What's so damn great about aging?

Crackling good writer and "Sleepless in Seattle" director Nora Ephron gets serious about sagging necks and wrinkles, transforming her family life into fiction, and why her movies aren't as stupid or schmaltzy as people say.

Published August 8, 2006 1:00PM (EDT)

For 40 years, Nora Ephron has been a wicked social critic and storyteller, spotting and eviscerating trends, spinning somber tales into comic gold, and revivifying a moribund cinematic genre -- the romantic comedy -- for a country still trying to recover from the sexual revolution. She began her writing career in the '60s as a reporter for the New York Post and covered the media, fashion and women's issues for Esquire and New York magazines in the '70s. In 1983 she wrote the novel "Heartburn" and then adapted it for film; soon she was penning Oscar-nominated scripts for "Silkwood" and "When Harry Met Sally," and by the time the '90s rolled in, she had largely abandoned journalism for Hollywood, directing and producing movies like "Sleepless in Seattle," "You've Got Mail" and "Bewitched." It was in this last stage of her career that Ephron became most famous; these starry, heavily soundtracked films are also what got her labeled schmaltzy.

Yet while she has surely trafficked in some synthetic twinkle, Ephron is no sap. In fact, in much of her work, she is a lot like her beloved Manhattan: protean, resilient, sharp, eager to crack a grim smile in bad times, susceptible to big-strings romanticism, but often willing to resist -- yes, resist -- sentimentality in the face of change.

Nowhere is this Ephron more evident than in her new book, "I Feel Bad About My Neck," a collection of wry essays about time's dark march -- across the skin on her neck, across New York City's rent-control guidelines and across her circle of friends. "Every so often I read a book about age, and whoever's writing it says it's great to be old," Ephron writes. "It's great to be wise and sage and mellow; it's great to be at the point where you understand just what matters in life. I can't stand people who say things like this. What can they be thinking? Don't they have necks?" While she understands that aging beats the alternative, Nora Ephron does not think it's great to be old. She thinks it sucks.

We met recently at a French restaurant on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. Despite the protestations in her book, Ephron looks great at 65. She was dressed in a high-collared button-down shirt, but from what I could tell, her neck doesn't look half bad. In fact, and not just because of her colored hair, she simply doesn't look her age. While she claims in the book not to have had a face-lift for fear of winding up with a face that "looks suspiciously like a drum pad," her cheeks are lineless.

Over lunch -- at which the food-obsessed Ephron and I shared croque-monsieur, tomato salad, a pork sausage and sauerkraut sandwich, steak tartare and lots of frites -- the author explained that she first had the idea for "I Feel Bad About My Neck" when she went through menopause, an event that took her by surprise. "You realize that you actually thought you were going to be the only person who didn't go through menopause," she said. After she turned 60 -- with a blowout party in Vegas -- she wrote the book's titular piece. In it, she explains that her neck began to go in her early 40s, after an operation near her collarbone left a scar.

"Even if you are being operated on for something serious or potentially serious," she writes. "Even if you honestly believe that your health is more important than vanity, even if you wake up in the hospital room thrilled beyond imagining that it wasn't cancer, even if you feel elated, grateful to be alive, full of blinding insight about what's important and what's not, even if you vow to be eternally joyful about being on the planet Earth and promise never to complain about anything ever again, I promise you that one day soon, sooner than you can imagine, you will look in the mirror and think, I hate this scar."

After finishing this essay, Ephron said, she knew there was a funny book in getting older. She made a list of other topics to write about, and then simply went to work. She wrote about her hatred of her purse, "a morass of loose Tic Tacs, solitary Advils, lipsticks without tops, ChapSticks of unknown vintage, little bits of tobacco even though there has been no smoking going on for at least ten years, tampons that have come loose from their wrappings, English coins from a trip to London last October...," and about her search for cabbage strudel, a dish that disappeared from New York for more than a decade and then reappeared at a bakery two blocks from our lunch place (and where Ephron and I split an apple strudel after our meal). She wrote about falling out of love with Bill Clinton, and about her college internship in the Kennedy White House, where JFK failed to make a pass at her. "Perhaps nothing happened between us because JFK somehow sensed that discretion was not my middle name," she writes.

The book also details her personal maintenance, including her wise observation that the "reason why forty, fifty, and sixty don't look the way they used to [is] not because of feminism, or better living through exercise. It's because of hair dye." The collection closes with a mournful piece about the death of her best friend, in which she observes, "The honest truth is that it's sad to be over sixty. The long shadows are everywhere -- friends dying and battling illness. A miasma of melancholy hangs there, forcing you to deal with the fact that your life, however happy and successful, has been full of disappointments and mistakes, little ones and big ones ... There are, in short, regrets."

Luckily for Ephron, as she writes in that same essay, most of her mistakes turned out to be things she "survived, or turned into funny stories, or, on occasion, even made money from." This is something of an understatement from a woman whose talent for transforming the highs, lows and dull in-between bits of life into cash-generating narrative seems to have been imparted into her genetic code.

The eldest of four daughters of screenwriting team Phoebe and Henry Ephron ("Carousel," "Desk Set") Nora was depicted as an infant in their play "Three's a Family." Her early years at Wellesley were the basis for their 1961 play "Take Her, She's Mine," which was adapted for film with Sandra Dee as the daughter. Ephron's childhood and young adulthood feature prominently in her father's memoir, "We Thought We Could Do Anything." It wasn't long till Ephron began telling her own personal stories, memorably penning "A Few Words About Breasts," a 1972 piece about having small ones ("Buster Klepper was the first boy who ever touched them") for Esquire. Later, in her Esquire column, she also chronicled her attempts to save her first marriage, a six-year union with novelist Dan Greenburg, by entering a consciousness-raising group in the '70s. "That was during the women's movement. Everybody was writing about their marriages during the women's movement," she said over lunch.

"Heartburn," her 1983 novel, was "loosely based" (that is to say, closely based) on what happened to her when her first son was a baby and Ephron was pregnant with her second. That was when she discovered her second husband, Watergate journalist Carl Bernstein, was having an affair with journalist (now Baroness) Margaret Jay, who was then married to the British ambassador Peter Jay. Describing her fictionalization of events, Ephron writes in "I Feel Bad About My Neck" that she took care to "change my first husband's cats into hamsters ... the British ambassador into an undersecretary of state, and ... give my second husband a beard." The book could have been a drippy, sudsy downer. Instead, it was a riot. At lunch, Ephron pointed to "Heartburn" as an example of how a writer always holds back some part of a personal story, noting that it was "so not the whole truth about the end of that marriage, just a comic monologue about it." And while that may be, its acidly funny retailing of the breakup showed her gift for leavening the most maudlin and maddening of situations without abandoning the truth or tacking on a mushy resolution. In life as in fiction, Ephron left Bernstein and moved back to New York, the single mother of two baby sons.

All three of Ephron's sisters -- Delia, Hallie and Amy -- have published novels, including "Hanging Up" -- a book loosely based on the relationship between the sisters and their alcoholic father -- by Nora's frequent collaborator, Delia. (The two sisters also adapted it into a film starring Meg Ryan, Diane Keaton and Lisa Kudrow.) And while the journalists played by Ryan in "When Harry Met Sally" and "Sleepless in Seattle" are not strictly autobiographical, let's just say that if you've read Ephron's journalism, you'll recognize the sex fantasy Sally's been having since she was 12. In short, Nora Ephron's life and times have been cannibalized for page, stage and screen with roughly the same frequency as Joan of Arc's.

And now there is this book about her wrinkles and her nails and her teeth and her friends' deaths and the contents of her purse. Does having so much of her life available for public consumption ever make Ephron feel exposed? "No, never," she said. "Because we were raised in a house where the expectation was that everything was up for being written about ... [There was the] knowledge that if anything happened, it could turn up in one of my parents' scripts." Ephron soon returned the favor. She recalled the first time she wrote about her parents while they were still alive, in an essay about how her folks had had their home redecorated by the production design team at Twentieth Century Fox, ruining the "integrity" -- Ephron's conversational quotation marks -- of their Spanish house in Beverly Hills. "Looking back on it, it probably wasn't a very nice thing that I wrote," she said. "But my mother never said 'boo' about it, and I know it was because she knew that was the deal. On some level that was what she had meant to teach us."

In fact, her mother's lesson on this point, the assertion that "everything is copy," is a steady drumbeat throughout Ephron's work. Phoebe Ephron appears in Ephron's fiction and nonfiction as a smart, unsentimental Hollywood career woman whose marriage to Nora's father became stormy and booze-soaked in its later years. Phoebe's deathbed exhortation -- "You're a reporter, Nora. Take notes" -- has been recounted in print by both Nora and her father, in his memoir. And indeed, Phoebe's slow death from cirrhosis has appeared often in Ephron's writing as a kind of primal scene. One of the most memorable moments in "Heartburn" comes when the heroine's expiring mother exclaims, "I just screwed Darryl Zanuck on the remake!" and drops dead, only to revive and move to Mexico with a guy named Mel. In reality, Ephron writes in "I Feel Bad About My Neck," her mother had been hovering on the brink of death for some time when her father hastened her demise by administering an overdose of sleeping pills, the remainder of which he later asked his unsuspecting daughter to flush down the toilet. "At the time, this didn't seem to me to fall under the rubric of 'Everything is copy,'" she writes. "Although it did to my sister Amy, and she put it into a novel."

But if Ephron is unfazed by the amount of her own personal and family baggage available for sale on Amazon, it's because she knows she had it pretty good. "You read people who are writing about childhoods that are just shocking and genuinely difficult. What were the difficulties of my childhood? I had two parents who became crazier as they got older but who were pretty sane when I was young and pretty great when I was young. Of all my sisters I got the highest fraction of good years compared to bad. And then they drank. And then they were terrible. But I'm not talking about poverty. I'm not talking about incest. I'm not talking about child abuse. I'm just talking about the problems of a very lucky young woman who grew up in Beverly Hills, California."

Ephron was careful not to write much about the childhoods of her sons, Jacob and Max Bernstein, now a reporter and a musician, respectively ("Though if I'd had a newspaper column twice a week, God help them," she said), or about third husband Nick Pileggi ("and neither would you if you were married to him"), whom she wed in 1987. As part of the family "deal," she's aware that at any moment, her offspring, especially Jacob, could turn their pens on her. When she saw the 2005 Noah Baumbach movie "The Squid and the Whale," about two boys suffering through their parents' messy 1970s divorce, Ephron said she shrank in her seat at the familiar horror. She loved the movie, she said, because it dealt honestly with the emotional brutality of divorced family life, including the inescapable revelation that single parents have sex lives. "I called Jacob right after that and said, 'Oh God, I thought of you all the way through it, and are you ever going write anything like this? It wouldn't surprise me at all!'" According to Ephron, her son said he wasn't planning on it. "I hope that's true," she said, and then shrugged. "But he might."

Still, even if she escapes becoming the subject of her child's tell-all, Ephron has not slipped through her career unscathed. In recent years, she has been the recipient of some nasty movie reviews. When I made reference to a pan of "Bewitched" that described how "Nora Ephron took her writerly New York sharpness to Hollywood as the director of sentimental hits" and started using her smarts to make deals instead of quality films, Ephron said she hadn't read it because she didn't want her feelings hurt. She explained that she sometimes protects herself from the harsh criticism because she "knows a certain amount" of what it will say, a peculiarly self-insulating reflex in someone who transforms so many of life's bummers into laughs. But what does she think about the smart-to-schmaltz version of her career?

"I just think it's one way to tell the story," she said. "I wish that the movies that didn't get good reviews had gotten better reviews. There's no question." In part, she said, that's because of the amount of time and energy and number of people involved in making movies. If a book flops, "you really haven't taken six months of anyone's life or convinced two or three hundred people to follow you into the Gaza Strip." That said, she maintained, "I actually like a lot of the things in the movies that people didn't like, and I actually don't think my movies are stupid or as schmaltzy as people say, so there it is."

Whatever you think of that defense, it's not empty. Some of Ephron's movies have been mushy, yes, some fun and feathery, some just not very good. But running beneath even the most popcorny of them has been a pragmatism: Small independent bookstores get smushed by big chains; married boyfriends never leave their spouses; husbands fall in love with other women while their wives are pregnant; alcoholic fathers make ugly scenes at grandchildren's birthday parties. Behind Meg Ryan's gummy grin there has often been a scalding and improbably side-splitting realism. Not always -- but enough to support an argument that it's the hearts-and-flowers, frankly feminine energy of the work, and not the sometimes unpretty guts of it, that leaves it open to detractors. After all, it's about as easy for a movie made by a woman to get labeled schmaltzy as it is for a book by a woman to get labeled chick lit.

Mostly, though, Ephron gauges her cinematic triumphs based less on critical response than on attendance. "There's no question that if you make a movie and people don't go see it, in some way it didn't work," she said when asked whether she has ever agreed with her critics. "Movies I make are made to be seen by large numbers of people. So if they don't like it, you can't say 'This movie secretly worked and nobody knows it,' because I'm not making little independent movies." Ephron's box-office disappointments include "Mixed Nuts," and "Lucky Numbers." "My Blue Heaven," a Steve Martin take on Henry Hill's witness relocation (Pileggi, her husband, wrote "GoodFellas") got, in her words, "killed" by critics, but has since attracted a cult following. She also claimed that it is Sammy "The Bull" Gravano's favorite mob movie.

Despite the flops, Ephron has been one of the winningest female writer-directors in Hollywood, which is no mean feat. She's been nominated for three screenwriting Oscars, including one for "Silkwood," which she co-wrote with Alice Arlen, about a plutonium plant employee who died mysteriously before she could talk to reporters about unsafe workplace conditions. Directed by Mike Nichols, it makes "Erin Brockovich" look like, well, "Sleepless in Seattle." Nichols also directed her adaptation of "Heartburn" in 1986. Ephron first took the helm herself on the small 1992 film "This Is My Life," and found monster directorial success the next year with "Sleepless in Seattle," starring Ryan and Tom Hanks; it grossed $220 million worldwide. "You've Got Mail" re-teamed Ryan and Hanks and made $115 million domestically. Even "Bewitched," which got savaged in reviews and was considered a box-office disappointment, managed to make enough money ($62 million domestically) to be the 42nd-highest-grossing film of last year; more notably, Ephron was one of only three female directors in 2005's top 100.

And then there's 1989's "When Harry Met Sally." Can men and women be friends? Are you high-maintenance or low-maintenance? I'll have what she's having. It's one of those movies that changed the lexicon. "There are quizzes about it that I can't answer two out of the hundred questions!" Ephron exclaimed. "I mean, I can't get over how people know it by heart." Harry and Sally also breathed modern life into the romantic comedy, a genre that was flagging in the decades after sex became a readily available commodity. Ephron said she made three successful romantic comedies by "creating three contemporary obstacles. One ["Harry and Sally"] was, 'We're not sleeping together because we're friends.' One ["Sleepless in Seattle"] was, 'We're not sleeping together because we don't know each other,' and one ["You've Got Mail"] was, 'We're not sleeping together because a) we don't know each other and b) we do know each other and hate each other." But she also said that contemporizing a cinematic genre was not what she set out to do -- "I was certainly not meaning to reinvent anything with these movies," she said.

Ephron is currently writing a movie about Julie Powell, who cooked her way through the Julia Child cookbooks; a script about journalist Mike McAlary is at HBO. Still, she has enjoyed returning to her old genre with "I Feel Bad About My Neck." "It's nice to be able to do things that are simply about you and what you're writing -- as opposed to you and what you're writing and will they make it and if they want to make it, can we cast it, and all of those things that are sitting on your shoulder as you write a movie."

Ephron has also lately become a Web-based answer to Maureen Dowd in her role as a regular contributor to the Huffington Post. In her dispatches, she frequently lays a personal template over a political situation, as when she recently compared Al Gore to a former flame. Ephron described Gore as "the ex-boyfriend who's starting to look good after forty bad dates with other guys. He's gained a little weight, but who hasn't? He's still unexciting, but excitement turns out to be overrated. He's not great in bed, but the last guy you slept with who was great in bed never called. What's more, he's on the board of Google, he was in on the IPO, so now he even has a little money. He's starting to look like the man of your dreams ... There's a little voice telling you that once he has something to lose, he'll go back to his old habits and blow it all over again, but you're not listening because you're desperate: you need to find a guy to marry. After all, time is running out."

In the 1970 introduction to her first essay collection, "Wallflower at the Orgy," Ephron wrote of the topics she was then covering -- from Cosmopolitan to Craig Claiborne to Jacqueline Susann to beauty makeovers to the Hamptons -- "I could call these subjects Popular Culture, but I like writing about them so much that I hate to think they have to be justified in this way -- or at least I'm sorry that they do." In fact, Ephron wrote, "I care that there's a war in Indochina, and I demonstrate against it; I care that there's a women's liberation movement, and I demonstrate for it. But I also go to the movies incessantly, and have my hair done once a week, and cook dinner every night, and spend hours in front of the mirror trying to make my eyes look symmetrical, and I care about those things, too."

Thirty-five years after her "Wallflower at the Orgy" introduction, Ephron is still exploring the relationship between the trivial and the profound. "The constant confusion in life for me is that you honestly do feel bad when you see in the mirror that yet another coup de vieux has happened to you," said Ephron, "while at the same time understanding that it's better than being dead. There's this gigantic distance between those two things. One is the most superficial, idiotic thing -- I ruined my manicure! And the other is: I could be dead tomorrow." In some ways, bridging this chasm is what Ephron's career has been about. As one of the few female stars of the journalism world of her youth, and one of even fewer successful women filmmakers today, she has peddled her keen observations about everything from divorce to insanity to Betty Friedan right next to her thoughts on pesto and People and Bill Blass. Sometimes she has mashed them all together in movies that feature pretty people who share pretty kisses at the end.

When you're young, Ephron continued, "you're indulging yourself by feeling too bad about what you see in the mirror because you're going to have plenty of time to feel really bad about it, and you're also indulging yourself if you think that the pain in your hip is kidney cancer, because it probably isn't." The older you get, "the more reality there is to feeling bad about what you see in the mirror and feeling worried about the pains and aches. But there's still a huge gap between those two things. That's a metaphor for everything. That it's possible to be completely trivial and completely serious at the same time, which is something by the way, that women get to do a little better than guys do. And good. Fine."

By Rebecca Traister

Rebecca Traister writes for Salon. She is the author of "Big Girls Don't Cry: The Election that Changed Everything for American Women" (Free Press). Follow @rtraister on Twitter.

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