‘All her movies are nonfiction’: remembering the life and work of Nora Ephron

<span>Photograph: USA Network/NBCU Photo Bank/Getty</span>
Photograph: USA Network/NBCU Photo Bank/Getty

You can’t chart the whole of Nora Ephron with just the name-making hits that placed her atop the end-of-the-century romcom boom, but you can’t do so without them, either. The polymath writer’s best-known traits – her barbed wit, her particular taste mistaken by some for pickiness, her profound and enduring love of food – course through scripting gigs like When Harry Met Sally … as well as such directorial projects as Sleepless in Seattle and You’ve Got Mail. Lovelorn and loquacious, this is the Nora fans feel they know well enough to assume the first-name basis, a characterization that only covers one side of a many-splendored woman. Kristin Marguerite Doidge, the author of the newly released Nora Ephron: A Biography, hopes to expand the image of a singular talent for the blinker-visioned faithful and uninitiated alike.

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“She wrote for five or six decades, and so everyone comes to her from a different angle,” Doidge tells the Guardian from her home in Los Angeles. “Some people might have seen Heartburn before anything else, or maybe you remember seeing This Is My Life with your grandma. Some people find her much later, when she was feeling bad about her neck. The general public tends to think of her as the romantic comedy queen, the lady who did You’ve Got Mail. That’s just one part of her, and what she stands for. A lot 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. It’s crazy!”

Though Doidge can hardly blame them; it wasn’t so long ago that she considered herself an Ephron neophyte. “I came to her movies later,” she says. “I feel bad saying it, but I wasn’t a diehard. I never associated Nora with Silkwood prior to working on this book. Growing up in the 80s and 90s, I saw Sleepless in Seattle. I heard of When Harry Met Sally … but I wasn’t allowed to watch it! Too scandalous, never knew why at the time. And isn’t that telling, how the woman experiencing pleasure was seen as too much for a kid. As a kid, you don’t even really get the joke!”

Doidge came to kneel at the altar of Nora in 2014, as she searched for a subject capable of sustaining her master’s thesis. The unusual trajectory of Ephron’s career, which began with a groundbreaking tenure in journalism and didn’t reach the directing phase until her 50s, gave Doidge something she could connect to. She came to see Ephron’s fully formed, well-documented worldview as a lens through which she could look at today’s reality. “Around this time, I’d also become invested in this idea that research shows young people are getting married less and waiting longer to do it, and I was curious about why that’s happening,” she says. “I thought, ‘Huh, here’s a woman writing through the women’s rights movement and going on to make these earnest romantic comedies, what would she make of that?’”

Besides outlining a compact chronology of Ephron’s early years and the career she maintained to her deathbed, Doidge’s book highlights the contradictions of the soul contained within a cynical romantic as quick to belittle those close to her as she was to love them. Ephron was famed for her fierce intellect and unsparing sense of humor, and as is so often the case with funny people, the combination could alienate those in her crosshairs. Friends resented how their words or details of their lives had a funny way of ending up in her writing, a habit she never believed should require permission. As Doidge interviewed Ephron’s confidant Richard Cohen and talked her way through the many doors he opened for her, she came to understand this flinty personality as someone sincerely unconcerned with what other people thought about her.

“When I see her in old interviews, she seems so secure in her analyses,” Doidge says. “The interviewer says she was mean to such-and-such, and she says, ‘Well, you have a soft spot for her and I don’t.’ That was just how she saw it, and she wasn’t afraid to say so. If it was in service of making a point or getting a laugh, I think she didn’t mind hurting someone. Someone recently asked me about Joan Didion, and whether Nora came down on the wrong side of her movement. I think it’s crucial for us to realize and remember that these were women working in the context of a very different time. She was critical of 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 found it silly that that was a thing at all. She had a complicated relationship with the concept of feminism.”

Along with Doidge, we gradually get a wider view of Ephron’s layered psychology and its formative pieces, a dotted line connecting a harsh, undesired youth to an adulthood spent melding levity with angst. Her lesser-known pictures – This Is My Life, Mixed Nuts, the adaptation of her own roman à clef novel Heartburn – give us what Doidge calls “the warmth we crave so badly” while crucially pairing it with a sober-eyed take on the unglamorous aspects of romance or family. We’re moved by the various flirtations of Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks because they’re imperfect and human in frank, even embarrassing ways more truthful than the done-to-death klutziness meant to humanize so many romcom 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 one another as much as siblings can, which is why they sometimes came to blows so bitter that they’d cut off communication for weeks at a time.

“For better or worse, she was the daughter of alcoholics,” Doidge explains. “That was a lifelong journey, understanding how someone you love and admire and look up to can also be falling apart, how to love someone who isn’t just one thing. You see that again with Carl [Bernstein], who she loved so deeply, the father of her babies, who also hurt her beyond what she could take. But she’d just brush herself and say ‘OK!’ and move on to figuring it out. The process of finding your person can sometimes look different than what we originally thought.”

She’s present in every silver-screen attraction in thrall to its own dysfunction, but Ephron’s influence stretches beyond estimation. Tom Hanks told Doidge that every movie he’s done since Saving Private Ryan has been informed in some way by one of the books his dear friend Nora gifted him. Ephron blazed a trail through Hollywood now followed by humorists like Tina Fey and Mindy Kaling; producers hoping to take a more decisive role in the architecture of industry power, such as Reese Witherspoon, also follow in her footsteps. Ephron’s mother always liked to say that “everything is copy,” a truism insofar as every year brings a batch of Ephron knock-offs with a fraction of the conviction and naked honesty she committed to every word. For her, however, the mantra referred to how art didn’t just imitate life but translate it, putting her struggles and joys right on to the page. Doidge sums it up tidily: “All her movies are nonfiction.”

  • Nora Ephron: A Biography is out now