By Maureen Lee Lenker
April 03, 2019 at 10:30 AM EDT
YOU'VE GOT MAIL, Director Nora Ephron, on set, 1998. (c) Warner Bros./ Courtesy: Everett Collection.
Credit: Everett Collection
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There have been few voices as emblematic of the romantic comedy genre as Nora Ephron. As a writer, director, and producer, she brought us films like When Harry Met Sally, You’ve Got Mail, and Sleepless in Seattle — a body of work that Turner Classic Movies is celebrating at the 10th annual TCM Classic Film Festival, which takes place April 11-14 in Hollywood.

Many of the late filmmaker’s closest collaborators and family members, including producers Lynda Obst, Donald Lee Jr., and Lauren Shuler Donner and son Jacob Bernstein, will be on hand to celebrate Ephron over the course of the festival. Events include a panel titled “All About Nora” and screenings of Sleepless in Seattle and When Harry Met Sally, the latter of which is celebrating its 30th anniversary with an opening-night gala screening and a reunion of director Rob Reiner and stars Meg Ryan and Billy Crystal.

In spite of all of this, Ephron’s producers say the festival tribute is so crucial because it both enshrines her movies as the “classics” they are and gives Ephron her due at long last. Though Ephron was a box office powerhouse who earned three Oscar nominations (all for screenwriting), Donner, Obst, and Lee say she has only begun to receive the recognition she deserves as a groundbreaking artist in the years since her death in 2012, at 71.

“Nora was a pioneer,” says Lee, who produced You’ve Got Mail and Julie and Julia after meeting Ephron as an assistant director on Sleepless in Seattle. “You talk about breaking a glass ceiling.… She was her own voice. She wrote her own scripts. She produced and directed them. People are starting to realize her impact that they didn’t realize at the time.”

Obst, who produced Sleepless in Seattle and was one of Ephron’s lifelong friends, says simply that Ephron was “underestimated” while she was alive. “The box office loved her. Her audience loved her. But the genre itself was diminished at the time, and she never got the critics’ respect that she deserved,” Obst says. “She was doing a genre that both women critics and men critics felt very comfortable in putting down. So the quality of her wit, the perfect structure of her screenplays weren’t acknowledged as widely as they should have been.”

It’s a classic case of not knowing what we’ve got until it’s gone, Obst says. “In her absence, at the same time the rom-com had died, and we realized its avatar was gone,” she says matter-of-factly.

Sleepless In Seattle - 1993
Credit: Bruce McBroom/Tri-Star/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock

What was it that made Ephron’s work so singular and enduring? It was her voice — her sharp sense of humor and ability to pinpoint the idiosyncrasies of human relationships that both felt hyper-specific and utterly relatable. “In order to make a romantic comedy work,” says Donner, who recruited Ephron to co-write and direct You’ve Got Mail, “you need to be very specific in terms of how people do and do not go together well.”

“When you hear her dialogue, when you hear what she writes, it not only reflects her personal taste, her opinions, but it’s so observant and so current,” Lee adds. “She was always aware of the relationships between men and women and what was going on in the world, and she was a master of writing that in the scripts.”

Obst muses, “There are very few writers whose humor doesn’t come from pratfalls, butt jokes, and poop. Her jokes came from dialogue and character. And that takes a level of writing that I haven’t seen since she died. One of the things critics never understood about romantic comedies is that they’re structurally so demanding that to do them in a fresh way, to do them so they moved you, was harder than other forms.”

You've Got Mail - 1998
Credit: Snap Stills/REX/Shutterstock

As far as where that sharpness came from, producers point to Ephron’s training as a journalist, an early chapter of her career that shaped her skill at making wry observations about the people around her. Ephron began her professional life in the mailroom at Newsweek before frustrations with the publication’s sexist policies pushed her to a writing career at The New York Post and Esquire.

Lee speaks of Ephron’s uncanny ability to be close to the country’s biggest stories, whether it was the arrival of the Beatles or the Watergate scandal (which her second husband, Carl Bernstein, was instrumental in exposing). “Nora had this unbelievable ability of always being in the center of all these momentous changes,” he says. “She just somehow was always in the middle of it all, and with her acute awareness, and that is reflected in her writing.” As an example of her uncanny powers of observation, Lee notes that Ephron correctly insisted for years (based on an educated guess) that Mark Felt was Deep Throat.

Ephron’s collaborators agree that the years she spent honing her craft as a journalist were a crucial part of her knack for the written word. It was something Ephron regularly touted. “She spoke about it all the time,” says Lee. “She said everybody should work at a newspaper, everybody should work at a magazine. In her mind, that was her training ground.”

Obst adds, “Nora felt that her background as a journalist was essential to becoming a screenwriter. She told every young writer, screenwriter, aspirant who came to her for advice that they should start by being reporters. That by gathering facts and getting out of themselves and learning other people’s characters and other people’s motivations and learning when, why, where, and what, it would be the essential tools that they needed for screenwriting before they began creating scenes.”

It’s fitting that Ephron is finally getting her due at the TCM Classic Film Festival, given her roots in classic Hollywood. Her parents were screenwriters Henry and Phoebe Ephron, responsible for films like Desk Set, starring Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy, and the Take Her, She’s Mine, featuring Jimmy Stewart and Sandra Dee. Though her identity as a writer in later life painted her as a dyed-in-the-wool New Yorker, Ephron grew up in Beverly Hills, with folks like Cary Grant showing up at her house for parties.

Beyond story structure or themes, Ephron’s work is laden with debts to films of Hollywood’s Golden Age, whether it be You’ve Got Mail’s direct inspiration in The Shop Around the Corner or the strong ties between An Affair to Remember and Sleepless in Seattle. The TCM tribute comes as a bit of a full-circle moment, bringing her back to the place she started and the ethos of films that directly inspired her work.

“She grew up on those classic movies,” says Lee. “Her parents produced and wrote some of them, so she had a clear idea of Old Hollywood. She was criticized — at the time, people said her movies were old-fashioned, but old-fashioned because they made people happy. I think she was very conscious of that, of her upbringing, of being around the business and the movies that she loved, and she tried to continue that. Nora used to say there’s nothing wrong with making people happy.”

WHEN HARRY MET SALLY..., Meg Ryan, Billy Crystal, 1989, (c) Columbia/courtesy Everett Collection
Credit: Everett Collection

Obst gets emotional talking about her role in Ephron’s life and helping to oversee her first directorial efforts, noting that tributes like this and being singled out by Turner Classic Movies help ensure that Ephron’s work will live on. “A classic movie is a rare thing,” she says. “Nora saw herself as a citizen of the world, and her screenwriting is part of that. And her career, for that reason, has a tremendous humanity that [TCM is] recognizing. And I think that will help her live on through many more generations.”

Meanwhile, Donner calls the tribute and her role in it “bittersweet,” explaining, “It’s sweet to recognize her work, always, and very bitter that she can’t be a part of it.” But for all of them, this is a moment to call attention to what made Ephron a talent whose work merits the designation “classic.”

“She was a very singular voice, and there’s really nobody that can come close to replacing that voice,” says Donner. “She was just a giant in terms of her opinions and her thoughts on everything — on the culture, news, fashion, food, the literary world.”

For Lee, this string of festival events is all about giving Ephron recognition she never got in her own time. “That’s a wonderful body of work that not many people in Hollywood can lay claim to,” he stresses. “I just want to see her get her just due.”

But for Obst, who was perhaps closest with Ephron, it’s about celebrating all the pieces of Ephron that made her projects so unique: How her voice made her the best advisor, soul sister, and girlfriend who helped Obst get through everything from balancing motherhood and a career to hosting a dinner party to making a baked potato. Every moment of Ephron’s life was a testament to her skill as a writer and a director.

“What makes her a singular voice, both to me as a mentor and to me as a director and a writer, is she knew her point of view was so incredibly strong,” Obst says. “She knew right from wrong. She knew funny from not funny. She knew her instincts were unerring and never not confident. And that’s a director.”

A director worth calling classic, if TCM has anything to say about it.

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