Nora Ephron

Every time I see that some jackass out there is positing that women aren’t actually funny, I think about Nora Ephron and I laugh at their stupidity. Nora Ephron was funny, and was funny in multiple media, and was funny in a way that most people can’t be. She wrote great, smart and observant essays, novels and films, and as an extra added bonus, directed some of the latter as well. Ephron was marvelous with characters, with words and with how to break audiences’ hearts and mend them again. She could have a bitter edge when she wanted to, mind you (see: Heartburn). But most of her film work, at least, was pitched more warmly than that. She wrote two of the great romantic comedies of the last quarter century — When Harry Met Sally and Sleepless in Seattle (which she also directed). Anyone who look at either of those and say, yeah, that’s not funny loses any standing to tell anyone else what is funny. The deli orgasm scene in When Harry Met Sally is flat out one of the best bits in cinematic comedy history. Guys, think you can write a funnier scene? Prove it.

Goodbye, Nora Ephron. You were funny. You were smart. You will be missed.

26 thoughts on “Nora Ephron

  1. Aw, I love that movie. That scene is by far one of the most hilarious ever, and that entire movie is just comedy gold.

  2. Fighting a losing battle here, but while she was an amazingly funny writer and director, the deli scene was not all hers and the closing line was Billy Crystal’s. From an interview with Ephron (http://www.achievement.org/autodoc/page/eph0int-1):

    “Ephron: We had a read-through, and Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan read the script, and at the end of the read-through, Meg said, “You know, I think this scene would be much funnier if it took place in a restaurant,” and Rob said, “That’s a great idea. Let’s do it in a restaurant,” and then Meg said, “And then I think at the end of the scene, she should have an orgasm,” and Rob said, “Well, that’s a really good idea,” and Billy Crystal said, “And one of the customers can say: I’ll have what she’s having,” and Rob said, “And I know just the actor to play that part: my mother.” Now, you know, I had started out in the movie business thinking, “Oh please don’t let them change my lines. Please don’t let them do anything to me.” And you know, you hear an idea like that, and you think, “I am so lucky to be working with these people.” Thank God people believe in collaboration. Of course, I get all the credit for that line which I had — well, I’d like to think I had something to do with it, because if I hadn’t broken the news about faking orgasms, there might be millions of men still walking around the earth not knowing it, and they do know it because of that movie.”

    There are so many great lines, great scenes that were all hers, and she certainly deserves credit for crafting this one. She was a brilliant writer for so many reasons. But this scene was a group effort and the one line that every site on the web is from someone else.

  3. And that’s what writing for film is like. It’s an ongoing process–you write one draft, someone adds their ideas, the director has some others ideas, and so does the cast. And then when it’s done, the editor reshapes it.

  4. Sure. And I’m glad it did; in this case it created a far funnier scene than it might have been otherwise. My point being, so many people are specifically praising her for a line she didn’t write. I’m a huge Nora Ephron fan, but I also believe in credit where credit’s due (and so was she, as evidenced by that interview).

  5. Chris Bridges – It is important to give credit where credit is due. Having said that, I actually never have heard about this woman (is she related to that Zach Ephron kid?) until now. The movies she was involved with are very funny.

  6. It reminded me of a similar scene in the Steve Martin – Lily Tomlin comedy All Of Me. However, the last line lifts it beyond the earlier movie.

  7. Similarly, I hate it when someone credits an actor for a line they said in a movie or TV show instead of the writer. It’s excusable if the line is credited to the character, but not the actor.

  8. Yes, collaborations are sometimes difficult to disentangle with respect to who contributed what (or who ruined what, in some cases). But Ephron’s novel Heartburn is her work alone, and it’s such a funny and zippy read; it’s orders of magnitude better than the Mike Nichols-directed adaptation that she wrote a few years later. (One probable reason that the movie is weak by comparison was the threat of legal action by ex-husband #2 Carl Bernstein; the most obvious example is that his roman-a-clef analog in the movie no longer has an identifiably Jewish surname as in the book.) Anyone who’s ever liked anything with Ephron’s name on it should read Heartburn.

  9. I think that some excellent points have been made about giving credit where credit is due or mistakes that were made in the post. Having said that, this is not really the proper time to do that, in my humble opinion. It feels a little like someone in the chapel interrupting a eulogy.

    John, on his blog here, is attempting to honor the life of a great woman. Let’s talk about that.

    In the spirit of my comment, just knowing about Nora always gave me the hope that a woman could succeed as a writer. Also, the type of entertainment she provided, especially in her books, is the sort of thing that gives the reader a moment away so that we can return to our lives refreshed. In a Woody Allen movie, the title of which I cannot recall, the suicidal character ducks into a theater to watch the Marx brothers and decides life is worth living after all. She did that for me with the book Heartburn, which I read at a very difficult time in my life.

  10. I think is my favorite of all the movies she wrote is “Michael”. Cheesy, but I liked it.

  11. Why is there a debate about whether women are funny or not? There are funny women and women can be funny, but men tend to try harder and more often to be funny since it is often viewed as being a good way to pick up women. Not a question or whether, just a priority issue.

  12. My favorite Nora Ephron story is how she used to be married to Carl Bernstein of Watergate journalists Woodward and Bernstein fame. He cheated on her when she was pregnant and raising an infant son. Her response was the correct one – divorce him, then write a best-selling book about it that others here have applauded: “Heartburn.” Well played, Nora.

    It also cracks me up that back when her ex was still keeping Deep Throat’s identity a secret for many years, Ephron apparently took every opportunity to publicly out Deep Throat. She’d be giving a speech and would just blurt it out: “Mark Felt is Deep Throat. Good night.” How the press ignored such a delicious scoop is far beyond me.

    Rest in peace, Nora Ephron.

  13. This is sad, indeed. I’d never heard the anecdote about her outing Mark Felt as Deep Throat; thanks, hush.

  14. @ ageofanxiety

    I think that some excellent points have been made about giving credit where credit is due or mistakes that were made in the post. Having said that, this is not really the proper time to do that, in my humble opinion. It feels a little like someone in the chapel interrupting a eulogy.

    Fair point, but, in my humble opinion, I think it’s better by far to recognize the real person rather than an idolized version, even if it means correcting some widely known facts. The discussion about the scene in question revealed that not only was Nora Ephron a funny and talented writer, she also knew the value of collaboration and could get the best out of a cast of strong-willed people. In my career as a software developer I’ve known a few project managers and team leaders who, for all their brilliance, desperately needed that quality of leadership.

    My favorite Nora Ephron movie and one of my favorite comedy’s of all time is My Blue Heaven. To me, that movie captured perfectly the comedic transitional era between the 80’s and 90’s.

  15. “Why is there a debate about whether women are funny or not?”

    Because Adam Carolla needs to sell books, among other things. I’m not really buying into your idea that men try harder to be funny and thus are funnier, especially as it runs counter to my personal anecdotal experience.

  16. I was very surprised at some of the responses I saw to her death.The ones I like are among my favorites – WHMS, Michael and My Blue Heaven are stellar movies. Even the movies I didn’t like as much (Sleepless and Mail) are well written and watchable. I can see how someone might not like a genre or a particular movie but how can you not recognize the great writing?

    Never saw Heartburn but the book was a great read. I’m with WizarDru, how after all the good comedy women have produced (anonymously in the past but credited finally and publicly since at least the 60s) can there be any debate?

  17. @WizarDru: Never said men were funnier. Just said that there are a lot more men that try to be funny than women that try to be funny. Everything comes down to sex and “sense of humor” is perceived to be a more important characteristic for men to have than for women in the dating game.

  18. To the end, she inspired. Case in point: This great comment on her NYT obituary: “I think that having the last word in your own obit in the New York Times, and having that word be “pie” is just about the best a person can hope to get out of throwing off this mortal coil.” (Link: http://ow.ly/bRfwG )

  19. @ Kilroy

    Everything comes down to sex and “sense of humor” is perceived to be a more important characteristic for men to have than for women in the dating game.

    Not for everyone. I suspect the prevalence of our species’ perpetual obsession with sex is the same as the persistent obsession with mysticism, caused by ambivalence about things in the mind around which most people erect tantalizing barriers in lieu of pursuing clarity in self-understanding, because of anxiety towards the possible answers they may find…but it’s only a theory. Suffice it to say that although sex is central to species’ continuity and the selfish-gene is a very effective programmer rendering sex a fascinating subject, not everything comes down to it.

  20. Without denigrating the memory of a very accomplished woman, I think this ever-growing tendency to take any observation of general trends or averages as some kind of personal attack on individuals and/or evidence of bigotry is kind of scary.

  21. Anyone who look at either of those and say, yeah, that’s not funny loses any standing to tell anyone else what is funny.

    Is it OK in a not-pissing-on-someone’s-grave-and-IMHOYMMV-of-course way to say I don’t find particularly funny? I think P.G. Wodehouse is a frigging genius, but other people beg to differ and they’re welcome to put their case.

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