Nora Ephron, the prolific writer and trailblazing filmmaker behind classics like Sleepless in Seattle and When Harry Met Sally, died Tuesday at age 71 in New York, where she was being treated for acute myeloid leukemia and pneumonia. Ephron began her career as an intern in the John F. Kennedy White House before becoming a journalist, and later, a screenwriter and director. She helmed eight films, including You've Got Mail and Julie and Julia, earned three Oscar nods (for writing Sleepless in Seattle, When Harry Met Sally, and Silkwood), and authored several self-deprecating books about her life, including Heartburn, about her failed marriage to Watergate journalist Carl Bernstein. Here, former colleagues and journalists remember Ephron's wit, perseverance in a male-dominated film industry, and reinvention of the romantic comedy:
She "had it all"
Though the media constantly warns that nobody can "have it all," Ephron did, says Carrie Fisher, who co-starred in When Harry Met Sally. "A writer, director, wife, mother, chef, wit — there didn't seem to be anything she couldn't do." And she didn't just "do it" — Ephron would "excel at it, revolutionize it, set the bar for every other screenwriter, novelist, director." That made her "inspiring, intimidating, and insightful."
She was a ton of fun
In every situation, Ephron "cocked her head and thought, 'Hmmmm, how can I make this more fun?" says Meryl Streep, who played a character based on Ephron in Heartburn and also starred in Julie and Julia. She was the go-to person to call for literally anything: "Doctors, restaurants, recipes, speeches or just a few jokes, and we all did it, constantly." Not only that, "she was an expert in all the departments of living well."
She lit up the room
Ephron "knew what was important to know; how things really worked, what was worthwhile, who was fascinating and why," says Tom Hanks and Rita Wilson, who both appeared in Sleepless in Seattle. Whether it was at a dinner party or on a film set, "she lifted us all with wisdom and wit, mixed with love for us and love for life."
She was revered by stars
"She was a brilliant writer and humorist," says Billy Crystal, who co-starred in When Harry Met Sally. "Being her Harry to [Meg Ryan's] Sally will always have a special place in my heart. I was very lucky to get to say her words."
She had an unrivaled ear for dialogue
"Ephron's witty way with words paved her career path," first as a journalist and then as a renowned screenwriter, says Susan Wloszczyna at USA Today. Her hit films "reinvented the banter-rich romantic comedies of the '30s and '40s for the modern era." She's also responsible for what may be "one of the most quoted lines of film dialogue ever": After Meg Ryan's Sally fakes an orgasm in a crowded New York deli, a nearby customer, overhearing the ecstatic shrieks, informs the waitress, "I'll have what she's having."
She had an unmistakable style
"The very mention of her name calls to mind a certain kind of movie, something you can't say about many filmmakers, regardless of gender," says Christy Lemire of the Associated Press. Those movies were "romantic comedies for smart women, about smart women" — female characters with the rare combination of "bite and vulnerability." The women may have been "a tad too hyper-analytical or neurotic but they were always highly verbal" and deserved their happy endings.
She changed the industry for women
Ephron wrote films that appealed to women, arguing that male filmmakers had little interest in portraying women except as "'girlfriends or wives,'" says John Horn and Rebecca Keegan at the Los Angeles Times. In a male-dominated industry, she became a box-office lock, establishing herself as "Hollywood's mother of modern romantic comedy." And "in a business that seems to have little room for women past middle age," Ephron was successful until the end, releasing Julie and Julia, the best-reviewed film of her career, when she was 68.
She was "Queen of Quips"
Ephron is "most famous, justly so, for her way with a quip," says John Williams at The New York Times. There's her indelible When Harry Met Sally quote, but it's one of thousands to be mined from her essays, screenplay, interviews, and appearances. In her 2006 essay collection I Feel Bad About My Neck, for example, she wrote, "When your children are teenagers, it's important to have a dog so that someone is happy to see you." Speaking of her time as an intern in the Kennedy White House, she recalled, "It has become horribly clear to me that I am probably the only young woman who ever worked in the Kennedy White House whom the president did not make a pass at."