published Friday, June 29th, 2012

Leber: It's easy to appreciate the effect of Nora Ephron's work

My boyfriend and I have a long-standing competition known as "Do you know who died?"

In essence, when a well-known person passes on, one of us will ask the other: "Do you know who died?" Whoever knew about the death first is, well, the "winner."

I don't often sentimentalize over celebrities, and so in all the years we've tracked losses of brilliant people, I think I've only felt genuinely sad at two losses: George Carlin, in 2008, and Nora Ephron earlier this week.

While I cannot pretend to be an expert in all things Ephron -- I never read "I Remember Nothing and Other Reflections," never saw "Love and Loss and What I Wore," never (sorry) watched "Silkwood," I still look to her as a writer who had an effect on my life. She wasn't the type of writer or filmmaker who made it necessary to see the gamut of her work to understand her effect.

Ephron has been called a feminist, but she never -- so far as I saw -- fell into the trap of equating so-called feminism with anti-male sentiments, looking at men as the enemy rather than seeking them as allies. She championed women but didn't do so angrily.

"Above all, be the heroine of your life, not the victim," she told the graduating class of Wellesley College, her alma mater, in 1996. "Because you don't have the alibi my class had -- this is one of the great achievements and mixed blessings you inherit. Unlike us, you can't say nobody told you there were other options."

Her work was funny and heartfelt and sentimental, and she wasn't afraid to be funny and heartfelt and sentimental.

Just look at "When Harry Met Sally." As Ephron wrote in the introduction to the paperback book of the script, published in 1990, it's not really a movie about how men and women can't be friends, it's about how men and women are different.

But it's hard not to think about that friends question, isn't it?

Men and women can't be friends, Harry says, because the sex always gets in the way.

Yes, Sally insists, they can.

And in the end, I think, they are both right.

And both wrong. Yes, sex gets in the way. But in the end, they get over it. And they don't stay platonic, but they do stay friends. I always saw "When Harry Met Sally" as a reminder that friendship is the best foundation for love. Perhaps that's the way I've always wanted to see it.

Stories, whether on the page or screen, that don't involve death, torment, tears and corruption are often dismissed as fluff stories -- carrying no real weight, unimportant. In the newspaper business, we have a saying: If it bleeds, it leads.

By that same token, romantic comedies, Ephron's milieu, are often written off as mindless or silly. Frankly, many of them are. Nora herself didn't knock it out of the park every time. Frankly, I don't recall "This Is My Life" as being anything to write home about, and "Bewitched" was unfortunate, but when she nailed it, she nailed it.

She nailed it because she wrote about people, about relationships and, after all, what's more important to understand than the people in your orbit, how they are there and why?

She helped show us how to laugh at life, how to take the painful things and make them funny.

Perhaps that's why I've only felt about 68 percent guilty that, of the Ephron quotes I've hearkened back to in the past few days, this is one that stands out to me:

"What they can do to make it easier is to combine the obituaries with the real estate section, see, and then you have, 'Mr. Klein died today, leaving a wife, two children and a spacious three-bedroom apartment with a wood-burning fireplace.' "

If I may be so terribly bold, I imagine that might have made her laugh a little.

Contact Holly Leber at hleber@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6391. Follow her on Twitter at twitter.com/hollyleber. Subscribe to her on Facebook at facebook.com/holly.j.leber.

about Holly Leber ...

Holly Leber is a reporter and columnist for the Life section. She has worked at the Times Free Press since March 2008. Holly covers “everything but the kitchen sink" when it comes to features: the arts, young adults, classical music, art, fitness, home, gardening and food. She writes the popular and sometimes-controversial column Love and Other Indoor Sports. Holly calls both New York City and Saratoga Springs, NY home. She earned a bachelor of arts ...

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