Things I Learned from Nora Ephron

Yesterday, we lost a great director/screenwriter/essayist/journalist. A woman of many titles, Nora Ephron died yesterday at the age of 71.

I have many friends who have cultivated, sophisticated tastes in films. They prefer French, Spanish, Swedish directors, they seek out films about war or existentialism or immigration or LGBT issues. They frequently watch foreign language films. If a character can choose to live at the end, but then die anyway, they are pleased.

I do not have this taste. I grew up on romantic comedies, and several of the ones that I watched over and over again were Nora Ephron films. As teenagers, my sister and I would make a big bowl of popcorn, over which we drizzled melted butter and so much salt, and we got a big stack of Oreos, and we watched movies. It didn’t matter if we had watched them dozens of times and could recite them forwards and backwards, we watched them again. Among our favorites were Sleepless in Seattle, You’ve Got Mail, and When Harry Met Sally. Stuffing handfuls of popcorn into our mouths, or slowly taking apart Oreos, we stared, transfixed, at the screen as Meg Ryan fell in love and out of love and in love and out of love, again and again.

And along the way, I learned things from these movies, from Nora Ephron. Without realizing it, I was learning about being human, being a woman, being in love, and alive, and complicated. And so, here’s a list of a few things that I learned from Nora Ephron.

  1. Nora Ephron taught me that nothing is unwritable. By which I mean, some of the most seemingly ordinary topics – movies, dates, clothing, etc. – make for great, revealing dialogue in films. And consequently, in stories as well. When I think back on Harry and Sally discussing their sex dreams, their first dates after their respective relationships fell apart, Casablanca, or art, I see that their characters are, ultimately, revealed through these conversations. And what’s more, these conversations fit easily into the film. They don’t feel imposed upon us. They feel natural, like real life.
  2. Nora Ephron, inadvertently, taught me to find my own style. Here’s the thing:  I’ve been watching Meg Ryan movies with a religious devotion for quite some time. And since Meg Ryan was in several of Nora Ephron’s movies, they have become inextricably linked to one another in my mind. And I have spent much of my adult life wishing I had Meg Ryan’s hair. I mean, look at it. City of Angels:  cute curls. [Note:  photos have been removed for copyright reasons. Apologies from the author.]

    Sleepless in Seattle:  long hair, two-toned but not tacky, wispy bangs that sort of broke out of the barrel-curl bangs of the time. Come on.

    And then, perhaps the best Meg Ryan hair of all, in You’ve Got Mail:  short, cute, piecey. I have tried this so many times and it never looks right!

    And then, what did Nora Ephron do? She gave me Amy Adams. After I thought my “hair thing” was over and done with and I could watch a Nora Ephron movie without pining for the heroine’s hair, Julie & Julia comes out with Amy Adams’s oh-so-cute hair.

    What this all eventually comes down to is a lesson that applies not only to my hair, but to all of life. I have to find my own style. I have to make my own rules for what works for me. I have to find the right hair product and style for my head and not try to have Meg Ryan hair. I have to make my own way in life, be the kind of writer that only I can be, do my relationships and career and education in a way that ultimately is my own.

    3. Nora Ephron taught me to value intelligence. You’ll notice, the heroines in her movies are never stupid. They’re educated women, usually working in careers that require long days/nights from them. In Sleepless in Seattle, Meg Ryan plays a journalist; likewise, in When Harry Met Sally, she plays… a journalist. In You’ve Got Mail, she’s a business owner. What business? A book shop. What does Julie Powell do? Well, she works as a temp for a post-9/11 advocacy group. But she also blogs, and she was a writer in college, and she becomes a writer again. (Nora Ephron didn’t come up with that, but she played it out for us, beautifully, in the film.) These women are smart, resourceful, quirky, strong-willed, and slightly obsessive, which I like. No wilting violets.

    4. Nora Ephron taught me about love. This may seem silly, or even just obvious, but it’s the truth:  I learned about love through watching those movies. In the short monologues by elderly couples in When Harry Met Sally, I learned about that special moment when someone knows they are in love. I watched Sleepless in Seattle and thought, wow, that kid believes so strongly in love that he flies alone to NYC to meet Annie in the Empire State Building, to lure his dad there, so that his dad will be happy. And likewise, Annie believes in love strongly enough to actually go there. It’s a gamble, and a contrived one, but she goes because there’s hope. In You’ve Got Mail, when Kathleen Kelly breaks up with her boyfriend (played by Greg Kinnear), he asks if there’s someone else for her. “No. No, but…” she says, “but there’s the dream of someone else.” The dream of someone, period, is the buy-in we put towards love. To imagine a life for ourselves that is intimately tied up in another person. Nora Ephron prepared me for such a thing.

    Nora Ephron | Pic from

    5. Nora Ephron taught me to have more than one iron in the fire. Nora Ephron was a screenwriter, a director, an essayist, a journalist. She didn’t stick with just one career; she had several. And when one tuckers out or hits a dry spell, you can always hop over to the next. In this way, one keeps from limiting oneself, painting oneself into a corner. Nora Ephron had a successful series of careers, all of which happened simultaneously.

    So there you have it. Nora Ephron taught me a great many lessons, some of which seem obvious, and others are more buried within the nuances of her films and her career. She leaves behind a great body of work, some truly fantastic writing, and an inspiration. And still, in my heart of hearts, the desire to obtain Meg Ryan hair, even while cultivating my own style, falling in love, doing it all, and believing it’s all possible. Not a bad legacy to leave behind, Ms. Ephron, at least in the life of this particular girl. Not bad at all.

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