Nora Ephron’s death last week was followed by a veritable deluge of tributes and memorial pieces both affecting and a bit bewildering. That’s not to gainsay Ephron’s achievements, but the public reactions to celebrity deaths follows an unpredictable path, and must ultimately be driven by pressures that have so far eluded all scientific attempts to explain them. Who can say why the public will go for years virtually ignoring an actor, only to burst into paroxysms of grief to learn that they’ve died? For that matter, why does the death of some pop stars elicit such strong reactions, while others who seem equally beloved (or ignored) pass from this mortal coil almost without notice? If one thing remains predictable, it’s our willingness to gloss over the complications.
Because it does no glossing, one of the most interesting tributes to Ephron was a piece offered up at the Paris Review blog by Matt Weinstock. The virtue of the piece lies in its recognition of the contradictions inherent in Ephron’s public persona. She was, without question, a woman of notable accomplishments, the most lauded being that she wrote, directed and produced films in Hollywood, where the glass ceiling is said to remain a foot or two lower than elsewhere in corporate America. Yet the body of work she left behind is of variable quality, to put it gently. The most durable of her films will likely be When Harry Met Sally, every bit as classic an example of the romantic comedy as His Girl Friday or Roman Holiday. Yet for those looking to make an auteur of Ephron, it is dismaying to find a body of work so small as to make clunkers like Bewitched and Michael virtually inescapable.
In that regard, “Nora Ephron’s Potato-Chip Legacy” strikes me as more honorable eulogy than most. Even for all of its personal digressions and the impersonal distance that stands between its author and subject, it does tribute to Ephron by its honesty. Ephron’s career, it tells us, was marked by contradictions.
The movies that are likely to define Ephron’s legacy for at least the foreseeable future are all romantic comedies. Think of them as the Meg Ryan trilogy: When Harry Met Sally, Sleepless In Seattle, and You’ve Got Mail. This, for Weinstock, is the signature irony attending Ephron’s life. He quotes a passage from her novel Heartburn and remarks:
Seeing Ephron gab about “unrealistic notions about romance” in 1983 is rather like hearing those reports that the young L. Ron Hubbard told friends, “If you want to get rich, you start a religion”—and it hints at the nagging contradictions of Nora Ephron’s life.
In 1993, Ephron scoffed when a Rolling Stone reporter suggested that she might gain a reputation as “some queen of romance.”
But here we begin to see the tidal force of genre. It is virtually indisputable that the pull of genre shaped the reception of Ephron’s work, such that even influential works like Heartburn have been utterly eclipsed by the Meg Ryan trilogy. As Weinstock would have it, the same pull determined the direction of Ephron’s life as well. From her mother’s demand that she “Turn it into a funny story” to her own writerly transformation of pessimistic cyphers of herself in the rom-coms she wrote, Ephron left ample evidence that she had been tracking genre in her very mode of existence.
She was, of course, too intelligent and self-conscious a person not to work some awareness of that into her scripts. As Weinstock puts it:
Ephron’s characters are constantly forsaking reality in favor of pop-culture-dispensed dreams. The leads in her movies slavishly imitate their idols—from Julia Child to Deborah Kerr to Samantha Stevens—without realizing that they’re more complicated and charming than their role models (the one exception, of course, is Julie Powell: she is an irredeemable dud). Ephron heroines are frenzied, interesting people desperate to couple off so that they no longer have to be interesting.
Yet, the genre remains unsubverted – or, at best, only partly subverted. The final passages in Weinstock’s piece are about the effect Ephron’s movies had on his own romantic life, how they “presided over this future.” He describes ill-considered flirtations that, in retrospect, may have been motivated less by a clear romantic interest than by the desire to have a story worth telling.
Therein lies the curious risk of genre. There is no harm in it, save that we want to live it. Some people do live a genre, and live it successfully. It’s difficult to hear anecdotes about Ephon’s marriage and not see them in terms of a romantic comedy. But the desire to live a genre can trump our willingness to live with authenticity. We want so badly for our circumstances to fall into a particular pattern, that we can no longer trust our own motives. The things we seem to want pale in the face of the overarching pattern of a life.
That, perhaps, is what has kept so many eulogizers from broaching the contradictions in Ephron’s work. After all, eulogy is itself a genre.