Nora Ephron, a Writer Who Made Sure the Joke Was On Her

In the trailer for the film “Everything Is Copy,” Nora Ephron describes writers. 

“Writers are cannibals,” Ephron says. “They really are. And if you are friends with them and you say anything funny at dinner or anything good happens to you, you are in big trouble.”

Ephron knew from experience. Her writing career took off when, in the 1960s and 1970s, she wrote essays and celebrity profiles for Esquire magazine. 

No person or topic was untouchable for Ephron, including herself. The May 1, 1972, issue of Esquire carried an Ephron piece titled, “A Few Words About Breasts.” 

In it, Ephron shares her experience of having a smaller chest than many other women. The approach was typical Ephron, making herself the butt of a joke. 

As she later said, “When you slip on a banana peel, people laugh at you. But when you tell people you slipped on a banana peel, it’s your laugh.”

“Writers are cannibals.” — Nora Ephron
Nicholas E. Barron © 2021

Nora Ephron Goes to Hollywood

In her writing, Ephron did what she knew best, tapping her personal life. Her first novel, Heartburn, is a fictionalized, humorous telling of her divorce from the Watergate-famous reporter Carl Bernstein after Bernstein had an affair.

A film of the same name starring Merryl Streep and Jack Nicholson hit theaters in 1986. 

“I highly recommend having Meryl Streep play you,” Ephron said. “If your husband is cheating on you with a carhop, get Meryl to play you. You will feel much better.”

Ephron wrote the script for “Heartburn,” but it wasn’t her first screenplay. Back in 1976, when she was still married to Bernstein, she worked with him on a screenplay for “All the President’s Men.” Unfortunately, the studio didn’t use the couple’s script. Still, the experience launched Ephron’s film career.

She wrote the script for the 1983 film “Silkwood,” earning Ephron her first Oscar nomination for Best Screenplay. “Heartburn” followed, then Ephron wrote, “When Harry Met Sally.” 

The movie starred Meg Ryan and Billy Crystal, and it cemented Ephron’s status as a Hollywood hitmaker. Ephron’s later films include “Sleepless in Seattle,” “You’ve Got Mail,” and the 2009 movie “Julie & Julia.”

Ephron returned to publishing, though, in the 2000s. She produced two essay collections, one in 2006 and the other in 2010. Both became bestsellers.

True to form, Ephron had no qualms making herself the punchline. 

“Why do people write books that say it’s better to be older than to be younger? It’s not better,” she wrote in her 2006 collection, I Feel Bad About My Neck. “Even if you have all your marbles, you’re constantly reaching for the name of the person you met the day before yesterday.”

There’s one thing Ephron didn’t share with the public, though. In 2006, doctors diagnosed Ephron with a rare blood disorder. Initially, doctors gave the writer six months to live. But, instead, she made it six years, passing away in 2012.

“When you tell people you slipped on a banana peel, it’s your laugh.”

Nora Ephron

She Made Life More Fun

Four years later, the film “Everything Is Copy,” aired on HBO. Directed by Ephron’s son, Jacob, the documentary focuses on Ephron’s life. The movie takes its title from a lesson that Ephron’s mother, Phoebe, shared with her four daughters. 

Phoebe was a writer. She told her daughters that “everything is copy,” meaning writers should tap all aspects of life in their work. The lesson stuck with Nora, whose writing delivered some of the most beloved films of the late twentieth century. 

Throughout “Everything Is Copy,” movie stars and directors talk about Ephron’s impact on their lives and work. Steven Spielberg relays that he sought Ephron’s approval by trying to make her laugh.

And Meryl Streep says of her friend, “Nora just looked at every situation and cocked her head and thought, ‘Hmmmm, how can I make this more fun?’”

This article originally appeared on Medium.