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Karen Krizanovich: What made Nora Ephron’s films so great and memorable?

NORA Ephron's films, which include When Harry Met Sally, Michael, and Bewitched, were built on indelible writing and great characters.

What’s a “Nora Ephron” movie? First of all, it’s a good American movie. Secondly, it is a good movie with an unusual identity, given the generally reduced position women and writers have in Hollywood. Thirdly, it is one written with great characters of both sexes but more famous for, as she said, making women “as complicated and interesting as women actually are.”

In her three decades of screenwriting, Ephron’s work in films was both popular and truthful – and even if they weren’t good all over, parts of them were terrific. Ephron was Dorothy Parker without the resentment, a female Oscar Wilde without the cynicism. Her writing was indelible: you knew a Nora Ephron film just as you knew those that tried to be and failed.

Hollywood is rarely a meritocracy, but that her films brought in an audience is why Nora Ephron got the credit of which screenwriters only dream – a name like a watermark that overshadows the director’s years after the film’s release: think Heartburn and When Harry Met Sally. Name the director. See? (The only reason you may remember Rob Reiner is because he cast his mother as the lady who says, “I’ll have what she’s having” in the famous faked orgasm scene.)

Ephron’s last film, the warm, wistful and witty Julie & Julia, which she both wrote and directed, gave Meryl Streep not only another well known figure to play but also some wonderful lines – “I have to murder and dismember a crustacean” – as well as a healthy physical relationship wedged into the turbulent life of a diplomat’s wife – “You are the butter to my bread, you are the breath to my life”.

A strong writer across all media, Ephron’s work in film had its own ring and rhythm. Knowledgeable, visual and pacy, it also ages well in that most ephemeral medium – one of the hallmark of film classics. For example, the underrated My Blue Heaven (1990), a colourful gangster romp, had an Ephron script that gave Steve Martin’s comic timing a run for its money. A poor film was better for having been written by her: her dialogue was often a film’s only good pair of shoes.

Directing eight films herself, just over half were the Nora Ephron films which made you laugh and cry and not hate yourself afterwards. Even if they weren’t all triumphs, they had their moments. In Michael (1996), for example, John Travolta is an enormous winged angel who quips, “Whatever they say, you can never have too much of earth” – a throwaway line that catches the audience in the solar plexus. Bewitched (2005), her uneven adaptation of a popular 1960s TV show, stumbled but still zinged with lines such as, “Do you want the long version or the short version? And I have to warn you, the long version is in Aramaic.”

Aware of the pitfalls and pleasures of fame, Ephron was gifted in telling the truth about the filmmaking business without being bitter about it: “I don’t care who you are. When you sit down to write the first page of your screenplay, in your head, you’re also writing your Oscar acceptance speech.” Ultimately, she wrote – and wrote well, mark that – about sex without making us cringe, about love without a false note, about the past without leaving gauze on the lens.

She was romantic without lasting bitterness or fear, saw life clearly without fudging a word. We are at least left with her work, films and scripts, essays and books, and we are also left with hope, not the least because she was in her 40s when she wrote Silkwood. It is because she encouraged all of us to follow her own advice: “Above all, be the heroine of your life, not the victim.”