Sunday, April 20, 2014

Celebrating The Least of Nora Ephron (Ava and C.I.)

Director Nora Ephron passed away June 26, 2012.  Her films include Sleepless in Seattle, You've Got Mail, Michael and Julie & Julia.  Prior to directing, Nora had been a writer.  She wrote for The New York Post and then moved over to covering women's issues for Esquire magazine where she later became a media critic.  Then she moved on to writing screenplays such as Silkwood (with Alice Arlen) and, most famously, When Harry Met Sally . . .

As a director, Ephron became part of a small group of women who directed films which passed the $100 million mark in ticket sales domestically.  Penny Marshall got there first with Big.  Others include Penelope Spheeris (Wayne's World), Nancy Meyers (What Women Want, Something's Gotta Give and It's Complicated). Amy Heckerling (Look Who's Talking), Betty Thomas (Dr. Dolittle and Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakquel), Anne Fletcher (The Proposal), Mimi Leder (Deep Impact).  (Penny Marshall also directed the blockbuster A League of Their Own.) Thus far, none of the directors listed (including Ephron) have been the subject of a book examining the body of their film work.

Nora was the source for a 2013 book which focused on her writing.  As a writer, she was known for her humor and wit and that shines through in The Most of Nora Ephron which Knopf published October 13 of last year.

Robert Gottlieb writes the intro for the collection and he picked what was included.

He did a poor job, a very poor job.

If you have Crazy Salad (in any of its forms), you've got the basic writings included in The Most of Nora Ephron (which, by the way, has a hefty list price of $35).  If, at some point in the 80s or 90s, you bought Nora Ephron Collected, you've got even more of the book.

Book?  Nora wrote one novel, the wickedly funny Heartburn which primarily focused on her divorce from her second husband,  journalist Carl Bernstein.  Bernstein had no real objection to the book but he made a nuisance of himself when Mike Nichols attempted to film the novel.  Ephron, who wrote the screenplay, would be slammed by critics who didn't seem to realize she was under the threat of legal action which turned a hilarious novel into a don't-go-too-far-with-the-male-character script.

For some reason, Heartburn's included in The Most of Nora Ephron.

'Of course it is!' you exclaim, thinking we mean a cutting, an excerpt.

No, the entire novel.

Also included is the entire screenplay of When Harry Met Sally . . . and Ephron's play Lucky Guy.

It might have made more sense to do cuttings and offer samples of the play and samples from the screenplays she wrote and co-wrote.

If you're new to Nora, this collection will entertain you.

Nora was honestly funny -- not ironic, not whimsical, funny.  And she had a point of view and a voice which was consistent throughout her writing.  And when she was on fire, she burned from the intro to the last sentence.  This is most obvious with "Upstairs Downstairs:"

My friend Kenny does not feel as bad about the death of Hazel as I do.  My friend Ann has been upset about it for days.  My friend Martha is actually glad Hazel is dead.  I cried when Hazel died, but only for a few seconds, partly because I wasn't at all surprised.  About three months ago, someone told me she was going to die, and since then I have watched every show expecting it to be her last.  Once she stuck her head into a dumbwaiter to get some food for James, who had finally recovered enough from his war injuries to have an appetite, and I was certain the dumbwaiter was going to crash onto her head and kill her instantly.  Another time, when she and Lord Bellamy went to fetch James from a hospital in France (and Hazel and Georgina had a fight over whether he should be moved), I was sure the ambulance would crash on the way back.  Hazel lived on, though, show after show, until there came the thirteenth episode.  As soon as they mentioned the plague, I knew that would be it.  It was.  The particular plague Hazel died of was the Spanish influenza, which, according to Alistair Cooke, was the last true pandemic.  I was sorry that Alistair Cooke had so much more to say about the plague than he did about the death of Hazel, but perhaps he has become wary of commenting on the show itself after everyone (including me) took offense at some of the things he had to say about George Sand.

The essay is about PBS' Upstairs, Downstairs series -- a British import like Downton Abbey, but one even more popular and one which swept up many an Emmy in the 70s.

That paragraph above, her opening to the essay, is something of a prose miracle.  It pulls you in a variety of directions all at once.

It's one of Nora's finest essays.

Which, of course, means it's not included in The Most of Nora Ephron.

'Ava, C.I., your personal favorite wasn't included?  Wah! You're going to give it a bad review for that?'


"Upstairs, Downstairs" was first collected in Nora's Scribble Scrabble.

That is her finest collection, the one where her bravery really shines.

When Nora showed honesty writing about tits ("A Few Words About Breasts"), for example, the literary world could cheer.  And, of course, "A Few Words About Breasts" is included in the new mammoth book.

But the reason the essay works is largely due to its self-honesty.  That includes the cruel advice Nora received.  It was an honest voice Nora sought in all of her work.

And to write, as she did, in the 70s was something new and novel and as important to 'New Journalism' as anything any man was doing at that time.

She was frequently accused of crossing a line in real time.  Her piece on vaginal sprays, for example, received major pushback. "Dealing With The, Uh, Problem" is not included -- are you surprised?  (We're not either.)

If you're going to honor Nora's writing, you honor the bravery.

That doesn't happen here.

Nora's most important piece of journalism was when she was writing for Esquire.

There was a major scandal taking place.

A man, a reporter, had leaked a Congressional report to the press (after his own network had refused to cover the report) and, when questioned by his network, the man blamed and accused Lesley Stahl.  That's not the only colleague he burned.

And Nora outlined everything in "Daniel Schorr:"

The plot is a simple one: a reporter whose obsession with scoops occasionally leads him to make mistakes develops an obsession about a secret document and makes several terrible blunders that lead to his downfall.  What happened to Dan Schorr is a real tragedy, but only because he did so much of it himself. 

It's a tight essay, a truth-telling masterpiece.

It takes courage to write what she wrote.  Schorr was a sacred cow to some.

And that's why Esquire refused to run the essay.

She could have backed down.  It wasn't a piece that would make friends.  She wrote it, her magazine turned it down, she could turn her focus to something else.

But like Annie in Sleepless In Seattle, Nora didn't back down and when someone tried to intimidate her, they quickly learned just how strong and resourceful she could be.

With Esquire refusing to publish it, Nora took it to the journalism review magazine More where it was published.

Times really haven't changed all that much.

Daniel Schorr was a trashy person with no ethics.  Thanks to that, the Pike Report (on the CIA) became public.

That didn't make Schorr a hero unless you were one of the simpletons who needed your Little Golden Book understanding of the world.

We like Michael Ratner (Center for Constitutional Rights) but he is one of those people who needs a very clearly drawn hero and will get very upset (look at how he's responded to criticism of Julian Assange) when people dare to question a fairytale.

For Nora, truth was truth.

And you were either someone who told it or you didn't.

That's why she could take on feminism -- yes, she could be critical of it even though she was a staunch feminist -- that's why she could take on anything.

Her media criticism -- especially "Daniel Schorr" -- stands, even now, as some of the sharpest the nation has produced.

And The Most of Nora Ephron fails as a collection because, despite featuring 557 pages of Nora's writing, the collection refuses to include the essay that shows  how fiercely honest Nora was, the value she placed on truth, and that she didn't back down.

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