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Legacies: An honest, confident voice set Nora Ephron apart

The writer's legacy will endure far beyond romantic comedies. She was a trailblazer in journalism, film and feminism and a mentor to younger writers.

July 07, 2012|By Meredith Blake, Special to the Los Angeles Times
  • This 1962 yearbook image released by Wellesley College shows Nora Ephron, editor of the Wellesley News in the newsroom at Wellesley College in Wellesley, Mass.
This 1962 yearbook image released by Wellesley College shows Nora Ephron,… (Wellesley College / Associated…)

When Nora Ephron died June 26 at age 71, the news prompted an outpouring of grief and admiration from a remarkably diverse array of high-profile names. New York Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, movie veteran Albert Brooks, hip-hop impresario Russell Simmons and novelist Salman Rushdie mourned her passing on Twitter, while TV star-writer Mindy Kaling issued a statement proclaiming: "I want to live every day as if every word or action was penned by Nora Ephron."

In a postscript in the New Yorker, editor David Remnick described her as "an influence greater than she knew." In retrospect, it appears that Ephron was, in her brief lifetime, an influence greater than perhaps any of us knew.

In recent years, Ephron's name had become virtually synonymous with the witty yet unabashedly sentimental movies she wrote and later directed, like "When Harry Met Sally …" and "Sleepless in Seattle." But this reputation belies the true breadth of her legacy: As well as a purveyor of beloved romantic comedies, Ephron was a trailblazing journalist, filmmaker and feminist, an astonishingly accomplished woman who generously shared her hard-won wisdom with younger writers.

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To many, Ephron's unlikely career trajectory — from "mail girl" at Newsweek to bestselling essayist to top-earning screenwriter and director — seemed like the stuff of Hollywood fantasy. In 1962, Victor Navasky, currently the publisher emeritus of the Nation, hired Ephron, fresh out of Wellesley College, to contribute to a New York Post satire he put together during the city's infamous newspaper strike. Despite her tender age, Ephron "understood the conventions of the press and was able to make fun of them," he says. Her spoof was so spot-on that the Post's editor, Dorothy Schiff, quickly hired her. From there, Ephron rapidly ascended to the top of the city's media world, publishing wry essays and incisive profiles in New York and Esquire. Her distinctive, highly personal voice meant she was one of the few women writers associated with the decidedly macho "New Journalism" movement.

Ephron was also something of a rarity in that she was an unapologetic feminist who wrote with candor and gravity about supposedly "light" subjects, like her too-small breasts and the aging process. "It's a cliché of the feminist movement, but in her work everything was personal," Navasky says. "She cared about being a woman in a sort of old-fashioned way but also in a political way."

It's this stubborn insistence on writing about what was important to her that endeared Ephron to a generation of women.

VIDEO: A compilation of Nora Ephron's greates hits

"She didn't care whether the literary world thought those were serious topics worthy of a writer's consideration," says bestselling novelist Jennifer Weiner. As a result, Ephron's essays empowered women "to be open and honest and funny and smart about what mattered to them instead of trying to don the literary equivalent of a man's suit when it came time to write."

Later, as a screenwriter and director in the overwhelmingly male world of Hollywood, Ephron was, yet again, a pioneer — even if the label irked her. Indie film producer Christine Vachon recalls a frustrated panel conversation about "women and film" that included her, Ephron and fellow writer-director Nancy Meyers. "These days, any woman who gets behind a camera is a groundbreaker. It's galling," she says.

Ephron's real power might have been her ability to tell stories that transcended genres. Even Vachon, best known for producing gritty, provocative dramas like "Boys Don't Cry" and "Far From Heaven," calls herself a fan of Ephron's sparkling romantic comedies.

Perhaps this is because Ephron's films, which nearly always deliver a happy ending, are stories of resilience and determination beneath their shiny, bourgeois veneer.

"They are about a pretty world where some extremely unpretty things happen," argues Rebecca Traister, journalist and author of "Big Girls Don't Cry."

As a woman in Hollywood, Ephron led by example, creating female characters who were ambitious, finicky and vexing — but who were recognizably human, unlike the one-dimensional bridezillas who populate so many romantic comedies. "Her movies took interesting, complicated, difficult women and treated them like they were subjects worthy of having movies made about them. That in and of itself is a rupture in the space-time continuum," claims Traister, only half-joking.

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