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A Laugh A Minute, On Screen And In Life
Originally published on Wed June 27, 2012 9:52 am
Nora Ephron, the essayist, novelist, screenwriter and film director, died Tuesday night in Manhattan. She was 71, and suffered from leukemia.
She's most widely known for films including Silkwood and When Harry Met Sally, which she wrote, and Sleepless in Seattle, You've Got Mail and Julie and Julia, which she wrote and directed. She also wrote many frank, humorous essays, some of which were collected in books.
And she drew on her painful divorce from her second husband, Watergate journalist Carl Bernstein, when writing the best-selling novel Heartburn, which she then turned into a movie screenplay. It was directed by Mike Nichols and starred Jack Nicholson, and Meryl Streep as a version of Ephron.
Fresh Air's Dave Davies spoke to Ephron in 2006, when she published a collection of essays about the challenges of getting older called I Feel Bad About My Neck. The interview aired on the program Radio Times at WHYY.
On Deep Throat
"I knew who Deep Throat was for years and years and years. And by the way, had you asked me on this station, on NPR, on WHYY, 15 years ago, I would happily have told you. I told everyone. But no one listened to me. It was very, very, very frustrating. Carl had never told me who Deep Throat was. ... I am not a discreet person. I would not have kept any secrets. I will tell anyone anything I know, and I knew that Deep Throat was Mark Felt. I figured it out from a clue in the book, and if I gave a speech with 500 people and [someone] asked me, I told them. I was like a tree falling in the forest that no one hears."
On growing older and approaching mirrors
"If I'm following a young person down the street and the young person passes a mirror, I see the fabulous way he or she turns toward it and kind of smiles and checks himself/herself out and they know what they're going to see. We don't know. There's a certain moment where you're just terrified about what you're going to see. So if you are forced to look at a mirror, you squint and then gently open your eyes to see if it's safe. And if it's not, you close them and walk on."
On Henry Hill, the subject of her husband Nicholas Pileggi's book Wiseguys, which became the basis for the movie Goodfellas
"Henry Hill, the man who Goodfellas and Wiseguys are about, in real life was put into the witness protection program. After the end of the movie, he was sent to Redmond, Wash. — the bicycle capital of America — where he single-handedly started a crime wave, because there was no crime there. And we kept getting all these collect phone calls from Henry asking for bail and asking for various other forms of assistance. He was always getting into trouble, and it was for things like jaywalking, which is not a crime in New York. But he was arrested for burglary. Burglary is barely a crime in New York. And then he would be arrested, and he would say to people, 'But I'm in the witness protection program. You can't really do anything to me.'"
DAVE DAVIES, HOST:
We were sad to hear that Nora Ephron, the essayist, novelist, screenwriter and film director, died last night in Manhattan. She was 71, and suffered from leukemia.
She's most widely known for her films, including "Silkwood" and "When Harry Met Sally," which she wrote, and "Sleepless in Seattle," "You've Got Mail" and "Julie and Julia," which she wrote and directed. She's also remembered for her many frank, humorous essays.
And she drew on her painful divorce from journalist Carl Bernstein in writing the best-selling novel "Heartburn," which she then turned into a movie screenplay. It was directed by Mike Nichols and starred Jack Nicholson, and Meryl Streep as a version of Ephron.
Ephron later married Nicholas Pileggi, who wrote the books "Casino" and "Wiseguy," which were the bases of the Martin Scorsese films "Goodfellas" and "Casino."
I spoke to Nora Ephron in 2006, when she published a collection of essays about the challenges of getting older called "I Feel Bad About My Neck And Other Thoughts On Being A Woman." The interview aired on the program "Radio Times" here at WHYY.
I think one of the things that I loved about the book as somebody who's in my 50s, is that I'm feeling a lot of this too, eyeglasses.
NORA EPHRON: Eyeglasses. One of the worst things.
DAVIES: You can't read the instructions on the bottle of pills.
EPHRON: Well, could you ever? By the way, they are so small that I don't know that I could have ever read them. But I didn't need the instructions on the pill bottle...
DAVIES: It didn't matter.
EPHRON: ...as much when I could read them because there wasn't as much wrong with me. I mean I take so many pills in the morning it's a miracle I have room for breakfast.
DAVIES: But you scatter glasses all over...
EPHRON: But glasses.
DAVIES: You scatter them all over the house and you can never find them, right?
EPHRON: I can never find them. And when I find them, when I - the thing that makes you nuts if you're a reader...
DAVIES: You scatter them all over the house, and you can never find one.
EPHRON: I can never find them, and when I find them - the thing that makes you nuts, if you're a reader, which I am, is that you've spent your life seeing something you want to read, picking it up and reading it.
EPHRON: There's no gap between the impulse and the actuality. Now, of course, you have to find your glasses.
DAVIES: It's a process.
EPHRON: And you have lost them. Even if you just went out and bought, like, five pairs of them at the drugstore that don't cost that much so that this won't happen, you can't find the ones you really like, because even if you bought five of the same ones, somehow there's one that's better than the others.
DAVIES: That's perfect.
EPHRON: And, in my case, you don't even know which glasses you are, because you've got distance. You've got trifocals. You've got bifocals. You've got dark reading glasses. You've got - there are - I was thinking of color-coding my glasses, but then I know I would forget...
DAVIES: The color codes.
EPHRON: ...which was which.
EPHRON: Because I forget everything.
DAVIES: You avoid mirrors, you say? I don't...
EPHRON: I avoid...
DAVIES: You shouldn't avoid mirrors.
EPHRON: Thank you so much.
DAVIES: You look perfectly nice.
EPHRON: That's very nice of you to say, but the truth is, there does come a certain moment in your life - and I notice, by the way, if I'm following a young person down the street and that young person passes a mirror, I feel the fabulous way he or she turns toward it and kind of smiles...
DAVIES: The dramatic sashay.
EPHRON: ...and checks themselves out, and they know what they're going to see. We don't know. There's a certain moment where you just are terrified about what you're going to see. So you - if you are forced to look in a mirror, you kind of squint, and then gently open your eyes to see if it's safe. And if it's not, you just close them and walk on.
DAVIES: You've had a great career as a screenwriter and as a director. And I wanted to talk to you about one of my favorite movies of yours, and this is "My Blue Heaven," which my family has been watching and re-watching for years and years.
And I thought we'd just play a little clip of this. And this is - the story here is Steve Martin plays Vincent Antonelli. He is an Italian New York mobster who's been relocated to, I guess, the San Diego area in suburbia in the witness protection program. He's a mobster. And in this scene we're going to hear, he can't resist getting in trouble again.
He's been hijacking goods, and he's been caught with some goods in his trunk, including a swordfish, of all things. And the straight-laced prosecutor played by Joan Cusack is interrogating him.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "MY BLUE HEAVEN")
JOAN CUSACK: (as Hannah Stubbs) We are not accusing you of anything but speeding at the moment, Mr. Wilkinson, but I would like very much to know about the items in your trunk.
STEVE MARTIN: (as Vinnie Antonelli) Which items?
CUSACK: (as Hannah Stubbs) Well, let's start with the cassette players.
MARTIN: (as Vinnie Antonelli) I don't know anything about cassette players.
CUSACK: (as Hannah Stubbs) There were 40 of them in your trunk.
MARTIN: (as Vinnie Antonelli) Oh. A guy I know won those in a contest.
CUSACK: (as Hannah Stubbs) They were part of a shipment that was hijacked four days ago on the way to Radio Shack.
MARTIN: (as Vinnie Antonelli) No. That's terrible.
CUSACK: (as Hannah Stubbs) And the swordfish?
MARTIN: (as Vinnie Antonelli) I know this guy. His whole life, he's fishing, but he caught too many fish. So he asked me, would I keep some fish in my freezer. But I don't have any room in my freezer on account of another guy I know giving me a side of beef. So he put the fish in my trunk while the weather's cold, unbeknownst to me.
DAVIES: And that is Steve Martin and Joan Cusack from the film "My Blue Heaven," written by my guest Nora Ephron. My guess is you haven't heard that dialogue in a while.
EPHRON: No, I haven't. I have not heard it, but it is funny. You know, that movie is Sammy "The Bull" Gravano's favorite mob movie.
DAVIES: I've heard that.
EPHRON: It's true. But that movie...
DAVIES: Was he ever in the witness protection program?
EPHRON: Sure. Oh, my God, yes.
DAVIES: OK. All right.
EPHRON: Oh, my God, yes.
DAVIES: And it captured that feeling of being...
EPHRON: I have no idea. But the movie came from the fact that I'm married to Nick Pileggi, who wrote "Wiseguy," which became the unbelievably great movie "Goodfellas." And Henry Hill, the man that "Goodfellas" and "Wiseguy" are about...
DAVIES: The Ray Liotta character.
EPHRON: The Ray Liotta character. Henry Hill, in real life, was put into the witness protection program after the end of the movie. He was sent to Redmond, Washington, the bicycle capital of America, where he single-handedly started a crime wave, because there was no crime there. And we kept getting all these collect phone calls from Henry asking for bail and asking for various other forms of assistance.
DAVIES: So you would be at home, and the phone would ring, and it's the real Henry Hill.
EPHRON: It would be Henry calling collect, asking...
DAVIES: I'm in trouble.
EPHRON: I'm in trouble. He was always getting into trouble, and it was for things like jaywalking, which are not crimes in New York, you know.
DAVIES: No misdemeanors out there.
EPHRON: But, you know, he was arrested for burglary. Burglary is barely a crime in New York. You can't - you know. And then he would be arrested, and he would say to people, but I'm in the witness protection program. You can't really do anything to me.
DAVIES: Nora Ephron, recorded in 2006. Ephron died yesterday at the age of 71. We'll hear more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
DAVIES: We're listening to my 2006 interview with writer and film director Nora Ephron, who died yesterday at the age of 71. I spoke to her when she published a collection of essays called "I Feel Bad About My Neck." We talked about the film "When Harry Met Sally," which Ephron wrote, starring Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan. Here's a scene.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "WHEN HARRY MET SALLY")
BILLY CRYSTAL: (as Harry) You realize, of course, that we could never be friends.
MEG RYAN: (as Sally) Why not?
CRYSTAL: (as Harry) What I'm saying this - and this is not a come on in any way, shape, or form - is that men and women can't be friends, because the sex part always gets in the way.
RYAN: (as Sally) That's not true. I have a number of men friends, and there is no sex involved.
CRYSTAL: (as Harry) No, you don't.
RYAN: (as Sally) Yes, I do.
CRYSTAL: (as Harry) No, you don't.
RYAN: (as Sally) Yes, I do.
CRYSTAL: (as Harry) You only think you do.
RYAN: (as Sally) You're saying I'm having sex with these men without my knowledge?
CRYSTAL: (as Harry) No. What I'm saying is they all want to have sex with you.
RYAN: (as Sally) They do not.
CRYSTAL: (as Harry) Do, too.
RYAN: (as Sally) They do not.
CRYSTAL: (as Harry) Do, too.
RYAN: (as Sally) How do you know?
CRYSTAL: (as Harry) Because no man can be friends with a woman that he finds attractive. He always wants to have sex with her.
RYAN: (as Sally) So you're saying that a man can be friends with a woman he finds unattractive.
CRYSTAL: (as Harry) No. You pretty much want to nail them, too.
DAVIES: Of course, that is Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan from "When Harry Met Sally," written by my guest Nora Ephron. Boy, that's funny stuff.
EPHRON: Thank you. Thank you.
DAVIES: You know, the interesting thing about this movie, "When Harry Met Sally" - it's one of your biggest successes, I guess. And my wife and I saw it when it came out. Liked it. I didn't love it, but we liked it. And then we saw it again this weekend, because I knew I was going to be talking to you. We're now in our 50s, and it was better.
I mean, somehow - I don't know. It just had more heart. There was something more that we got this time we didn't get then.
EPHRON: Maybe you had changed. What can I say?
DAVIES: Well, there's no doubt that's what happened.
DAVIES: You know, when we saw it, we were in our late 30s, had little kids. Now our kids are in college. They're gone. What's going on here? Do you see your films differently as you age?
EPHRON: I don't really see them very much, but I do think that that movie has managed to last in an amazing way. You know, kids in college have their websites, and there are questionnaires that I don't know the answers to. What was Harry wearing in the scene in the Metropolitan Museum? I mean, I have no idea the answers to these questions.
But that idea of Rob Reiner's about friendship and love is something that doesn't change, that stays as a fact for people, is: How do you work friendship between men and women? And, of course, the thing under that thing which is in that scene is the real theme of the movie, which is the difference between men and women, one of my favorite things to do movies about.
That's what "Sleepless in Seattle" is about, really, is just the completely different way men and women look at everything.
DAVIES: All right. Not too much time left here, but I was also fascinated, you know, you were once married to Carl Bernstein.
EPHRON: I was. Thank you for reminding me.
DAVIES: An episode - well...
DAVIES: There were children.
DAVIES: And that episode, of course, is loosely, I guess, portrayed in your book and movie "Heartburn"...
DAVIES: ...which is interesting to look at. But you recently wrote that you figured out who Deep Throat was before the rest of the country.
EPHRON: I knew who Deep Throat was for years and years and years. And, by the way, had you asked me on this station, on NPR, on WHYY who Deep Throat was 15 years ago, I would happily have told you. I told everyone. But no one listened to me. It was very, very, very frustrating.
Carl had never told me who Deep Throat was, because I am not a discreet person. I would not have kept any secrets. I will tell anyone anything I know, and I knew that Deep Throat was Mark Felt. I figured it out from a clue in the book. And if I gave a speech with 500 people and someone asked me, I told them. And yet I was...
DAVIES: So you've been telling people for years this is who it was?
EPHRON: I was like a tree falling in the forest that no one hears. And famous political reporters would come up to me and say: Who's Deep Throat? And I would say, it's Mark Felt. And they'd go, nah. It's not Mark Felt. And I would say: It is, and here's why. But no one believed me. It was frustrating.
DAVIES: There's a fairly serious part of the book where you talk about how, you know, there are funny things about this, like losing your glasses. But it really is hard when you see, as you put it, long shadows all around and folks around you passing away. Do you have a sense of yourself over the next 20 years? I mean, you've certainly got an active career now.
EPHRON: You absolutely don't know. The next 20 years, we're talking about 85. This is just a crapshoot. This is a lottery. Who knows? So I feel - I don't think about the next 20 years. I think about today. So today, I have already been to a bakery. This is the thing that I'm obsessed with, is carbohydrates.
I feel that I'm now living in an age where there's the best bread we have ever had in the history of the world. There has never been more bread that is good out there. So it seems to me a shame not to eat some of it, even if - and this is one of the terrible dilemmas of old age. You know, do you save all your money as if you're going to live till you're 90, or do you spend it all because you might die tomorrow?
Do you diet like a fanatic in the hopes that it's going to buy you a couple of extra years, or is it going to have nothing to do - are you going to be hit by a bus, and your last thought will be: I should have had that donut?
EPHRON: And it's very confusing to know what to do, but I'm coming down on the donut side.
EPHRON: So I feel that, you know, that's one of the things - I'm not so into 20 years. I'm kind of into: Is this meal I'm having something I really want to have? And if someone says to me let's go somewhere and it's not good, I say let's not. Let's not, because I have a finite number of meals ahead of me, and they are all going to be good.
DAVIES: You're going to make them count.
EPHRON: They're just going to be good. That's the truth.
DAVIES: Nora Ephron, recorded in 2006. She died yesterday in Manhattan. She was 71. Our thanks to the producers of Radio Times here at WHYY where that interview first aired. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.