Nora Ephron: Woman’s wit

Published on The Independent.co.uk, by Edward Helmore, 15 August 2009.

Heroine to a generation of wronged wives, the writer and director’s latest film has strengthened her claim to be the voice of liberal America.

Long before the release of her latest film, a unique mixture of sardonic wit and solidarity with scorned women brought Nora Ephron an unlikely coalition of fans.

But it is only now, with her direction of Julie & Julia, starring Meryl Streep and focused on the US cookery pioneer Julia Child, that the 68-year-old is being championed as something altogether more grandiose. Indeed, a growing band of her countrymen and women feel that, at a time of convulsion and change for their country, this east coast maverick has a reasonable claim to be the most perspicacious chronicler of the American zeitgeist. How did this come to pass?   

“So many of the conscious and unconscious ways men and women treat each other have to do with romantic and sexual fantasies that are deeply ingrained, not just in society but in literature,” she once explained. “The women’s movement may manage to clean up the mess in society, but I don’t know whether it can ever clean up the mess in our minds.”

Still, it is sometimes hard to know whether to believe her. For someone who is famously slight, she says she thinks about food all the time. “All I’ve been thinking about is what I should have ordered last night. I should have ordered the pasta bolognese, but I didn’t. I went for a steak. It was a very good steak, but in the end, I should have tried the pasta.”

Ephron told AP she views her entire life in terms of food: “I think that all of life is what you ate, what you wish you’d eaten, or how glad you are you ate it, and what you’re going to eat next.” Growing up in a home that was blighted by her parents’ chronic alcoholism, Ephron’s father ultimately helped her mother to kill herself with sleeping pills in 1971. “I was upset my mother had died – don’t get me wrong,” she told The New Yorker recently. “When that happened it was a moment of almost comic relief. It seemed entirely possible, in character, understandable, and I think we all filed it under Will I Ever Be Able to Use This in Anything.”

Assigned the task of decoding Ephron’s psychology, friend Joan Didion says: “I’ve never seen Nora in a low mood; she doesn’t show them. I don’t think she gets a lot out of guilt. Whatever secondary gain the rest of us get out it, Nora doesn’t; she leaves it alone. Isn’t that good?” Oddly, the very customers whom one could imagine welcoming a film about food – gastronomes and members of the slow food movement – aren’t so pleased. Julie Powell angered and alienated herself from the accepted thinking in a 2005 editorial in The Times in which she damned the “insidious … snobbery of the organic movement”.

Right or wrong, Ephron would at least understand. She used to keep a photograph of John “The Dapper Don” Gotti on her desk taken at the trial that marked the end of mobster’s life as a free man. Gotti carried himself with confidence even in defeat – setting a fine example for Ephron to follow. “He was walking out of the courthouse in the most perfect suit,” Ephron says. “And he looked so great.”

A life in brief: … (full text).

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