Last night when, following a lot of media speculation over that strange Liz Smith "obituary," it turned out that Nora Ephron had in fact died of leukemia, our hearts sank right along with the hearts of so many of her family, friends, colleagues, and fans. How to express our feeling for this woman whom we'd never had the pleasure of actually meeting, yet almost felt we knew? How could she know how much she'd done to impress upon us a sense of spirit in our lives as well as our own writing? We admired especially her dialogue, particularly in her movies, which we grew up on: her humor, the essential truths she revealed about human nature, her characterizations, warm at the same time sharp and incisive. Nora Ephron loved her characters, and so did we.
We remember those characters, but more importantly, we remember their words. "Waiter, there is too much pepper on my paprikash": You can even hear it being said aloud, right? (That's from When Harry Met Sally..., of course.) Or "Destiny is something we've invented because we can't stand the fact that everything that happens is accidental," from Annie Reed, played by Meg Ryan in Sleepless in Seattle. Note: the much-repeated line delivered by Rob Reiner's mother in When Harry Met Sally..., "I'll have what she's having," was not an original of Ephron's, in fact, but an improvisation from Billy Crystal. Nonetheless, her ear was uncanny, her magic with language an almost palpable kind.
Ephron left behind articles, essays, books, finished films and films still in the works; she also left behind her words. Some of the most pervasive of her sentences, those most deeply embedded in our cultural lexicon, are those spoken by those beloved characters in her films. These phrases are romantic, hilarious, discussable, and debatable—they are the ones that pop up again and again. It's not surprising that when the sad news broke last night, people immediately began sharing those words. Where did that come from? Often, the answer is Nora Ephron. We take a look at some of our favorites, and why.
"Men and women can't be friends, because the sex part always gets in the way." Harry Burns' pithy analysis of the male-female friend-or-lover struggle in When Harry Met Sally... answers a question that's been discussed in bars and therapists' offices for perhaps centuries, with no sign of an agreed-upon conclusion in sight. Is he right? Not sure: We're still talking about it.
"It's easier to be killed by a terrorist than it is to find a husband over the age of 40!" This line, a summation of a widely-debunked Newsweek finding from the 1980s, delivered by a co-worker of Annie in Sleepless in Seattle, is not Ephron's creation, but it's a quote we've heard over and again. Maybe because, as Annie's friend Becky adds, "That's right, it's not true, but it feels true." Thankfully, Ephron goes on to take down the stat in the plot of the movie itself. Other notable wisdom from Becky/Ephron: "Verbal ability is a highly overrated thing in a guy, and it's our pathetic need for it that gets us into so much trouble." Damn, girl.
On reading. In You've Got Mail, Kathleen Kelly says, "When you read a book as a child, it becomes a part of your identity in a way that no other reading in your whole life does." And while this was ostensibly a movie about that once-new technology, email, Ephron weaves IRL bickering about the old world of print through her Internet fable as her characters talk about, simply, how we buy our books. Kelly's (or Ephron's) words about reading still hold true even in an age of e-books.
"Shel? Sheldon? No, no, you did not have great sex with Sheldon." Another from the dialogue masterpiece When Harry Met Sally..., and another universal truth. Harry Burns says it best, this time, we think, indisputably: "A Sheldon can do your income taxes, if you need a root canal, Sheldon's your man... but humpin' and pumpin' is not Sheldon's strong suit. It's the name. 'Do it to me Sheldon, you're an animal Sheldon, ride me big Shel-don.' Doesn't work." (Any Sheldons out there disagree?)
On high school and boys and girls. Karen Silkwood says in Ephron's first film, which bears the character's last name: "I remember in high school her saying, 'Now what'd you want to take that science class for? There's no girls in that science class. You take home ec, why don't you? That's the way to meet the nice boys. 'Mom,' I said, There ain't no boys in home ec. The boys are in the science class.' She hated when I said, 'Ain't.'"
On having a dark side. "I have just as much of a dark side as the next person," says Sally Albright in When Harry Met Sally.., to which Burns responds, "Oh, really? When I buy a new book, I read the last page first. That way, in case I die before I finish, I know how it ends. That, my friend, is a dark side." Harry’s “dark side” is classic New York neuroticism, in the vein of Woody Allen, and something any aspiring or actual writer can relate to. We love that we get at the importance of reading again, here.
Kids talk, too. She might be more known for her spiky repartee between dueling couples, but Ephron had tween-speak down perfectly. Take this scene from Sleepless in Seattle, when Jessica, played by Gaby Hoffmann, is being interrogated by her parents and Jonah's dad about where his son has gone.
Jessica's Father: Jessica, this is your father. Tell us where he is, right this minute!
Sam Baldwin: What's that?
Jessica's Father: "No way."
Sam Baldwin: That's "N.W."!
Jessica: New York. He's on his way to New York.
Jessica's Mother: What? How?
Jessica: United, Flight 597.
Related: "H and G" = "Hi and goodbye." Ephron had TTYL (figuratively if not literally) before the rest of us, and honed in on that "Oh, God, Dad is so embarrassing" thing we all know, too. See also: Jonah Baldwin shouting "A ho! A ho! My dad's been captured by a ho!" LOL.
On communication in a dissolving marriage. From Heartburn, inspired by Ephron's first marriage to Carl Bernstein:
Mark Forman: He has an unlisted address.
Rachel Samstat: What are you talking about?
Mark Forman: Oh, well, it's the latest thing.
Rachel Samstat: What kind of person has an unlisted address?
Mark Forman: I'll tell you what kind person. The kind that doesn't want to be dead. The kind people are trying to kill all the time.
Rachel Samstat: Why are you angry at me for?
Mark Forman: I'm not angry at you.
Rachel Samstat: Then what you shouting at me for?
Mark Forman: Because you're the only one that's here.
On food. In a key scene in Julie & Julia, Paul Child asks Julia, "What is it you really like to do?" and Julia responds, "Eat!" Ephron herself was known for her love of food and cooking, and making and consuming food factored into many of her works, including recipes throughout Heartburn — here’s the one for linguine alla cecca. She had an eye unparalleled by the New York Times for food trends as well: Never forget tiramisu in Sleepless, or in When Harry Met Sally..., the declaration that "pesto is the quiche of the '80s."
Perhaps the best speech about unconditional love for neurotics ever delivered in a movie. From Harry Burns again, to Sally Albright: "I love that you get cold when it's 71 degrees out. I love that it takes you an hour and a half to order a sandwich. I love that you get a little crinkle above your nose when you're looking at me like I'm nuts. I love that after I spend the day with you, I can still smell your perfume on my clothes. And I love that you are the last person I want to talk to before I go to sleep at night. And it's not because I'm lonely, and it's not because it's New Year's Eve. I came here tonight because when you realize you want to spend the rest of your life with somebody, you want the rest of your life to start as soon as possible." In the world of Nora Ephron, there was someone for everyone, and the rest of your life could start whenever you decided you wanted it to.
And then there's the one that makes you cry. Sam Baldwin talking about how he's going to cope with the loss of his wife, in Sleepless in Seattle. "Well, I'm gonna get out of bed every morning... breathe in and out all day long. Then, after a while I won't have to remind myself to get out of bed every morning and breathe in and out... and, then after a while, I won't have to think about how I had it great and perfect for a while."
Thank you, Nora. Your words are great and perfect always.