Wednesday, June 27, 2012

What I learned from Nora Ephron

Many people are sad about Nora Ephron dying this week.  The culture will have a big gap in it with her gone.  I really do believe that.  I have a lot of friends who absolutely adored Sleepless in Seattle, or You've Got Mail or even When Harry Met Sally.  And those are all good movies.  Nora was an excellent writer and she influenced a particular style of women's writing I believe.  Mindy Kaling (one of the great writers from The Office), Tina Fey and Kristen Wiig have all cited Nora as an influence.  She sort of blazed a trail for good and funny women's perspectives.  And she wrote FOR women, she wrote movies women paid to see, and maybe men too, but they were a women driven market.

But I learned something from Nora Ephron in a different sort of way.  Many years ago I rented a movie called "Heartburn".  That movie is pretty fantastic.  It stars Meryl Streep and Jack Nicholson.  And it's about Nora's life.  Not her pretend life or a the life of a character, but her for real, not so perfect, life.

In Heartburn (based on the novel by the same name, which Nora wrote and then later was adapted to the movie) the main character, based on Nora ends up dating and marrying a fairly important journalist who lives in Washington DC.  In real life Nora dated and married Carl Bernstein after a failed first marriage.  As you might recall, Bernstein was one of the journalists who broke the Deep Throat/Watergate Break-in story.  Anyway, the movie and the novel are about how deeply and madly in love Nora falls.  Then how cozy everything is for a while.

There are some scenes from that movie that I still think of quite regularly.  There's a scene where they eat cold pasta in bed together and it's so romantic and great.  You can just watch Jack Nicholsons character fall fast and hard for Streep.  It's really lovely.

And they do the whole american dream thing - they buy a fixer-upper row house in Washington DC, get pregnant, have dinner with friends and settle in to what should be a fantastic life.

Except it isn't.  Her husband ends up falling for someone else.  Someone ridiculous.  He just ends up being - well, there's no other nice way to say it - an ass.

Bernstein threatened libel over the publication of the book and the film.  But her never got around to making good on his threat.  Ephron seemed pretty sure of herself and not too worried about what old Carl thought about it.

But what I loved about her story - about the movie, and I later read the book, was how honest Nora was about all of it.  It was terrifically painful.  It hurt a lot.  She had to go to therapy.  She wasn't sure how she was going to get through it but she knew she had to do it.

Ephron later credited her successful 3rd marriage to painful lessons learned in marriage 1 and 2.  But she never forgot the pain of divorce.  She even recently helped the Huffington Post with it's Divorce Page, offering some sage advice now and then.  Her divorces always informed her view a little.

I find it admirable, that the person credited with writing some of what we consider the most romantic modern comedies - the original "chick flicks" if you will, suffered through some pretty painful romances herself.  She never gave up on life.  She used that pain to rise above.

About once a year for most of my life I've watched Heartburn - when it's on TBS, or rented it, or recently, Netflixed it.  It's a powerful movie.  It was powerful before I ever went through a divorce and it's even more powerful now.  I don't know.  It sticks with you.  Maybe it's the powerhouse combination of Streep and Ephron.  But it's something special.  It's not cheerful by any means.  In some ways, it's darned depressing.  It gives you  a look at the dark side of the dream and it makes you shudder a little.  But I'm of the opinion that sometimes we need that - sometimes we need to look at that dark side if only to acknowledge it's existence.

So we'll miss you Nora.

A big thanks from me for helping me see that women are sometimes stronger than they think.  Romance isn't dead.  But it sure is important to be strong in the midst of adversity.  Don't give up on your dreams, but don't be stupid either.  And most important; take care of yourself.  No one is ever going to do it as well as you can.

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