sleepless in Seattle (1993) and You've Got Mail (1998), her two romantic-comedies that paired together Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan, are, in fact, reinterpretations of the classic films An Affair to Remember (1957) and The Shop Around the Corner (1940). And Julie & Julia (2009) is nothing if not a warning that, as great as the Internet is, it is important not to live so much on it that we neglect our lives outside of it.

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In a way, a whole generation of young women are already carrying on Ephron's legacy. I don't think it's a stretch to say that she helped to pave the way for the likes of fellow New York-based feminist-wits Tina Fey, the creator/writer/star of NBC's 30 Rock and Lena Dunham, the creator/writer/star of HBO's Girls. (I was very gratified to discover today that she and Dunham recently met and liked each other -- sort of a passing of the torch, perhaps.) Still, I can't help but feel that Ephron's death is another nail in the coffin of an era of fundamental decency in our entertainment and society overall, something that has long been waning (see: "the United States Congress"), but that, like her, is an incalculable loss for us all.