Profile: A soft-focus feminist: Nora Ephron: 'Sleepless in Seattle' has no violence, no dinosaurs and is a big hit. Peter Pringle on its maker

Saturday 28 August 1993 23:02 BST

Self-deprecating humour, it is said, does not come naturally to Americans. So it was refreshing to find Nora Ephron making light of her new-found success as a film director. 'What I'm basically absolutely thrilled about,' she said about her romantic comedy hit, Sleepless in Seattle, 'is that I'm now a director and that's what I'm going to do for at least three more movies because having a hit this big means you can make at least three flops.'

Sleepless is about a widower who is persuaded by his small son to talk about his bereavement to a psychiatrist on a Seattle radio show. The programme is heard by a woman 3,000 miles away in Baltimore and, after a long-distance romance and many near-misses, they finally meet at the top of the Empire State Building. The film has already grossed dollars 106m ( pounds 71m) without a violent scene, an action hero or a dinosaur. Even critics of Ephron's former work as a screenwriter concede that the film may make her a household name as a writer-director at the age of 52.

For many years, as a newspaper reporter, a columnist for Esquire and then as a screenwriter, Nora Ephron has helped people make sense of their lives in a changing world. In the Seventies, she was a voice for women, though not for ideological feminism. Her focus was on subjects that other feminists thought too mundane, such as the advertising campaigns for feminine hygiene sprays, or too politically incorrect, such as her rape fantasies. Now she has a wider and more durable audience than her sterner and less witty comrades in the fight for women's rights.

This voice of sophisticated 20th- century womanhood hit its top note among her followers in 1983 when she wrote Heartburn, a best-selling novel based on the story of her marriage in the mid-1970s to Carl Bernstein. Bernstein was the Washington Post reporter who, with Bob Woodward, broke the Watergate scandal. The two-year marriage ended in acrimony when Bernstein admitted he was having an affair with Margaret Jay, the wife of the then British ambassador, Peter Jay. Ephron was seven months pregnant at the time with their second child, and attributed the child's premature delivery to the shock of the infidelity.

Bernstein was her second husband - her previous marriage was to Dan Greenburg, a humorous writer - and Watergate had made him a hero. In Heartburn, which became a successful film starring Meryl Streep and Jack Nicholson, she portrayed him as a compulsive womaniser, writing that 'the man is capable of having sex with a Venetian blind'. The line will undoubtedly appear in his obituaries. Men thought it excessive, even mean. Bernstein insisted on a clause in the divorce settlement barring his former wife from using any material from their two sons' lives. But the Ephron family history suggested that she was always likely to regard her private life as raw material for her writing.

HENRY and Phoebe Ephron, Nora's parents, were both playwrights and successful scriptwriters. At the end of the Second World War they moved from New York to Hollywood. Their best-known credit is The Desk Set, the 1957 film starring Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn. They also wrote the screenplay for Carousel. Her parents became known for pirating episodes of family life, the most quoted being the successful Broadway play, Take Her, She's Mine, based on Nora's letters home from college.

It was at her mother's command apparently that Nora's ready wit developed. Her mother insisted the family (there are three other sisters) gather for a traditional supper each evening and swap witticisms. Nora became the acknowledged champion and learnt, as a friend observed, 'not to compel agreement but to make you shed the extraneous, the pleasant and the comforting. She makes you align the facts, marshal an argument'. The family sessions were a kindergarten for journalism and scriptwriting, although Ephron doesn't talk about it in that way. She describes her mother as emotionally distant, 'not a big hugger' and 'one of those extremely encouraging but withholding parents'. Her sisters have been more frank about their parents' self-destructive drinking, a subject off-limits in Nora's interviews.

Her mother died at the age of 57, but left several diktats for the children: 'Veal should always be pink' and 'Never marry a man with fat ankles' are but two. She expected her daughters to work: she was the only working mother among the Ephrons' circle in Beverly Hills.

Nora left Wellesley College, one of America's top universities for women, in 1962. Instead of getting married 'like almost everyone else', she became a researcher for Newsweek magazine and a reporter for the New York Post.

Journalism for Ms Ephron, in those days, was a way of escaping Hollywood and doing something she had always dreamed of. 'I was so infatuated with journalists. I wanted to be Brenda Star (a glamorous comic-book character reporter). I thought The Front Page was a documentary when I was growing up and when I walked into the New York Post, I loved it.'

Now, she says, 'I probably wouldn't be any good at it any more. I don't have a killer instinct, nor the illusion that the world needs to know what I think'. The truth is that what a movie director thinks has a thousand times more power than even the best Esquire columnist. Ephron admits: 'Directing movies is the best job there is, that's all. I can hardly say a word after that. It's just a great job. I just want to go on making movies, and some of them will be completely meaningless, except, of course, to me.'

She began as a comedy screenwriter but her first two attempts were flops. Later, she wrote two Oscar-nominated scripts. Silkwood (co-written with Alice Arlen), about a whistle-blower at a nuclear plant in Oklahoma, and, in 1989, When Harry Met Sally. The latter is often compared with Woody Allen's Annie Hall because it is a New York romantic comedy with semi-neurotic urban characters. The script is famous for a scene in a crowded diner when Sally proves to Harry women can fake orgasms. After Sally finishes her last shudder, a fellow customer says to the waiter, 'I'll have what she's having'.

Her first chance to direct came with This is My Life, released last year. It is the story of a single mother with two daughters who seeks a career as a comedienne - not unlike the single working mother that Ms Ephron became after her divorce from Bernstein. The daughters are constantly worried about their lives being exposed in their mother's comedy routines. 'The movie is about the fact that if you are a working mother, everything that is good news for you is bad news for your kids,' says Ephron. She wrote the script with her sister Delia, a co-operation that continues. Ephron's director's 'voice' was praised for the intimate relationship created between camera and characters, and for promoting a woman's view. But, says Ephron, it grossed 'about 75 cents'. Even so, she made it swiftly and cheaply by Hollywood standards. The cost of about dollars 10m was less than half the norm, making her attractive for future assignments from cost-

conscious studios.

Sleepless finally gave her the chance to direct a big budget film, and the reviews have been as encouraging as the box-office receipts. Ephron is credited with turning a pleasant story line into a film that everyone wanted except the director the studio had originally hired for the job.

NORA'S sister, Delia, after watching her on the set, concluded that she was born to direct: the bossiest of a line of bossy sisters. People do notice the sheer joy on her face when she calls for 'action'. Friends mention how she likes to control real life as well. 'She's extremely adept at organising, telling you how to go about your life down to the smallest detail,' says Richard Cohen, a columnist and close friend. 'But she's not a busybody.'

Sleepless is softer, more sentimental than her previous work. This has led some observers to suggest that she is 'calming down' and that her third husband, Nick Pileggi, is partly responsible. (A former New York police reporter, Pileggi wrote the non-fiction book about mobsters called Wiseguy that Martin Scorsese turned into a movie called GoodFellas.) But Cohen sees little change: 'Calming down implies she was once bouncing off walls and I never thought of her like that.'

Ephron says: 'I was always proud of being tough-minded and I think I still am, but in my old age I've got a little softer in the head and that's all right.' She says she will not be tempted to pander to the American obsession with violence, action heroes and fantasy animals. Her next script is a black comedy about Christmas. She hopes her voice will still be as strong and 'at least a woman's voice'.

(Photograph omitted)

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