The woman who made orgasms awkward

Nora Ephron may be 65, but she still has the chutzpah to work a crowd. She demonstrated this while speaking about her writing career this past Wednesday at Heinz Hall in the Cultural District as part of the Pittsburgh Speakers Series. The critically acclaimed screenwriter, most notably of the Academy Award-nominated When Harry Met Sally, had the crowd in hysterics over everything from parenting skills to orgasms.

Ephron, daughter of screenwriter parents, admits it was her mother who sparked her interest in writing. “When someone was mean to me in school, I would run home to tell my mother, but she wouldn’t hear it. ‘Everything is copy,’ my mother would say. ‘When you can turn your sorrow into comedy, then I’ll listen.’ ” Ephron did not begin her career as the comedic writer she is known as today, but rather as a journalist. A self-named “lover of facts,” Ephron never thought she would follow in her parents’ footsteps to script movies. Ephron became a reporter for the New York Post in 1962 after majoring in journalism at Wellesley College and wrote freelance for magazines such as Esquire and Vogue. It was not until she filed for divorce from her first husband, journalist Dan Greenburg, that Ephron decided to trade facts for fiction and break into the film industry.

Ephron’s most famous movies include This is My Life, You’ve Got Mail, Silkwood, Sleepless in Seattle, and When Harry Met Sally. The last three films received Academy Award nominations for Best Original Screenplay. Although the sole screenwriter for these films, Ephron claims that collaboration is what really makes a film successful. Take the infamous “orgasm scene” in When Harry Met Sally, when Sally (Meg Ryan) fakes an orgasm in the middle of a crowded restaurant to prove to Harry (Billy Crystal) that all men aren’t the sex gods they claim to be. Originally, Ephron had written that Sally would reveal this secret to Harry in a private setting during a one-on-one conversation between the two characters. But after the first read-through with the actors, Ryan offered the idea for Sally to fake the orgasm in a restaurant. Crystal then recommended that in the final line of the scene, another woman customer should say, “I’ll have what she’s having.”
Ephron said this wasn’t the first case in which actors gave input to the script. She said that Tom Hanks, the lead in Sleepless in Seattle, would often improvise his character’s lines to make them more “manly.” With a shrug Ephron remarked, “As a woman, it is easier for me to write lines for women characters than male characters. When Tom told me that his character’s line was too feminine, I would ask him, ‘Well, Tom, what would you say in this situation?’ and then I would type up exactly what he said.”

More recently, Ephron directed last year’s Bewitched, starring Nicole Kidman and Will Ferrell. She wrote the novel Heartburn, the hysterical personal account of her divorce from her second husband, which was made into a movie starring Jack Nicholson and Meryl Streep. The book Ephron is currently promoting, I Feel Bad About My Neck: And Other Thoughts on Being a Woman, was published this year and details her own panic-stricken battle with old age and the idea of mortality.

Ephron is lauded by critics as “the revivalist of romantic comedy,” but, she also has an amazing ability to connect with people on a personal level. She speaks to her audiences, whether through the microphone at Heinz Hall or through her films, with the amicability of a good friend who wishes to give others advice. “Every 10 years, do something you don’t know how to do,” she recommended, crediting her career transitions from journalist to screenwriter to film director for her ability to maintain her creativity. But more appealing than her exciting career is Ephron’s buoyant personality: “If you can survive a painful [event], turn it into something to laugh about.” And lucky for us, her movies make us laugh very hard.

The Pittsburgh Speakers Series will be hosting James Lovell, commander of Apollo 13, on November 8; and Colin Powell, former U.S. Secretary of State, on December 6. For ticket information, call 412.392.4900.