An ode to Nora Ephron — her ‘clever, goes-down-easy’ films to be missed

By Eleanor Ringel Cater

Nora Ephron made me feel good about my neck.

Then she had to go and die young — 71, leukemia — and I feel bad.

And not just about my neck.

It’s only in retrospect that my respect for her as a filmmaker has grown. Her collections of essays — “ I Remember Nothing,” “ I Feel Bad About My Neck,” “Crazy Salad,” to name a few — were always wonderful. Tasty and tart and sometimes laugh-out-loud funny.

See, I thought we’d always have clever, goes-down-easy, starry-eyed movies like “Sleepless in Seattle,” “When Harry Met Sally…” and “You’ve Got Mail?” The swag the studio sent for the last named— a miniature mailbox that was also a music box — was really cool. And, one would assume, a sign of studio support. Maybe.

Her most recent film was the hit, “Julie & Julia” Ok, so it’s pretty hard to go wrong with Meryl Streep in your cast.

Only, you could go wrong with Meryl Streep in your cast. Nancy Meyers’ “It’s Complicated” is like tin-eared Ephron — more in tune with its “Architectural Digest” homes than the characters.

Of course, Ephron herself famously once said, “I highly recommend having Meryl Streep play you. If your husband is cheating on you with a carhop, get Meryl to play you. You will feel much better.”

Said husband was Carl Bernstein, as in “Woodward and…”

Whom she royally roasted in her book, “Heartburn,” which told readers how she found out Bernstein was playing around (maybe with a carhop?) when she was pregnant with their second child.

The inevitable movie starred Streep and Jack Nicholson as the philandering journalist. Ephron wrote the screenplay, but Mike Nichols directed.

They had worked together before, on the superb 1982 film, “Silkwood,” about a real-life whistleblower (played by… Meryl Streep).

I didn’t always see eye to eye with Ephron, which may explain why it took me so long to realize her gifts. I thought “When Harry Met Sally” was appealing, but too comfy. Now, after a decade-plus of mostly rancid and/or moronic romantic comedies, I am astonished by its nimble style.

Actually, reading back on my reaction to “Sleepless,” I’m proud to say I wasn’t so snotty. I thought it was dryly funny and moistly romantic. Maybe the specter of loss —Tom Hanks plays a widower — grounded the film for me. Maybe it was because I saw in it my husband and our best pal who was, himself, recently widower-ed. Maybe it’s because I myself would be widowed not much later.

But “Sleepless” strikes me as shamelessly lovestruck, in a good way. And it reminded me it’s possible to have a good laugh and a good cry at the same movie. And that movie could be a big glossy Hollywood product with big glossy names: Hanks and Meg Ryan.

Ryan was, in some ways, Ephron’s on-screen doppel-ganger. Not a little L.A./NYC girl, smart-mouthed and cute, but a tall gorgeous blonde, scattered yet ultimately true to her best self.

Ryan is, perhaps, at her very best in their third collaboration, “You’ve Got Mail,” where Hanks is willing to be a bit villainous (He owns a chain bookstore that threatens to put her little shop out of business; Lord, remember when they were considered the bad guys? Now I cross myself and say a prayer every time I go by a Barnes & Noble)

Ephron didn’t always have to go blonde. One of her neglected films — I consider it about 2/3rd terrific — is “This is My Life,” a picture about a stand-up comic played by Julie Kavner (better known as Rhoda’s sister or Madge Simpson’s voice, depending on your generation).

I am also partial to “Michael,” about a couple of tabloid reporters (William Hurt, Andie MacDowell) who go in search of a sensational story. A rural (read, unsophisticated) woman (Jean Stapleton) claims she’s got an angel living upstairs. And she does — John Travolta, belching, beer-bellied and bearing the most heavenly pair of feathery wings you’ve ever seen. At the film’s end, he and Stapleton dance together down an empty moonlit street—Edith Bunker and Vinnie Barbarino in a joyous embrace

What didn’t I like about Ephron? Well, there were a few sheer embarrassments: “Mixed Nuts,” “Bewitched,” “Lucky Numbers.”
But imagine all the embarrassments I could attribute to other screenwriters — especially the few who were capable of directing their own script and stayed in the game for almost 30 years.

One thing Ephron and I never agreed on was her concept of “Chick Flicks” — a phrase that other writers and reviewers often used against her, as if to say, her movies didn’t count, as opposed to complex stuff like “True Lies” or “The Green Hornet.”

Ephron always insisted that all women love “An Affair to Remember,” a late ‘50s weepie (antiquated term for Chick Flick) starring Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr.

I was appalled by “An Affair to Remember” and staunchly maintain (still do) that the ultimate Chick Flick would be something like “The Great Escape.”

Think of it: locked up with Steve McQueen, James Garner, James Coburn, David McCallum, Charles Bronson…

My point — and I do have one — is you never know what you’ve lost till she’s gone.

Eleanor Ringel, Movie Critic, was the film critic for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution for almost 30 years. She was nominated multiple times for a Pulitzer Prize. She won the Best of Cox Critic, IMAGE Film & Video and Women In Film awards. An Atlanta native, she graduated from Westminster and Brown University. She was the critic on WXIA’s Noonday, a member of Entertainment Weekly's Critics Grid and wrote TV Guide’s movie/DVD. She is member of the National Society of Film Critics and currently talks about movies on WMLB and writes the Time Out column for the Atlanta Business Chronicle.

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