On this day in 1941, Nora Ephron was born in New York City. Though she was raised in Beverly Hills, over the course of her lifetime—right up until her death in 2012—Nora’s name would grow synonymous with that of the town in which she was born. As a filmmaker, writer, and journalist, Nora’s most lasting success was her ability to bring New York City to life. Nora’s rendition of this city—to whom countless filmmakers and artists have paid homage—is still unique and unforgettable. When people think of Katz’s Deli, the 91st Street Garden, or the Empire State Building, they think of Nora.
After graduating from Wellesley College with a degree in political science in 1962, Nora moved to New York City to pursue her dream of journalism. Far from being welcomed to the field, when she applied to write for Newsweek, Nora was told they would not hire a woman. Not one to let this setback stop her, Nora went on to write for The Post, Esquire, and New York Magazine. Her famous 1972 essay for Esquire, “A Few Words About Breasts,” is a humorous, feminist exploration of how the size of her breasts has shaped how she perceives herself, and how others perceive her. Nora herself credited the hilarious, infamous piece as the turning point in her career.
The following year, Nora co-wrote the script for Silkwood (1983) with Alice Arlene. The movie, which follows Meryl Streep playing the role of a whistleblower at a nuclear plant, was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay in 1984. In 1983, Nora published her semi-autobiographical novel Heartburn, which she based on the breakdown of her own marriage to journalist Carl Bernstein. Nora went on to adapt her book into a screenplay, and in 1986 the film, starring Meryl Streep and Jack Nicholson, was released. As the protagonist, Rachel, is a food writer, Nora’s novel includes recipes interspersed throughout the text. Much like the perfect combination of sweet and sour in Rachel’s key lime pie, the tone Nora takes on in Heartburn exemplifies her trademark blend of humor and melancholy that works so well on the page and screen.
Much like the perfect combination of sweet and sour in Rachel’s key lime pie, the tone Nora takes on in Heartburn exemplifies her trademark blend of humor and melancholy that works so well on the page and screen.
Also in 1986, Nora wrote the screenplay for When Harry Met Sally. The film, which stars Meg Ryan and Billy Crystal in the most eternal example of the friends-to-lovers arc, remains a classic to this day, with many bestowing on it the title of greatest rom-com of all time. Indeed, FF2 collaborator Nicole Ackman wrote in her feature on Nora Ephron, “Ephron’s films like Sleepless in Seattle, When Harry Met Sally, and You’ve Got Mail have defined the romantic comedy and continue to be held up as sterling examples of the genre decades later.”
When Harry Met Sally was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Writing, Screenplay Written Directly for the Screen. Though the romantic-comedy genre has often been the butt of many misogynistic jokes, the timeless success of When Harry Met Sally proves not only Nora’s merit, but the merit of the romantic-comedy itself. The film’s charm stems from its writing, directing, the incredible performances of its stars, as well as its location. The images of New York City are vital to the life of the film, the romance blossoming within it, and the film’s place in popular culture and memory decades later. Central Park in autumn eternally brings to mind snapshots of Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan walking together, boxed in by falling leaves and crisp piano notes.
In 1992, Nora made her own directorial debut with the film This is My Life. The movie tells the story of Dottie Ingels, a divorced, single mother who dreams of becoming a stand-up comedian. In her review of the film, FF2 Editor-in-Chief Jan Lisa Huttner praises Nora’s ability to make “important points with wit and warmth.” This is My Life marked a turning point in Nora’s professional career, as she would go on to direct all but two of her remaining nine movies. This includes unforgettable favorites such as Sleepless in Seattle, You’ve Got Mail, and Julie and Julia, the last of which represents her final film.
Though Nora’s movies are women-centric in many ways—written by a woman, starring women, and often made with the consumption of female viewers in mind—her films are too often baselessly accused of alienating male audiences.
In Jan’s review of Julie and Julia, she celebrates Nora for having “created a loving tribute to teachers (and students) everywhere, and a terrific film for everyone—women and men alike.” That last addition is important to include in any review of a Nora Ephorn film. Though Nora’s movies are women-centric in many ways—written by a woman, starring women, and often made with the consumption of female viewers in mind—her films are too often baselessly accused of alienating male audiences. This is incorrect for multiple reasons. Firstly, Nora Ephron has a varying filmography, and such an accusation would be an oversimplification of her career. Secondly, all of Nora’s most famous films include men and women leads who equally split the screen time. Nora Ephron’s writing of male characters includes just as much wit and depth as that of her heroines. Perhaps it’s just that in Nora’s movies, women are given their fair share.
On June 26, 2012, Nora Ephron died at the age of 71 in New York City. In her memory, each year at the Tribeca film festival, a female writer or filmmaker is presented with the Nora Ephron Prize. The $25,000 award goes to an artist with a distinct voice in order to pay tribute to a woman who continues to be remembered and loved for her distinct style—punctuated with humor and heart—and whose multiple masterpieces are not only remembered, but cherished.
In 2021, the week before I moved to New York City, I decided to rewatch my favorite Nora Ephron movies, beginning with You’ve Got Mail. The 1998 film takes place on the Upper West Side, what would eventually be my neighborhood. I was captivated by the sights and sounds of this New York that Nora created, as well as the characters that lived their lives within it. By the time Tom Hanks revealed the truth to Meg Ryan surrounded by the flowers of Riverside Park, I was sobbing. Two months later, I rewatched it, and cried just as hard.
In my first few weeks in the city, I went on lots of walks in Riverside Park. I was having a harder time adjusting to the move than I thought I would. I loved New York, but I missed home. I missed the feeling of looking around and knowing exactly where I was. On one of my walks, I went farther than usual. Around 92nd street, the path in front of me curved, and then suddenly spit me out straight into a movie scene. I was standing in the 91st Street Garden, right in the final shot of You’ve Got Mail. I knew exactly where I was. Thank you, and happy birthday, Nora Ephron.
© Reese Alexander (5/19/23) FF2 Media
LEARN MORE/DO MORE
Read Nickole Ackman’s article on Nora Ephron here.
Read Jan Lisa Huttner’s article on Nora Ephron here.
Read Jan Lisa Huttner’s review of This is My Life here.
Read Jan Lisa Huttner’s review of Julie and Julia here.
Visit Nora Ephron’s Wikipedia page here.
CREDITS & PERMISSIONS
Featured photo: © “Nicholas Pieggi Nora Ephron Shankbone 2010 NYC” by David Shankbone is licensed under CC BY 3.0.