How an enduring love of Julia Child became the famed filmmaker's final project, the Meryl Streep-led Julie & Julia — and why she considered it a "ninth cousin" to The Godfather.
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Silkwood, Heartburn, When Harry Met Sally..., Sleepless in Seattle, You've Got Mail: It's hard to imagine several decades of cinema without Nora Ephron's inimitable eye for the bitter and the sweet, wherever they might meet.

In a new biography out June 7, Kristin Marguerite Doidge traces the late journalist-cum-filmmaker's remarkable life, with a little help from friends and colleagues (Tom Hanks, Martin Short, Jane Lynch). Below, an excerpt from Nora on the making of Ephron's final film, Julie & Julia — which she saw through to the end as director, writer, and producer, even as she struggled with MDS, the rare blood cancer that would take her life in 2012.

Kristin Marguerite Doidge, Nora Ephron: A Biography Hardcover
Credit: Jorja Vornheder; Chicago Review Press

BUTTER

Nora's MDS diagnosis (or perhaps the treatments that helped control it) seemed to, ironically, have invigorated her even more. She was eager to work, and eager to mentor. Coming off the disappointment of Bewitched just a couple of years earlier she knew her next film project needed to be a hit — not just for the powers that be but for her own sanity and sense of accomplishment.

What had never failed her throughout the ups and downs of Hollywood or life itself? Her writing. She could always return to her writing. And she could seemingly always find a way to laugh at herself — even as she navigated what she considered to be some of the most dreadful parts of aging. Her witty collection of essays, I Feel Bad About My Neck: And Other Thoughts on Being a Woman, was released to critical acclaim in July 2006, and by September was listed at No. 1 on the New York Times nonfiction bestseller list.

"When she says that she can trace the history of the last 40 years through changing trends in lettuce, she isn't kidding," Janet Maslin wrote in a review for the Times. "Some things don't change. It's good to know that Ms. Ephron's wry, knowing X‐ray vision is one of them."

It was that X‐ray vision that had been piqued just a few years earlier when Nora read about [Julie] Powell, then just a blogger in Queens, in another Times article by food writer Amanda Hesser. On the verge of turning thirty, Julie was cooking her way through Julia Child's famed 1961 Mastering the Art of French Cooking cookbook, one recipe and one day at a time.

Nick [Pileggi, an Oscar-nominated screenwriter and her second husband] and Nora had a ritual in the mornings. They'd wake up, make coffee, and read the newspapers. Before long, Nora was at her desk writing — and Nick was typing away at his.

"Nick said he would be downstairs at [home in] East Hampton and he would hear the footsteps," Martin Short told me. "Now that she's up, she's had her coffee, and right to the desk and typing."

But on this particular day, Wednesday, August 13, 2003, the Hesser piece had caught her eye. A Race to Master the Art of French Cooking, the headline read.

The bravery of Powell's act astonished Nora. After all, she knew how incredibly time consuming and complex some of the recipes were — and she also knew more than a little something about using cooking to get through life events over which we don't have any control.

Powell found a friend in Julia just like Nora did. Not just any friend — someone to help her believe in herself. "I was drowning in the ocean and she rescued me," the fictional Powell tells her husband in the movie.

Like a thick stew, the ingredients of what would become Julie & Julia were slowly coming together.

"It's always hard to combine two stories," Nora told Variety. "But I was inspired by The Godfather: Part II. I consider this film a ninth cousin to that movie."

In truth, she was also inspired by The Hours. She initially thought it was a movie about a book, and then told food writers it was about food, "and I told the people at the Smithsonian that it was a movie about America," she explained to Charlie Rose.

That spring, Nora had run into actress Jane Lynch at the premiere of the Christopher Guest mockumentary A Mighty Wind. "Maybe we'll work together someday," Nora said.

Then, just a few years later, Lynch got a call. It was Nora.

"You're the tallest person I know," Nora told her. "How would you like to go to Paris and shoot a movie?"

"Oh, I would love to!" Jane replied.

Playing Julia Child's sister, Dorothy, Jane had a few seemingly tiny, but ultimately very important scenes to film alongside Meryl.

For producer Laurence Mark, who'd worked with Nora on Cookie back in 1989, it was about the sisters: Julia and Dorothy, and Nora and Delia. "The only scene we ever reshot in the entire movie was this tiny, tiny scene in front of the mirror where the two of them are getting ready for the party," he remembered. "She wanted to get it perfect."

"Pretty good," Julia says at the sight of herself and her sister dressed up in the mirror, "but not great."

For J.J., it's one of the scenes that personifies Nora most: it's about sisters and the way a few words can mean so much.

But as with any project Nora took on, the subject matter, and her signature warm delivery of it, was completely personal.

"I love food," Nora said. "I'm obsessed with food. I think about it constantly." She had a lifelong love affair with food, yes, but being in the kitchen was also a way of connecting to her past—and a way to perhaps make time stand still when there wasn't quite enough of it left.

In the script for Julie & Julia, Julie explains to her husband how when her mother made boeuf bourguignon when Julie was growing up it seemed that "everything was going to be all right." Could it have been the same feeling Nora had as a little girl herself — when Phoebe would dress up the table with her finest silver, and sing, and laugh?

Nora may have bristled at the notion that she was a typical child of alcoholics, but the gift of time travel of a taste or a familiar smell, to bring her mother back to her, is shared so beautifully and captured in this film in a way that's both personal and sweet without being excessively sentimental. She continued to make three recipes from Child's cookbook throughout her life: lamb stew, boeuf bourguignon, and chicken breasts with a cream‐and‐port‐ based mushroom sauce.

"I actually think whenever you cook in some strange way it's a form of time travel," Nora told NPR shortly after the film's debut in August 2009. "When I used to cook from Julia's cookbook, I had long imaginary conversations with her. And I used to think maybe she would come to dinner, even though I had never met her, and never did."

In truth, Nora actually was once invited to have lunch with the real Julia Child back in her early magazine journalism days. She never did make it to Boston for a visit, though, something she came to regret later.

Regrets aside, from the early scene of sole sizzling in golden butter, Nora was perhaps most proud of the fact that the movie celebrated what to her was a sacred part of life, love, and lunch: butter. "You can never have too much butter, that is my belief," Nora said. "If I have a religion, that's it."

And when Paul Child says, "You are the butter to my bread," that's about Nick, Amy Pascal said. When asked to provide life advice in six words or less, Nora simply replied: "Secret of life: marry an Italian."

"It's a kind of marriage that actually exists," she explained of both Julia Child and perhaps herself on Charlie Rose. "Thank god it does or people would accuse me of making this up. But there are guys who really do take enormous pleasure in their wives' growth."

With Nick, she was truly happy. "And happiness, even more than journalism, screenwriting, directing, cooking, blogging, was Nora's gift to her fans and to her friends," wrote family friend and writer Alessandra Stanley in the New York Times. "In 1986, when a Newsweek cover put a metaphorical bullet through the single career women over 40, she refuted all by herself the fear that powerful women repel men, that funny girls go home to their cats, that having it all means enjoying it alone."


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