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Nora Ephron: What She Changed For Women

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Few women I know actually met Nora Ephron. But most feel like we knew her.

Or more accurately, like she knew us.

Not because she was one of us, but because she was so much more, a distillation of what women felt but didn't yet know, or would have said if they'd been clever enough. The quips the rest of us wished we'd made, but didn't think of until the moment had passed? Ephron gave us voice.

She was our secrets, our snark, our doubts and our triumphs writ large. Rereading her words and re-watching her films today, you feel they were not so much created, but discovered -- moments in time, ways of looking at the world, changes in women and what they wanted from life, all waiting for Ephron to sum them up, just so.

She nailed what we wanted from love, and because of her, a generation has waited to hear some version of what Billy Crystal told Meg Ryan in "When Harry Met Sally": "I love that you get cold when it's 71 degrees out. I love that it takes you an hour and a half to order a sandwich. I love that you get a little crinkle above your nose when you're looking at me like I'm nuts. I love that after I spend the day with you, I can still smell your perfume on my clothes. And I love that you are the last person I want to talk to before I go to sleep at night."

She did the same for divorce, letting us live her revenge vicariously. When she caught her second husband, Carl Bernstein, cheating while she was pregnant with their second child, she wrote a roman a clef, "Heartburn," and, first on the page and then on the screen, she immortalized the man as one who was "capable of having sex with a Venetian blind."

She managed to celebrate romance and roast it at the same time -- which, when you think of it, is exactly what romance deserves. "When you're attracted to someone," she wrote in "Sleepless in Seattle," "it just means that your subconscious is attracted to their subconscious, subconsciously. So what we think of as fate is just two neuroses knowing that they are a perfect match."

She had children, and kept her sense of humor. "When your children are teenagers," she warned in "I Feel Bad About My Neck: And Other Thoughts on Being a Woman," "it's important to have a dog so that someone in the house is happy to see you."

She got older, and became even funnier. "There's a reason why forty, fifty, and sixty don't look the way they used to," she quipped in "I Feel Bad About My Neck," "and it's not because of feminism, or better living through exercise. It's because of hair dye. In the 1950's only 7 percent of American women dyed their hair; today there are parts of Manhattan and Los Angeles where there are no gray-haired women at all."

And oh what she did for sex.

The most famous scene in all of her movies -- perhaps in all of romantic comedy -- was the one in "When Harry Met Sally" where Meg Ryan's character fakes an orgasm in Katz's Deli -- a moment that still makes women smirk and makes men insecure. Sex is something to be celebrated, not apologized for, she told us. No pretending or game playing -- unless of course, that works for you. "In my sex fantasy, nobody ever loves me for my mind," she once said.

She toppled barriers -- starting as a mail girl at Newsweek because the magazine didn't hire female writers; writing screenplays because it allowed her to work from home when her children were small; becoming a director at a time when there were no women at the helm of big-budget feature films; writing bestsellers, and a Broadway show, and succeeding at each one. "Above all, be the heroine of your life, not the victim," she said in a 1996 speech to the graduating class of Wellesley College (from which she graduated in 1962).

But most of all, she opened doors. By putting the female experience on the screen and on the page, she made it visible, and worthy, and she elevated it to the level of art. She took "women's topics" -- romance, relationships, food, motherhood, clothes, hair, friendship, aging, looking young -- and declared that they were not only worthy of conversation, but they could draw at the box office, which is the only language Hollywood understands.

She laughed, loudly, at the thinking that women weren't supposed to be funny, and that they were supposed to stay quiet -- paving the way for Tina Fey and Lena Dunham and Mindy Kaling and just about every woman who has made you chuckle lately.

In recent years, Ephron seems to have spent a lot of time looking back, writing often -- fleetingly, jokingly, but often -- about the end of a life.

In "I Feel Bad About My Neck": "...the amount of maintenance involving hair is genuinely overwhelming. Sometimes I think that not having to worry about your hair anymore is the secret upside of death."

In "I Remember Nothing": "I am old. I am sixty-nine years old. I'm not really old, of course. Really old is eighty. But if you are young, you would definitely think that I'm old."

In "Heartburn": "I always read the last page of a book first so that if I die before I finish I'll know how it turned out."

It was a great read, Nora.

But far, far too short.