Had she not ventured into Hollywood, there’s little doubt Nora Ephron — who died too young yesterday of leukemia at 71 — would still be fondly remembered, but mainly among the media and cultural elite for her left-wing politics, feminist essays, books, and social style. But Ephron did venture into movies and the heartland of America loves her for it.
“When Harry Met Sally” (1989) is one of the greatest romantic comedies Hollywood has ever produced and Ephron’s brilliant screenplay is the reason why. Not to take anything away from stars Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan or director Rob Reiner, but this was a screenwriter’s film from beginning to end, and it would redefine the romantic comedy for more than a decade.
“When Harry Met Sally” was not only a monster box office hit, it has also done something even more populist: stood the test of time — for it is as fresh, hilarious, heartwarming and entertaining today as it was 23 years ago.
From there, Ephron would somehow recapture that same magic with the iconic “Sleepless In Seattle” (1993), which she not only co-wrote but also directed. My dad still watches it once a month and like Harry and Sally, a hundred years from now, Americans will laugh through tears as they pull for Sam and Annie to find a way to make it to the top of the Empire State Building.
To be the artistic force behind one timeless, iconic film is an extraordinary accomplishment. Ephron is responsible for two and that makes her something of a giant.
Moreover, she’s also responsible for the crowd-pleasers “Heartburn,” “You’ve Got Mail,” and after a couple of flops and time spent in Hollywood purgatory, in her late-sixties, she somehow mustered an startling comeback with the 2009 hit “Julia and Julia.”
Though not as well known as those listed above, there are two other films I thank Ephron for and urge you to revisit. The first is the woefully under-appreciated “My Blue Heaven” (1990) starring Steve Martin and Rick Moranis.
After her failed marriage to philandering Watergate guru Carl Bernstein (an experience that became the best-selling book and the 1986 film “Heartburn”), Ephron found her soulmate with author/screenwriter Nicholas Pileggi, the man behind “Goodfellas” and “Casino.” Believe it or not, “My Blue Heaven” is a very, very loose follow-up to “Goodfellas,” that takes a comedic look at how a relocated mobster might adapt to suburbia. Thanks to the stars and Ephron’s surprising affection for suburban life, it’s a truly wonderful movie.
Early last year I published my Top 25 Left-Wing films list and ranked at number nine is the 1983 masterpiece “Silkwood,” a superbly crafted paranoia thriller starring Meryl Streep, Kurt Russell, and Cher. That was Ephron’s first credited screenplay (which she co-wrote with Alice Arlen).
Undoubtedly, Nora Ephron was a woman possessed with extraordinary talents that covered a wide range of fields. But what I will remember and appreciate most about her is that unlike so many in her social circle, she wasn’t handicapped by her provincial upbringing and life among the wealthy, cosmopolitan elite.
She brought timeless and universal joy to all of us.
Follow John Nolte on Twitter @NolteNC