YYou can’t trace all of nora ephron with just the hits that put it at the top of the turn-of-the-century rom-com boom, but you can’t do without them, either. The polymath writer’s best-known traits — her acerbic wit, her particular taste that some mistake for pickiness, her deep and abiding love of food — come through in screenplay works like When Harry Met Sally… as well as management projects like Sleepless in Seattle and You’ve Got New Mail. Infatuated and loquacious, this is how Nora’s fans feel they know enough to take on the basis of the given name, a characterization that only covers one side of a gorgeous woman. Kristin Marguerite Doidge, the author of the just-released Nora Ephron: A Biography, hopes to expand the image of a singular talent for both the blinkered faithful and the uninitiated.
“She wrote for five or six decades, so everyone approaches her from a different angle,” Doidge tells The Guardian from her home in Los Angeles. “Some people may have seen Heartburn before anything else, or maybe you remember watching This Is My Life with your grandmother. Some people find her much later, when she was feeling bad about her neck. The general public tends to think of her as the queen of romantic comedy, the lady who made You’ve Got Mail. That’s just part of her, and what it represents of her. Much of the younger generation doesn’t even know Nora and her movies. I teach at a university, and when I say her name, I get a lot of blank stares. She’s crazy!”
Though Doidge can hardly blame them; it wasn’t that long ago that she considered herself an Ephron neophyte. “I came to see her movies later,” she says. “I feel bad saying it, but I wasn’t a die-hard. I never linked Nora to Silkwood before working on this book. Growing up in the ’80s and ’90s, I watched Sleepless in Seattle. I heard about When Harry Met Sally… but I wasn’t allowed to see it! Too scandalous, I never knew why at the time. And isn’t that revealing, how the woman experiencing pleasure was seen as too much for a boy. As a child, you don’t even get the joke!”
Doidge even knelt at Nora’s altar in 2014, while searching for a topic capable of supporting his master’s thesis. Ephron’s unusual career trajectory, beginning with a groundbreaking tenure in journalism and not reaching the directing phase until age 50, gave Doidge something she could connect with. She came to see Ephron’s fully formed and well-documented worldview as a lens through which she could view current reality. “Around this time, I also got into this idea that research shows that young people are getting married less and waiting longer to get married, and I was curious why that is,” she says. “I thought, ‘Huh, here’s a woman writing through the women’s rights movement and doing these serious rom-coms, what would she think of that?'”
As well as outlining a compact chronology of Ephron’s early years and his deathbed career, Doidge’s book highlights the contradictions of the soul contained within a cynical romantic as quick to disparage those close to her as she is to love them. Ephron was famous for her fierce intellect and her unrelenting sense of humor, and as is often the case with funny people, the combination could alienate those in her crosshairs. Her friends resented her words or details of her lives ending up in a funny way in her writing, a habit she never thought required permission. When Doidge interviewed Ephron’s confidante, Richard Cohen, and told him about the many doors he opened for her, she came to understand this stony personality as someone genuinely unconcerned about what other people thought of her.
“When I see her in old interviews, she seems so confident in her analyses,” says Doidge. “The interviewer says that she was mean to such and such, and she says, ‘Well, you have a soft spot for her and I don’t.’ That was how she saw it, and she wasn’t afraid to say it. If she was in the service of making a point or making a laugh, I think she didn’t mind hurting someone. Someone recently asked me about Joan Didion, and if Nora was on the wrong side of her movement. I think it’s crucial that we realize and remember that these were women working in the context of a very different time. She criticized her classmates at Wellesley for what she perceived as a lack of toughness, an unwillingness to fight for better conditions for women. I think she also thought it was silly that that was a thing. She had a complicated relationship with the concept of feminism.”
Together with Doidge, we gradually gain a broader insight into the layered psychology of Ephron and his formative pieces, a dotted line connecting a harsh, unwanted youth with an adulthood spent mixing lightheartedness with angst. His lesser-known images, This Is My Life, Mixed Nuts, the adaptation of his own novel Roman à clef Heartburn, give us what Doidge calls “the warmth we long for,” while crucially combining it with an understated look at the unglamorous aspects of romance or family. We’re moved by Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks’ various flirtations because they’re flawed and human in frank, even embarrassing ways, more truthful than the bungling made to death intended to humanize so many rom-com heroines. She wanted her characters to be as multifaceted as the people she knew best, like her sister and regular co-writer Delia; they loved each other as much as brothers can, which is why they sometimes came to blows so bitterly that communication was cut off for weeks.
“For better or worse, she was the daughter of alcoholics,” explains Doidge. “That was a lifelong journey, understanding how someone you love and look up to and look up to can also be falling apart, how to love someone who is not just one thing. You see that again with Carl [Bernstein], whom she loved so deeply, the father of her babies, who also hurt her beyond what she could bear. But she just brushed it off and said ‘OK!’ and go find out. The process of finding your person can sometimes seem different than we originally thought.”
She is present in every big-screen attraction, a slave to her own dysfunction, but Ephron’s influence is beyond estimation. Tom Hanks told Doidge that every movie she’s made since Saving Private Ryan has been informed in some way by one of the books her dear friend Nora gave her. Ephron blazed a trail through Hollywood now followed by comedians like Tina Fey and Mindy Kaling; Producers hoping to take on a more decisive role in the industry’s power architecture, like Reese Witherspoon, are also following in her footsteps. Ephron’s mother always liked to say that “it’s all copy,” a truism to the extent that each year brings a batch of Ephron knockoffs with a fraction of the conviction and naked honesty she committed in every word. For her, however, her mantra was about how art not only imitated life but translated it, putting her struggles and joys on the page. Doidge neatly sums it up: “All of her movies are nonfiction.”