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The Essentials: 5 Key Nora Ephron Films

Photo of Oliver Lyttelton By Oliver Lyttelton | The Playlist June 27, 2012 at 9:56AM

It's been touching to see the outpouring of love for Nora Ephron since the journalist, novelist, screenwriter and director passed away last night. Ephron's films have never really been particularly trendy; you're not going to find many hip young filmmakers naming her as an influence. But it's clear from the last twelve hours or so that there are few cinephiles that don't hold a few of her films close to their hearts. Ephron wasn't just the writer, and sometimes director, behind as string of classics, but she was also one of the most important women in the film industry across the last twenty years, and one of the most insightful writers of female characters that Hollywood has ever had.
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Nora Ephron

It's been touching to see the outpouring of love for Nora Ephron since the journalist, novelist, screenwriter and director passed away last night. Ephron's films have never really been particularly trendy; you're not going to find many hip young filmmakers naming her as an influence. But it's clear from the last twelve hours or so that most cinephiles hold at least a few of her films close to their hearts. Ephron wasn't just the writer, and sometimes director, behind a string of classics, she was also one of the most important women in the film industry across the last twenty years, and one of the most insightful writers of female characters that Hollywood has ever had.

Her big-screen work is only a drop in the ocean of a long and hugely impressive career; she was a prolific and brilliant prose writer, and anyone with even a slight interest in Ephron should seek out her essay collections -- particularly "Crazy Salad" and "I Feel Bad About My Neck." But to honor Ephron's passing, we wanted to highlight her contribution to five films in particular -- although there are many pleasures to be found in her other scripts and films too -- which truly demonstrate what an undeniable effect she had on the movies. Check them out below.

Silkwood
"Silkwood" (1983)
By the 1980s, Ephron had already started to dip her toe into screenwriting waters. She and then-husband Carl Bernstein had written a draft of "All The President's Men," in which Bernstein was a central character, and solo, Ephron penned an episode of a TV series based on the classic Tracy/Hepburn picture "Adam's Rib," starring Ken Howard and Blythe Danner, as well as the TV movie "Perfect Gentleman," starring Lauren Bacall and Ruth Gordon. In the early '80s, with her divorce from Bernstein wrapped up and novel "Heartburn" in the works, she was offered the chance to write "Silkwood" for Mike Nichols, and brought on her friend Alice Arlen (who'd later collaborate with her on "Cookie" as well) to help. Those who know Ephron purely from romantic comedies are in for something of a surprise; the film -- which tells the story of nuclear whistleblower Karen Silkwood (Meryl Streep), who goes against her employers to campaign for health and safety at the expense of personal relationships, and possibly even her own life -- is a serious-minded, important drama, something of an outlier on the Ephron resume. And yet you can absolutely feel her touch on the screenplay; her journalism background means that the true-life details are neatly and plausibly woven in, and it never feels contrived and bastardized-for-the-movies in the way other films of a similar nature can. Similarly, the emphasis not on the scope of the conspiracy, but on the people it affects -- not just Silkwood, but her boyfriend Drew (Kurt Russell), their friend Dolly (Cher), and others -- is masterfully knitted into the central relationships. For Nichols, Ephron and Arlen, the personal is very much political. We'd be remiss in not mentioning the performances too -- it's still one of Streep's very finest Oscar-nominated turns, and Russell and Cher are both excellent as well. Ephron got an Oscar nomination for her trouble, and put herself on the map as a screenwriter.

Heartburn
"Heartburn" (1986)
Three years on from "Silkwood," Ephron reunited with Nichols and Streep for a far, far more personal project; the adaptation of her 1983 novel "Heartburn," a (very) thinly veiled look at her marriage to Carl Bernstein. The pair had married at 1976, and had a son together, but Ephron was pregnant with their second child in 1979 when she discovered that Bernstein was sleeping with British journalist, TV producer and politician Margaret Jay. In the film version, Streep plays the Ephron surrogate, with Jack Nicholson (who replaced Mandy Patinkin, who was fired after filming began) as Mark Forman, the Bernstein surrogate. Nichols, an expert at crumbling marriages from "Who's Afraid Of Virginia Woolf" to "Closer," again took the helm. To say that the screenplay is Ephron's finest hour would be a little disingenuous; it's a bit directionless, and perhaps a little too close to the open wound to be truly honest (despite Nicholson's best efforts, Mark never becomes more than a philandering silhouette). But it's the first sign of the endlessly quotable dialogue that would truly make Ephron's name -- when Streep asks a pal of Nicholson's character "Is he single?" the response comes back "He's famous for it." And more importantly, there is a raw honesty to its depiction of marriage that lingers 25 years on -- Ephron makes the implosion feel fresh and funny even in the most painful moments, and rewatching it is a reminder of how anodyne most screen portrayals of marriage are. Streep is, as usual, superb, and the supporting cast further demonstrates that Ephron was incapable of writing an uninteresting character, with memorable performances from Jeff Daniels, Maureen Stapleton, Stockard Channing and, in his acting debut, "One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest" director Milos Forman (plus keep an eye out for early screen performances from Kevin Spacey and Tony Shalhoub). And of course, next time Ephron went back to the relationship well, she'd well and truly knock it out of the park...

This article is related to: Features, The Essentials, Nora Ephron


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