To direct movies, Nora Ephron draws on her own life

March 16, 1992|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Film Critic

What's all this about a director being a general, moving an army of actors and technicians to his whim?

Nora Ephron isn't having any of it, thank you very much.

"I didn't feel like a general," the director of "This Is My Life" says with a laugh. "Armies aren't my metaphor. I tried to feel like the host at a party. It was my job to make all the guests feel comfortable."

The film, an account of a troubled mother-daughter relationship set against the dual backgrounds of the mother's show biz career and the daughter's adolescence, has just opened to excellent reviews. She co-wrote it with her sister Delia from a novel by Meg Wolitzer.

"I never went into movies to direct," says Ephron, who was nominated for Oscars for her screenplays for "When Harry Met Sally . . ." and "Silkwood." "But I always enjoyed hanging out on the set. And when [producer] Linda Obst decided I should direct, I hadn't been saying 'I must direct.' I never felt I would die if I didn't get to direct."

Ephron, of course, was famous before she got into movies. In the '70s, as a columnist for Esquire and New York, her essays were acerbic and witty, finally collected in the cult book "A Wallflower at the Orgy." For a while she was a minor celeb on the talk show circuit, appearing one night on the "Dick Cavett Show" in hot pants.

"You're only young once," she says, "so what the hell."

Then, famously she left first husband (and writer) Dan Greenburg for Carl Bernstein, the Washington Postie who broke the Watergate scandal and co-wrote "All the President's Men" and fathered her two children. He in turn left her for quite a few others, as recounted in Ephron's bitter novel of a marriage breakup, "Heartburn." (She is now married to crime writer and screenwriter Nicholas Pileggi, who wrote "Wiseguys" and the screenplay based on it, "Goodfellas.")

About this time, Ephron left journalism for the movies, writing, successively, "Silkwood," and "Heartburn" before "When Harry Met Sally . . ."

She has no regrets about giving up journalism.

"There are just so many leads you can write. Every once in a while, something comes along and I think, 'Boy, I'd like to cover that.' But I think of 'When Harry Met Sally . . .' as a movie full of little essays on men and women, so I don't completely miss it. And everybody who writes takes a crack at a screenplay sooner or later," she says. "Still, I don't think I would have become a full-time screenwriter if I hadn't had kids."

The movie plays in subtle ways with the dilemma of her own life as a writer with a hot career and a mother.

"When you direct, you go to your own well -- it was all these things I knew about. It was the main subject of my life. I was not doing a movie about basic training. There was a rich lode of material for me to dig into."

She said that working with the actors was something she particularly enjoyed.

"Both Rob [Reiner, who directed "When Harry Met Sally . . ."] and Mike [Nichols, who directed "Silkwood" and "Heartburn"] showed me how much the actors can give you if you just feed them. I learned a million things working with Rob. I hated it at first when someone changed my lines. Cher [in "Silkwood"] is no writer; but when you have someone as brilliant as Billy Crystal [in "When Harry Met Sally . . ."], you say, 'Be my guest.'

"So learning to be flexible because you've got such gifted actors, that is the great gift of making a movie."

She's currently working on a screenplay with partner Alice Arlen based on the life of Life magazine correspondent Marguerite Higgins, who won the Pulitzer Prize covering the first six months of the Korean War.

"I hope to direct again," she says."But not that one. I don't do tanks."

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