Being Nora

“Do not go gentle into that good night… Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”

These iconic words of Dylan Thomas come to mind with the passing away of iconic figure, Nora Ephron on June 26, 2012. She effortlessly donned multiple hats of a screenwriter, journalist, playwright, novelist, “food person” and a director. Undoubtedly, the poster girl for an era of bold women, she redefined the concept of “feminist”. Her death has left a void.

In ‘When Harry Met Sally’, Meg Ryan says, “You don’t have to tell everybody everything that’s going on the minute it’s going on.” And that is exactly what Ephron did regarding her illness – she bravely kept it a secret. Only her direct family and a very few close friends knew that she had been diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia six years earlier. But if readers of her last book look back, in ‘I Remember Nothing’- a collection of her essays published in 2010- they would find some hints. For instance, the book ends with a list, “What I Will Miss.” Also in the last line of her acknowledgments, she subtly mentions: “And also, of course, my doctors.”

For someone who secretly knew of her sickness, she was mindbogglingly productive right till the very end. A couple of weeks before passing away, she apparently held long meetings from her hospital bed with producers regarding a show about bankers for HBO; she had just completed a play about the New York Daily News columnist Mike McAlary, to be played by Tom Hanks; and was smack in the middle of a screenplay of a film titled ‘Lost in Austen’, about a woman transported back to the world of Pride and Prejudice.

A feminist, she had begun to make a name for herself as a writer for Esquire and New York; with milestones like the self-deprecatory essay ‘A Few Words About Breasts’. Many years later, her perspective on women and unique style developed further in her book: ‘I Feel Bad About My Neck’, one of the wittiest and most brutally truthful accounts ever on the pain and angst of ageing in women. She candidly states: “There’s a reason why 40, 50, and 60 don’t look the way they used to, and it’s not because of feminism, or better living through exercise. It’s because of hair dye.” Despite state-of-the-art concealers, collagen injections and Botox, a woman’s neck mercilessly denotes her age, and Ephron is no less merciless in elaborating the point— “There are chicken necks. There are turkey gobbler necks. There are elephant necks. There are necks with wattles and necks with creases that are on the verge of becoming wattles.” Ephron talks of her fears of simple things like confronting a mirror, or having to rely on glasses to read, triggering instant empathy in the minds and hearts of women the world over.

As with all great writers, she went really personal with her work, specially her earlier book ‘Heartburn’, based on her failed second marriage to Carl Bernstein, who apparently had serious fidelity issues. It seems she was taking her own solid advice given by her to other women by being “the heroine of your own story, not the victim.” After the scathingly humorous remarks on marriage in this novel, luck was on her side with her next marriage to Nick Pileggi. When people asked her if they were actually as happy a couple as they appeared to be, she replied “No, we’re happier”.

This famous writer, equally famous for being a “foodie”, claimed: “I don’t think any day is worth living without thinking about what you’re going to eat at all times.” But people who knew her well say, that to her, the setting was more important than the food. She looked into the tiniest of details, like arranging for a round dining table so that dinner party guests could all partake in the same conversation together.

“She hosted a movie set the way she hosted a dinner party,” according to Meg Ryan, who in saying this, confirms the emerging pattern revealing that elements of her personal space spilled generously into her professional career . She took chapters from her own life and fashioned them into screenplays, creating strong female characters based on herself. But Hollywood ended up softening out the sharp edges that appear more clearly in her journalism which is much tougher and funnier than her films. Be that as it may, the films did go on to make Hollywood history.

With ‘When Harry Met Sally’, the hugely successful romantic comedy celebrated for featuring the most famous “orgasm” in cinema history, along with classics like ‘Sleepless in Seattle’ and ‘You’ve Got Mail’, Ephron was crowned as the queen of Romantic Comedies. With her last feature, ‘Julie and Julia’ she returns to her “foodie” self, telling the parallel stories of prominent food writer Julia Child and a young New Yorker Julie Powell, who sets out to cook her way through every recipe in Child’s cook book.

For someone so successful, it is touching to hear of her innermost fears: “Success comes and goes,” but “your flops stay with you for life.” The films that she would have been referring to, that apparently came under the ‘not-so-successful’ radar are ‘Michael’ and ‘Bewitched’. But if you ask me, I love them all, and I’m pretty sure I’m not alone.

This vibrant woman demonstrated a clear-eyed view of herself, with brilliance and fearlessness, blazing a trail for writers and filmmakers, inspiring people the world over to have the courage to celebrate and embrace life in all its complicated glory. Nora Ephron, you will be sorely missed.

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