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Nora Ephron’s Potato-Chip Legacy

June 28, 2012 | by

In April The Believer declared Nora Ephron “the original Tina Fey.” This week, an obituary on The Daily Beast said that she was bigger than Twain. Both superlatives gloss over the fact that Ephron’s work was widely reviled (a Village Voice review of Bewitched even argued that “the Ephrons should have to sharecrop, for all the good they've done for the culture”) and that, even for Ephron devotees, part of the charm of seeing her latest flick was wondering whether it’d be typical Burbank dung (Mixed Nuts! Michael!) or a piece of deathless Hollywood legend.

Ephron kept dice in her purse, was willing to “teach almost anyone how to play craps at a moment’s notice,” and her writing had a gambler’s unevenness. The rambling digressiveness, along with the faint datedness, of her worldview only intensified your shock when Ephron arrived, seemingly by accident, at an incisive thought. Here she is in her 1983 roman à clef Heartburn, recounting a speech she often made while preparing Lillian Hellman’s pot roast recipe:

I have no problem with her political persona, or with her insistence on making herself the centerpiece of most of the historical conflicts of the twentieth century; but it seems to me that she invented a romantic fantasy about her involvement with Dashiell Hammett that is every bit as unrealistic as the Doris Day movies feminists prefer to blame for society’s unrealistic notions about romance … it occurred to me as I delivered [the speech] yet another time that I had always zipped through that part of the speech as if I had somehow managed to be invulnerable to the fantasy, as if I had somehow managed to escape from or rise above it simply as a result of having figured it out. I think you often have that sense when you write—that if you can spot something in yourself and set it down on paper, you’re free of it.

As someone who was corn-fed on her movies as a child, the passage seems eerily prophetic. 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.

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