Nora Ephron: Woman's wit

Heroine to a generation of wronged wives, the writer and director's latest film has strengthened her claim to be the voice of liberal America

Long before the release of her latest film, a unique mixture of sardonic wit and solidarity with scorned women brought Nora Ephron an unlikely coalition of fans.

But it is only now, with her direction of Julie & Julia, starring Meryl Streep and focused on the US cookery pioneer Julia Child, that the 68-year-old is being championed as something altogether more grandiose. Indeed, a growing band of her countrymen and women feel that, at a time of convulsion and change for their country, this east coast maverick has a reasonable claim to be the most perspicacious chronicler of the American zeitgeist. How did this come to pass?

At a slight 5'6", and often described as "sparrow-like", Ephron is widely regarded as the quintessential whip-smart New York intellectual comic Jew who documents city life in ways Woody Allen couldn't do for all America. The daughter of east coast screenwriters but raised in Beverly Hills, a secretarial intern to John F Kennedy out of university, she's travelled through several lives and careers: magazine feature writer, screenwriter, wronged wife who got even, director of the romantic comedies When Harry Met Sally ..., Sleepless in Seattle and You've Got Mail, and witty, liberal-leaning commentator.

Areas of interest en route include three marriages, including one to Carl Bernstein of Watergate fame (Ephron was seven months pregnant when it came out her husband was having an affair with the wife of Peter Jay, the former British ambassador to America) and, for the past 18 years, to Nick Pileggi, author of Casino and GoodFellas.

It's impossible not to wonder if there's any important person on the New York-Washington-Los Angeles social-media-power dogleg she doesn't know. "She knows things and she knows people," The New Yorker offers simply. After the 15th press mention in the The New York Times in a month, Nikki Finke, the film business reporter behind Deadline Hollywood Daily, described the deluge as "tantamount to a tsunami". "This is the Summer of Nora," she wrote.

The Wall Street Journal pointed out that the pro-Ephron press was beginning to make a reader feel like a goose being fattened for foie gras. "It's beginning to take on a culture-war aspect," noted Richard Turner. He was only half joking – reverse the sentiment and she could be Sarah Palin. Which goes to prove what, exactly?

One critic suggests the reception is not really about Ephron at all – people are just grateful she's made a film about Julia Child, a transformational heroine of the old school whose moment of clarity came when she tasted sole meunière in a Parisian restaurant. Ephron's natural audience, they add, has grown out of her ditsy romantic comedies and is now more interested in youthful passion's natural successor – namely a passion for rich food. ("Food porn", offered The Times, approvingly.)

And partly, of course, it's because Julie & Julia stars Meryl Streep, who makes a characteristically masterly transformation into a 6ft US diplomat's wife who demolishes barriers to learn cordon bleu cooking in 1940s Paris, and writes a book that all but introduced French culinary possibilities, and rich sauces, to American homes.

"The performance is transcendental," recommended New York magazine, though it also cautioned: "This is a Nora Ephron movie, which means cartoonish extroverts pulling faces." The film co-stars Amy Adams as Julie, a lost Brooklyn twentysomething actress who sets out to make all the 524 recipes in Child's Mastering the Art of French Cooking (1961) and write a web diary about it. In reality the film is based on Julie Powell's 2005 book Julie & Julia: My Year of Cooking Dangerously and Child's 2006 biography My Life in France and looks like becoming Ephron's first hit since You've Got Mail 10 years ago.

There were flops in the interim, including Michael featuring John Travolta with angel wings under his trenchcoat, Hanging Up with Diane Keaton, and Bewitched, a legendary turkey. But there was also critical success: two years ago she published I Feel Bad About My Neck, a collection of essays about aging that became a bestseller, and began a popular column in The Huffington Post, a liberal website.

There's little in Ephron's life she hasn't written about. "Everything is copy" is a mantra she and her two sisters learned from their mother. But it was only after she established herself as a reporter (five years on the New York Post) and then as a profile writer at Esquire and New York, that she found her first true calling – "the patron saint of women scorned".

She discovered that her husband, Carl Bernstein, was having an affair with Margaret Jay. The couple divorced and she wrote Heartburn, in which she eviscerated Bernstein – "capable of having sex with a venetian blind" – and Margaret Jay – "a giraffe with big feet". It established the author as a fearsome truth-teller, an icon beloved of all women over 30 and stalwart of the Mrs Robinson era. Ephron studied Bernstein's Watergate notes and made the connection that whenever he wrote My Friend, he was referring to Mark Felt, aka Deep Throat, the FBI agent who was unmasked as the whistleblower in 2005. She told anyone who'd listen Deep Throat's identity.

Then came the switch to film. She wrote Silkwood with Streep, then wrote and produced When Harry Met Sally... and finally progressed to writing, producing and directing, refining the central drama of the story she likes to tell along the way.

"So many of the conscious and unconscious ways men and women treat each other have to do with romantic and sexual fantasies that are deeply ingrained, not just in society but in literature," she once explained. "The women's movement may manage to clean up the mess in society, but I don't know whether it can ever clean up the mess in our minds."

Still, it is sometimes hard to know whether to believe her. For someone who is famously slight, she says she thinks about food all the time. "All I've been thinking about is what I should have ordered last night. I should have ordered the pasta bolognese, but I didn't. I went for a steak. It was a very good steak, but in the end, I should have tried the pasta."

Ephron told AP she views her entire life in terms of food: "I think that all of life is what you ate, what you wish you'd eaten, or how glad you are you ate it, and what you're going to eat next." Growing up in a home that was blighted by her parents' chronic alcoholism, Ephron's father ultimately helped her mother to kill herself with sleeping pills in 1971. "I was upset my mother had died – don't get me wrong," she told The New Yorker recently. "When that happened it was a moment of almost comic relief. It seemed entirely possible, in character, understandable, and I think we all filed it under Will I Ever Be Able to Use This in Anything."

Assigned the task of decoding Ephron's psychology, friend Joan Didion says: "I've never seen Nora in a low mood; she doesn't show them. I don't think she gets a lot out of guilt. Whatever secondary gain the rest of us get out it, Nora doesn't; she leaves it alone. Isn't that good?" Oddly, the very customers whom one could imagine welcoming a film about food – gastronomes and members of the slow food movement – aren't so pleased. Julie Powell angered and alienated herself from the accepted thinking in a 2005 editorial in The Times in which she damned the "insidious ... snobbery of the organic movement".

Right or wrong, Ephron would at least understand. She used to keep a photograph of John "The Dapper Don" Gotti on her desk taken at the trial that marked the end of mobster's life as a free man. Gotti carried himself with confidence even in defeat – setting a fine example for Ephron to follow. "He was walking out of the courthouse in the most perfect suit," Ephron says. "And he looked so great."

A life in brief

Born: New York City, 19 May 1941. Daughter of acclaimed screenwriters Henry and Phoebe Ephron, and the eldest of four sisters.

Early Life: Ephron's early years partly inspired her parents' 1943 play Three's a Family. Following high school, she graduated from Wellesley College in 1962 with a degree in journalism.

Career: Worked for a short spell in the White House as an intern for JFK, then became a reporter for the New York Post. As her success as a journalist gathered momentum, she became well known for her humorous essays, and began to contribute to a number of other publications including New York magazine and Esquire, for which she wrote a column on women's issues. Ephron's first successful film screenplay, Silkwood (1983), was directed by Mike Nichols. She made her own directorial debut in 1992 with This Is My Life. Other writing and directing credits include When Harry Met Sally... (1989), above, Sleepless in Seattle (1993) and Bewitched (2005). Her latest project, Julie & Julia (2009), stars Meryl Streep and Amy Adams.

She Says: "I don't care who you are. When you sit down to write the first page of your screenplay, in your head, you're also writing your Oscar acceptance speech."

They Say: "She was amazing. These meals are insane and better than any restaurant you've ever been to. People told me beforehand, 'You're working with Nora Ephron? You're going to have the best food.' And sure enough [we did]. Now I've been spoiled." Will Ferrell

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