Biography

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2214

Article abstract: Known for her critical, comedic observations in magazine writing and films, Ephron is one of Hollywood’s most successful screenwriters and directors.

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Early Life

Nora Ephron was born in New York City on May 19, 1941, the eldest of four daughters of screenwriters Henry Ephron and Phoebe Wolkind Ephron. Henry, whose plays had not been produced, worked in the New York theater as stage manager for playwright George S. Kaufman and director Moss Hart.

When Nora was born, Phoebe rejected full-time motherhood, and Phoebe and Henry began their lifelong collaboration. The Ephrons’ play Three’s a Family focused its comedy on the addition of a baby to a household. The play was produced on Broadway, winning the Ephrons a motion picture contract with Twentieth Century-Fox. In 1944, they moved to Hollywood with daughter Nora.

Phoebe and Henry collaborated on screenplays for films such as The Desk Set (1957) and Carousel (1956). The Ephron family was close-knit; dinner had a talk show atmosphere, and the four children competed for attention by telling amusing anecdotes about their daily activities or arguing about politics. The children were encouraged to be interesting and amusing, and three of the four daughters became writers.

Nora Ephron cites her mother as a role model, a working mother in an era when most women were housewives. Phoebe passed on the Ephron philosophy of life and art: to use one’s experiences as a basis for writing. Like her parents, Nora often collaborated in her screenwriting, once with her sister Delia Ephron. Her three marriages have been to writers.

Nora grew up in Beverly Hills, as part of an upper-middle-class Jewish milieu in the shadow of the film industry. At Beverly Hills High School, Nora edited the front page of the school newspaper, having discovered that she wanted to be a journalist at age thirteen. She also published news and sports stories in the Los Angeles Times. Her idol was satirist Dorothy Parker, the quintessential New York writer, and New York was her spiritual home.

In 1958, Nora entered Wellesley College in Massachusetts, and she was graduated in 1962. She later wrote that Wellesley taught women to restrain themselves, to be too polite. Nora’s letters home from college became the basis for her parents’ Broadway hit comedy Take Her, She’s Mine (1961).

Life’s Work

While in college, Nora Ephron worked one summer as a copy girl for CBS in New York. After being graduated, she was hired by Newsweek to work in the mail room and was eventually promoted to researcher. In 1963, she was hired as a general assignment reporter by the New York Post, writing short pieces. After two years, she was assigned her first series. Ephron values this period of honing her craft, of learning to condense and research thoroughly. She began to submit articles to magazines.

In 1968, Ephron left the Post to work full-time as a freelancer, writing profiles of celebrities. Ephron’s authorial voice emerged as she used her barbed humor to make serious comments on a variety of popular culture topics: mass media, show business, the worlds of fashion and food, and popular novels. She defended her interest in popular culture by declaring it trivial but as much a part of her life as world politics.

In 1970, Ephron published a collection of articles, Wallflower at the Orgy. The title reflected what she called her journalistic detachment, meaning not objectivity (which she did not deem possible) but a sense of the absurdity of life that tended to make her a witness of events rather than a participant. She claims that it took years for her to use the word “I” in her writing.

Ephron makes use of her direct experience in a harrowing account of a beauty makeover. A piece on Helen Gurley Brown, editor of Cosmopolitan magazine, recounts Ephron’s own experience of being edited by Brown. Her analysis of the cult popularity of writer Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead (1943) mentions her own adolescent fascination with the novel. Her interview with film director Mike Nichols is a conversation; Ephron is not the invisible interviewer.

In 1972, Ephron joined the staff of Esquire magazine as contributing editor, writing a column on women’s issues for the male-oriented publication. Joining New York magazine in 1973, Ephron continued to write on women. Twenty-five of Ephron’s columns for Esquire are collected in her book Crazy Salad: Some Things About Women (1975).

Ephron’s essays here take a personal tone. The lead essay, “A Few Words About Breasts,” describes her own experiences as an adolescent growing up in the American culture of the 1950’s. Even in adulthood, her small breast size figured in competitive interactions with women as well as in relationships with men. For Ephron, observation of her personal experience became an avenue for reporting general cultural phenomena surrounding women. “Fantasies” poses the problem of the contradiction between feminist politics and a culturally induced desire to be dominated.

Ephron’s observations of the political maneuverings of women’s movement leaders at the 1976 Democratic Convention were criticized as a betrayal of the movement. In “Truth or Consequences,” Ephron explores the tension she felt between her professional commitment as a journalist to report the truth and her political commitment as a feminist. She ultimately comes down on the side of truth-telling.

In essays such as “Vaginal Politics,” on the women’s medical self-help movement, and “On Consciousness-Raising,” Ephron mounts a cautious critique of the movement’s tendency to dissolve into personal narcissism.

Returning to Esquire in 1974 as senior editor, Ephron began a column on media; twenty-five of the resulting pieces are collected in Scribble Scribble: Notes on the Media (1978). Ephron criticizes editorial policies that degrade newspaper journalism into gossip. She also tackles off-beat media targets: conflicts of interest in food writing; authors of double-crostic puzzles; a Palm Beach, Florida, society paper; and an apartment newsletter. Her last piece, “Enough,” ends the column by deploring the transformation of journalists into celebrities who, Ephron insists, should not be treated as more interesting than the stories they cover.

Ephron’s second husband, Carl Bernstein, was himself a celebrity journalist who, with fellow investigative reporter, Bob Woodward, had broken the Watergate story that ended Richard Nixon’s presidency. When All the President’s Men was adapted for film, Bernstein and Ephron prepared a draft of the script, rewriting the original screenplay by writer William Goldman. Ephron claims that rewriting Goldman’s script was like taking a course in screenwriting from a master.

Ephron’s first credited script was for a film made for television, Perfect Gentlemen (1978), starring Lauren Bacall, about four women who break into a hotel safe. Her cinematic breakthrough was a collaborative script with writer Alice Arlen for Silkwood (1983). Directed by Mike Nichols, the film starred Meryl Streep as activist Karen Silkwood, who died on her way to a meeting with a reporter to expose criminal activities at the nuclear power plant where she worked. Critics noted the nonidealized depiction of the working-class heroine. Ephron and Arlen were nominated for an Academy Award for the screenplay.

In 1979, Ephron’s marriage to Carl Bernstein broke up, and Ephron moved back to New York with her two sons. As a single parent, she wrote screenplays to support herself, including an uncredited draft of Compromising Positions (1983). Between screenplays, Ephron worked on a novel, Heartburn (1983), which is widely regarded as a roman à clef based on the breakup of her marriage. In the novel, Rachel Samstat, a cookbook author, discovers her husband, a political columnist, in an affair with a Washington socialite. The novel, which quirkily contained Rachel’s recipes, was on The New York Times best-seller list for twenty-seven weeks.

Ephron adapted the screenplay for Heartburn (1986), which starred actors Meryl Streep and Jack Nicholson and was directed by Mike Nichols. Critics noted that the film did not retain the Jewishness of the milieu depicted in the novel.

Ephron received another Academy Award nomination and won the British Oscar for best screenplay for her script for the blockbuster comedy When Harry Met Sally (1989). Ephron based the character of Harry on conversations she had with director Rob Reiner and producer Andy Scheinman about their lives as single men. The romantic comedy that emerged starred Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan as friends who test their friendship through a sexual relationship.

With collaborator Alice Arlen, Ephron cowrote the screenplay for Cookie (1989), a comedy by director Susan Seidelman starring Peter Falk as a Brooklyn mobster. Cookie, the mobster’s free-spirited daughter, reared by his mistress, becomes her father’s getaway driver. Ephron and Arlen based the script on crime reporting by Ephron’s third husband, writer Nicholas Pileggi. The two female characters are surprisingly tough women in conventional sexpot packaging.

Ephron’s next screenplay was another comedy, My Blue Heaven (1990), directed by Herbert Ross and featuring comedians Steve Martin and Rick Moranis. Ephron participated in the casting when she convinced Martin to take the role of a Mafioso who is relocated to a small town by the Federal Witness Protection program. He had originally been slated to play the repressed FBI agent.

Ephron often commented on the lack of control that a screenwriter has over the finished product, noting that a film becomes the creation of the director and actors. In 1989, she signed a contract with Columbia Pictures to write and direct two films. This Is My Life (1992), Ephron’s directorial debut, was cowritten with her sister Delia. Because of a change in studio ownership, the picture almost was not made; eventually, Twentieth Century-Fox agreed to finance the picture.

The script, adapted from a novel by Meg Wolitzer, follows the career of a stand-up comedian and single mother, played by Julie Kavner, and examines how that career affects the lives of her children. Ephron and her sister claim their childhood experience as a source, but Ephron also identifies closely with the plight of the working mother whose professional successes spell absence from children, citing balancing career and home as the quintessential problem of contemporary women.

Ephron’s second film as director was the hit comedy Sleepless in Seattle (1993), released by Tri-Star Pictures. The screenplay, by Jeff Arch, David Ward, and Ephron, depicts the love story between a Seattle widower, played by Tom Hanks, and a Baltimore journalist, played by Meg Ryan, who hears the widower reveal his feelings on a radio talk show. The film was one of seven films that grossed more than $100,000,000 in 1993.

Summary

A best-selling novelist, magazine journalist, screenwriter, and film director, Nora Ephron has achieved extraordinary commercial success in a variety of competitive, male-dominated fields. Her authorial voice, which addresses serious issues comedically, has contributed to blockbuster films When Harry Met Sally and Sleepless in Seattle and has led to two Academy Award nominations for best screenplay (Silkwood and When Harry Met Sally). Ephron is among the highest-paid screenwriters in Hollywood and is a highly successful director, known for her comedic portrayals of contemporary lifestyles and gender relations. Her women are strong but nonidealized constructions.

As a journalist, Ephron covered the women’s movement with a critical voice that found much to defend as well as to criticize. She deplored what she feared was the movement’s degeneration into personal narcissism and lack of humor, believing that humor might accomplish more than polemics.

Ephron covered popular culture at a time when it was not taken seriously as a topic for commentary. She used her interest in the popular and the everyday to explore the cultural worlds that women are expected to inhabit.

Bibliography

Ephron, Henry. We Thought We Could Do Anything: The Life of Screenwriters Phoebe and Henry Ephron. New York: W. W. Norton, 1977. Ephron’s father relates the story of his and his wife’s lives and careers, including material on Nora’s childhood and social life. The book contains Henry Ephron’s occasional comments on Nora’s adult sense of herself, as well as an epilogue by Nora Ephron in which she discusses her mother as a role model.

Ephron, Nora. Crazy Salad: Some Things About Women. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1975. This collection contains many autobiographical pieces, such as “A Few Words About Breasts,” “Reunion,” “Fantasies,” and “On Never Having Been a Prom Queen.”

Ephron, Nora. Heartburn. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1983. Ephron’s novel is widely considered a roman à clef about the breakup of her marriage to Carl Bernstein.

Palmer, William J. The Films of the Eighties: A Social History. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1993. With chapters such as “The Yuppie Texts” and “Neoconservative Feminist Texts,” this social and political analysis covers films of the time period. Admiring Silkwood for its working-class and anti-corporate perspective and its accuracy, the author sees Heartburn as a yuppie film in which having a good job makes up for personal failings.

Walker, Nancy. “Ironic Autobiography: From The Waterfall to The Handmaid’s Tale.” Women’s Studies 15, nos. 1-3 (1988): 203-220. Walker analyzes Ephron’s novel Heartburn, comparing it to novels by authors Margaret Atwood, Fay Weldon, and Margaret Drabble. Walker sees these novels as employing an ironic autobiographical approach in which a narrator presents a split self who comments on her own embeddedness in a feminine cultural system. The humor generated by this comedic irony undermines the authority of male-dominant definitions and becomes a means for the female characters to control their stories and ultimately their lives.

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Critical Essays