Uphill With Nora Ephron
Last night Nora Ephron died. It seems impossible to write this. A planet without Nora Ephron is nowhere near as nice a place to live. Iâ€™d been a fan since I was a teenager, inhaling her columns in the fledgling New York Magazine and Esquire. Her byline may be the first I ever sought. I bought Crazy Salad at Rizzoliâ€™s the day it launched in 1975, took it home and realized, to my delight, that Iâ€™d read almost every article reprinted therein. I had remembered phrases verbatim. In the world before the Internet, the idea of calling back an article from an issue of a magazine tossed years before, was rare enough, but Ephronâ€™s words stuck. She wrote in ways that were both original and familiar â€“ at least to a young New York girl who was sure that no one, familiar or otherwise, was likely to appreciate my own off-center brand of original. Role models for funny women were few and far between and when you tried to find that wacky blend of intellect and domestic insight that made up my own imagination, they were all but missing. Excepting Ephron. She became for me a touchstone and a beacon. Like Wendy to the Lost Boys, Nora Ephron was a member of the Menâ€™s Club Neverland of New Journalism that suggested the fresh but sophisticated, witty world I hoped would welcome me.
Two years ago, I sat next to Nora at dinner and we talked about the difficulty of women making films. I had to pinch myself. I was sitting next to the woman who had defined for me the idea that women who didnâ€™t use beauty or sex to define value, could, in spite of so much evidence to the contrary, be successful. Smart. Funny. Funny trumped it all, because to me, if it wasnâ€™t smart, it wasnâ€™t ever going to be funny. Still, that night she shared some hard truths including the insight that being Queen of the Hill was not all it was cracked up to be. There was a film sheâ€™d always wanted to do, she explained, but she could not raise financing. Sheâ€™d tried for years. Decades. Wrap your head around this: Nora Ephron couldnâ€™t make the movie she longed to make. The excuse she was given over and over again was that womenâ€™s projects didnâ€™t sell well internationally to the mostly male audiences who consumed action films. Swathes of young men donâ€™t need to understand English or nuance or cultural tics when the screen is full of warriors battling giant robots, or aliens, or dinosaurs, or rogue waves.
We could question the intelligence of an industry that doesnâ€™t seem to appreciate the fact that generations of movie viewers have consumed Casablanca, Philadelphia Story and Annie Hall in every form from the Million Dollar Movie (pulling in its Maxwell House millions in advertising) to VHS cartridges, to CDs, and now as downloads. We could try to discuss with a minimum of chest beating, the ethics of exporting, in large doses and as the largest proportion of the art, the lowest possible quality of material designed only to raise the highest possible level of blood pressure in its audience. We could talk about data that proves that while treated like a fringe minority, the demographic of women over 40 is the largest, richest segment of an affluent, culture-consuming population. But even if we believe in the economics of action films, how does one explain that Wes Anderson (Royal Tannenbaums, Rushmore, Life Aquatic), Spike Jonz (Adaptation, Being John Malkovitch), Clint Eastwood (Gran Torino, Bridges of Madison County) and a dozen other boy directors get funding to create whatever they want to make, year after year. Can you imagine an audience of young men in Saudi Arabia grasping the nuance of Susan Orleans dealing with Chris Cooperâ€™s toothless orchid grower in Adaptation? Does this make economic sense? Nora Ephron made Sleepless in Seattle, for godâ€™s sake. She wrote When Harry Met Sally. Her movies have, on average, made hundreds of millions of dollars. Hundreds of millions more, in fact, than Adaptation or Royal Tenenbaums, And, like Casablanca, her films will almost certainly continue their return on investment for generations long after weâ€™re gone.
She was frustrated. She didnâ€™t understand it either. And I thought as I sat there, bowled over by her clear, candid talk from the top of the mountain, Well, youâ€™re Nora Ephron. Youâ€™ve got connections and power. Youâ€™ve got time on your side. Iâ€™ll wait. Youâ€™ll figure it out. I didnâ€™t know that she didnâ€™t have time.
Kathryn Bigelow, the only woman director to win an Academy Award, did so with a film about war and a cast that was 99% male. Bigelow apparently figured it out. Skilled and strong and powerful as it is, Hurt Locker has almost nothing at all to do with the average womanâ€™s day to day life. And, as my great grandmother would say, moreâ€™s the pity.
We will all miss Ephronâ€™s wit and wisdom. The outpouring of love and respect from her friends and family is as heartwarming as it is heartbreaking. And I will have to get used to the terrible idea that itâ€™s time to stop waiting for Nora Ephron to figure out where to find the money. Iâ€™ll have to stop looking forward to that wonderful, glorious film that would, almost certainly, speak directly to me and point the way. Just as she always did.
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