Nora Ephron, RIP

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Nora Ephon died of Leukenia, Maybe the pneumonia finished her off, but it was really the leukemia that killed her.

A writer hates to see another writer die, especially one who was not anywhere near his turf. Nora Ephron was nowhere near my turf. She had the IRS 1040 forms to prove it.

I shall never forget the first time I saw anything that she wrote. It was an article, I think in Esquire, in the late 1960s. It had the greatest title I had ever seen. It still has the greatest title I have ever seen: “Wallflower at the Orgy.” I don’t remember the contents of the essay. The title is forever.

CBS News ran an article with her funniest lines. Brief lines, maybe. But nothing matches the scene in Sleepless in Seattle where Tom Hanks and Victor Garber described the emotional effects that The Dirty Dozen has on them. The trouble is, the two of them may have improvised the scene. I like to think so. I hate to think that Ephon understood male humor that well. It would be as if she were a female version of Mel Gibson in What Women Want.

My favorite line was in When Harry Met Sally, when Harry realizes that he is dating women who are too young for him. He is telling his friend, played by Bruno Kirby, that he is having doubts about this. The age difference may be too great. He described a talk he had with his latest. “When I asked where she was when Kennedy was shot she said, Ted Kennedy was shot?’”

Ephron was the female version of Tom Wolfe, except that he is nowhere near as funny. She had an eye for the specific detail or artefact that perfectly represents a particular aspect of contemporary culture. In When Harry Met Sally, it was the wagon wheel coffee table that Kirby loved, but had to toss out to keep his new wife happy.

Her parents were writers. They wrote Hollywood screenplays. They wrote Carousel and Smart Set. She had the same gift, though the screenplay gift came later. Her parents reworked letters she had sent from college into a play and then a movie: Take Her, She’s Mine. When her mother was dying of alcoholism in a hospital bed, she told Nora: “Take notes, Nora, take notes.” Her mother often said: “Everything is copy.” A writer! She began as a skilled essayist and then moved into screenplay writing. That is where the money is. She was also a movie director. She wrote Heartburn a book, then a screenplay, on the break-up of her marriage with Carl Bernstein. The reason was adultery. She came up with this line on his appetite: “He could have sex with a Venetian blind.” There is no snappy comeback to that one.

What makes a great writer? Who knows? What makes a sensationally successful screenwriter? Ask the person who knows what makes a great writer.

She could crank out one-liners by the dozen. She could write a screenplay worth sticking with to the cheery end, despite its inherent sappiness.

What I remember most was the plot line in You’ve Got Mail. A young woman runs a small book store. She is about to be bankrupted by a Borders-type megastore. Today, Borders is gone, bankrupted by Amazon. The story centers around email on AOL. I can imagine a screenplay where an older man complains that his date may be too young, because she has never heard of AOL. (This line would have been better if Ephron had written it.) The movie shows how fast technology moves, and how fast empires built on the older technology can go under. That was not its intention.

There may be an up-and-coming female writer who is the next Nora Ephron. If you spot her, drop me a line. But if your email is from AOL.com, I probably won’t open it.

Gary North [send him mail] is the author of Mises on Money. Visit http://www.garynorth.com. He is also the author of a free 20-volume series, An Economic Commentary on the Bible.

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