It’s no understatement to say that this New Yorker would not be a New Yorker but for Nora Ephron.
It’s kind of bizarre, given how much my writing life has drifted from what first, in a roundabout way, brought me to New York City: the writing of Nora Ephron. Friends and readers who are familiar with my work might giggle at this, but I must admit it’s true; there is perhaps no other writer more responsible for shaping my professional aspirations than the 71-year-old Ephron who died today.
As a 14-year-old freshman in high school drama class in Oxnard, California, I was enthralled when seniors did a scene from a new movie I’d never seen called When Harry Met Sally. Intrigued about how they’d learned their lines from a movie still in theaters (and not a play), I asked them and found out they’d gotten them from the screenplay of the film.
Screenplay? I’d never heard of such a thing.
And off I was to the Oxnard Public Library, checking out this screenplay by Nora Ephron.
It totally changed the way I watched films, once I read When Harry Met Sally’s script and then saw the film. I now understood movies were things that were written and that, maybe, someday I could write them. And I couldn’t have asked for a more perfect script to start my study of screenplays. When Harry Met Sally is a perfect script, crafted under perfect conditions, and executed perfectly by a compliment of actors and non-actors alike. One of the best lines in the film — “I’ll have what she’s having” — wasn’t written by Ephron at all, but by Billy Crystal and delivered by Rob Reiner’s mother in Katz’s Deli. But as Ephron wrote in the published version of the script, “This screenplay has my name on it, but it was very much a collaboration.” The gifted, relatively new screenwriter (along with director Rob Reiner) knew well how to blend all the ingredients a great film needs, even when they come from beyond the writer.
I checked out that script so many times from the library the check out people made fun of me. I finally browbeat my parents into buying (via special order, pre-Amazon) my own copy, along with Ephron’s Wallflower at the Orgy (whose title essay goes to the heart, for me, of what it means to be a writer) and Heartburn. None of these writings, written by a white, movie-making, Jewish Manhattanite (and ex-wife of Carl Bernstein!) reflected my teenage life in Oxnard at all. Nor were they particularly predicative of the New York life I’d one day lead. But they were completely instrumental in teaching me about story, teaching me about comedy, and teaching me about the universality good humor can have across all human lines. Long before I was writing about race and class and economic injustice (and ridiculous words like heteronormativty), I was cackling while reading about Rachel Samstat’s husband’s affairs in Heartburn, and trying to make sense of the rape dream fantasy Ephron wrote about in Esquire (which Sally Albright would share with Harry in Central Park). I’ve read the novel Heartburn (where a marriage between a Nora Ephron-like wife and a Carl Bernstein-like husband falls apart) at least a dozen times. Despite my protestant suburban origins, it helped me to feel a little bit like a New York Jew before I ever set foot in Manhattan.
And, perhaps most importantly, Heartburn taught me one of the greatest, alchemy-like gifts of writing: how to make pain into comedy.
More than anything, Ephron’s writing taught me about craft. The opening and closing lines of Heartburn are as perfect as any modern American novel I’ve read, and end of each chapter in that book is a perfect walk off. I started using semi-colons based on Ephron’s sentences (and as a way to break up my own long-winded thoughts). She taught me about the art of recycling jokes or stories from one piece to the next. She taught me about developing a voice that’s your own.
And, because of When Harry Met Sally, I researched screenwriting programs when it was time for me to go to college. I came to NYU to study screenwriting. When my cab dropped me off on 5th Avenue by Washington Square Park, it was near the same spot where Harry Burns and Sally Albright’s New York stories began after they left Chicago. The female heroine of my first NYU student film was named Nora in her honor.
Ephron herself had also come to New York and worked as a journalist, eventually becoming a filmmaker. By going to film school, I decided I wanted to skip that step. But, like Ephron (and like Sally Albright) I, too, became a journalist. My own writing would drift far from where I thought it would go when I was so enamored of Ephron and her fantastic version of New York living I’d largely never know. But her ear for dialogue, the beauty with which she’d create character, and her humor that could leap off the page and magically make me laugh out loud long before “lol” cheapened the rarity of that act have always inspired me and guided me. When I read “The Girl Who Fixes the Umlaut” in the New Yorker two years summers ago, I guffawed as if reading her for the first time, thinking to myself, “She’s still got it.”
To be sure, there were both hits and misfires in her film directing career. My own creative tastes would drift almost entirely away from Hollywood and towards Spike Lee, David Lynch and Philip Glass. But the cinema magic of When Harry Met Sally and Sleepless in Seattle will stay with me always, especially as I remember the times I watched them on VHS (and re-watched, and re-watched) with my parents as I grew up and dreamed about being a writer in New York like Ephron. When Harry Met Sally has especially grown with me and improved with age, as I grew from a straight teenage boy in Oxnard who’d never been in love, to a gay New Yorker with more experiences with both love and “love” than I’d care to recall. But that’s the beauty of Ephron’s best work: When Harry Met Sally can reach the young and old, and the more experience one has with life, the more relevant the film becomes in new ways.
I have wondered over the years if I’d have made it to film school, to New York but for reading When Harry Met Sally as a teenager. I’m reminded, as I ponder this, of a passage Rachel Samstat writes about her mother in Heartburn:
I would like to ask her what a person who is seven months pregnant is supposed to do when her husband turns out to be in love with someone else, but the truth is she probably wouldn’t have been much help. Even in the old days, my mother was a washout at hard-core mothering; what she was good at were clever remarks that made you feel immensely sophisticated and adult and, if you thought about it at all, foolish for having wanted anything so mundane as some actual nurturing. Had I been able to talk to her at this moment of crisis, she would probably have said something fabulously brittle like “Take notes.” Then she would have gone into the kitchen and toasted almonds. You melt some butter in a frying pan, add whole blanched almonds, and saute until the’re golden brown with a few little burned parts. Drain lightly and salt and eat with a nice stiff drink. “Men are little boys, she would have said as she lifted her glass. “Don’t stir or you’ll bruise the ice cubes.”
R.I.P., Nora Ephron. Hope you’re on top of the Empire State Building with Cary Grant and Mark Felt, laughing at Carl Bernstein; we hope you no longer feel bad about your neck.
Here’s to never having to fake it again.