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Writer-director Nora Ephron dies at 71

Scribe scored Oscar noms and box office successes

Nora Ephron who started as an acerbic essay writer before moving into film as a director and being Oscar nommed for writing “Silkwood,” “When Harry Met Sally” and “Sleepless in Seattle,” died in a New York hospital on Tuesday. She was 71.

Ephron died of complications from myelodysplasia, a blood disorder also called preleukemia, that was diagnosed six years ago.

She directed eight films, the most recent of which was 2009’s well-regarded Meryl Streep-Amy Adams starrer “Julie and Julia.”

Ephron picked up her first Oscar nomination in 1984 for the script she wrote with Alice Arlen to “Silkwood,” also starring Streep. She was then nominated in 1990 for the romantic comedy “When Harry Met Sally,” a huge box office hit that starred Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan. With David S. Ward and Jeff Arch, she shared an Oscar nom in 1994 for “Sleepless in Seattle,” starring Tom Hanks and Ryan.

At the time of her death, Ephron had film projects in development including a biopic on singer Peggy Lee that she had penned and was to direct, with Reese Witherspoon starring and Marc Platt to produce at Fox 2000, and “Lost in Austen,” which she had adapted and signed on to direct in April for Mammoth Screen and Sony.

“Nora, as a writer, director and producer, is a legendary triple threat in entertainment’s great trifecta: Broadway, Hollywood and publishing. With her passing, many lights have been extinguished — studio lights, theater lights, of course. But mostly, the light from the chandelier above her dining table where so many gathered to share, with Nick and her sons, her extraordinary life. So many friends will miss her terribly and no longer know who to call, what to see, what to listen to, where and what to eat, and often, what to think. Such is her energy, her enthusiasm and her gift for friendship,” said Sony Corporation chairman Howard Stringer.

“We are devastated and heartbroken. We all loved Nora very much,” added Sony Pictures Entertainment co-chair Amy Pascal.

Ephron began as a journalist in New York, scoring a scoop in 1966, while working for the Post, that Bob Dylan had secretly married. She raised her profile further with a 1972 essay, “A Few Words About Breasts,” and became a widely known humorist through her perch as a columnist at Esquire, essays for other outlets and a series of essay collections. Her pointed, witty essays captured the zeitgeist of the times, often focusing on sex, food and New York City.

Her second marriage, to journalist Carl Bernstein, led indirectly to her career as a filmmaker. William Goldman penned the screenplay to “All the President’s Men,” based on the book by Bernstein and Bob Woodward; “Carl and Bob weren’t happy with it,” she told the U.K.’s Guardian newspaper in 2007, “and decided they should redo it, which was not something they should have decided. So Carl and I rewrote William Goldman’s script. It was a great way to learn, because Goldman was such a great screenwriter that just typing his stage directions taught me a huge amount.” Their work was not used, but it did lead someone to offer her the job of penning a TV movie.

After just two TV credits in the 1970s, for writing an episode of “Adam’s Rib” and the telepic “Perfect Gentleman” in 1978, Ephron saw the “Silkwood” script she wrote with Alice Arlen made into a highly regarded film in 1983. The Mike Nichols-directed drama — based on the true story of a whistleblower in the nuclear power industry who met a suspicious death — was a far cry from the romantic comedies with which Ephron would later become associated.

The real-life infidelity of husband Bernstein inspired Ephron’s 1983 novel “Heartburn,” which she adapted into the script for the 1986 Nichols film that starred Streep and Jack Nicholson. Continuing her interest in food, the novel included recipes from the main character, a magazine food writer.

The success of “When Harry Met Sally,” directed by Rob Reiner in 1989, vastly increased Ephron’s standing in Hollywood. The film included many lines of memorable repartee between Crystal and Ryan, though the most-quoted, “I’ll have what she’s having,” was said to have been improvised by thesp Estelle Reiner.

Her long history in Hollywood — and the way she saw her screenwriter parents treated — led her to try directing, encouraged by Nichols. She made her directorial debut on a smaller film she also wrote, “This Is My Life,” starring Julie Kavner as a standup comic with two young daughters, in 1992. The next year she directed the much higher-profile film “Sleepless in Seattle,” a box office winner. “Sleepless” was the quintessential romantic comedy for some, though Variety and others found it “purposefully schmaltzy.”

She scored at the B.O. once more in 1998, writing and directing “You’ve Got Mail” and again working with Hanks and Ryan.

Ephron and her sister wrote several projects together, including the Nora Ephron-directed adaptation of sitcom “Bewitched” in 2005, but the effort, starring Nicole Kidman and Will Ferrell, was a disaster both critically and commercially.

But her keen observations about aging in the 2006 essay collection “I Feel Bad About My Neck: And Other Reflections on Being a Woman” was a No. 1 bestseller. In 2010, another essay collection, “I Remember Nothing: And Other Reflections,” was published.

Born in New York City, Ephron was the daughter of screenwriters Henry and Phoebe Ephron, with whom she moved to Beverly Hills at the age of 4.

Ephron made a foray into stagework with the 2002 play “Imaginary Friends,” about the caustic rivalry between writers Lillian Hellman and Mary McCarthy. More recently, she wrote the play “Lucky Guy,” about New York tabloid columnist Mike McAlary, and Tom Hanks was in talks to star in the production on Broadway next year.

She received the DGA Honors in 2011, and Ephron was recognized several times by the Writers Guild of America, drawing original-screenplay nominations for “Silkwood,” “When Harry Met Sally” and “Sleepless in Seattle,” an adapted screenplay nom for “Julie and Julia” as well as the guild’s Ian McLellan Hunter Award, presented to a WGA member in honor of his/her body of work as a writer in motion pictures or television, in 2003.

Ephron was married three times, the first time to writer Dan Greenburg, the second to Bernstein.

She is survived by her third husband, the writer Nicholas Pileggi; two sons by Bernstein, Jacob and Max, the latter an occasional actor; and sisters Delia and Amy, both screenwriters; and sister Hallie, a journalist and novelist.

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