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This Was My Life

Nora Ephron, the Upper West Side will miss you

Nona Willis Aronowitz
June 27, 2012
Nora Ephron, the OG feminist romantic-comedian.(Flickr)
Nora Ephron, the OG feminist romantic-comedian.(Flickr)

A few months ago, I went to a screening of This Is My Life, the first film Nora Ephron ever directed. I’d never even heard of it, but it was part of a Lena Dunham-curated BAM series called “Girlfriends.” (Both Lena and Nora were going to be there, and I’m a sucker for a celebrity convo.) I’ve had mixed feelings about Ephron’s work in the past—though Sleepless in Seattle is my jam, my love for it is always tempered by the unfunny and morally repugnant You’ve Got Mail—but This Is My Life ended up sticking.

When it was announced that Ephron had died last night, I didn’t see anyone quote This Is My Life on Twitter. In their obit, the New York Times described it as “a dud” and moved on. As Dunham pointed out that night at BAM, the movie’s not even available on DVD. Still, when I heard the news, it was the first film that came to mind.

The movie tells the story of a single mom from Queens who’s a struggling comedienne, and suddenly has an opportunity she can’t pass up: to hit the road and pursue her dreams. Her two daughters aren’t thrilled by her absence; in fact, they become so angry that they run away from their fancy new Manhattan apartment. But it’s not a cautionary tale. The moral isn’t that women should put childrearing above all else. The comedienne ends up having a series of grown-up conversations with her girls about what she wants and hopes for, what she missed out on by having kids so early. Long before women were obsessing over “having it all,” Ephron took an incredibly nuanced approach to the work-life balance question (as did her sister Delia, who co-wrote the film with her).

The movie features one very funny Jewish woman (Julie Kavner), another equally funny Jewish kid (Gaby Hoffman, who also made a surprise appearance at BAM), and a young Samantha Mathis in a mortifying virginity-loss scene (“the first awkward sex scene I ever saw,” Dunham told us). It also ended up showcasing a New York I intimately knew and loved—the Upper West Side of Manhattan, a neighborhood that was and still is unabashedly culturally Jewish, and of which Ephron is a native. I live in South Harlem now, but I cross Morningside Park enough to be instantly reminded of that particular sensibility, the same one infiltrating every line of This Is My Life: the idea that both family and intellectual pursuits are worthwhile, and that talking at length about everything is the best way to solve problems. Even in the decidedly WASPy You’ve Got Mail, the Upper West Side was the backdrop of Meg Ryan’s character’s fight to keep her bookstore, an ever-so-subtle way to give New York Jews credit for her plucky resolve.

(P.S. Hi, I’m Nona, and I’ll be blogging here for the next few days—mostly on the intersection of American Jews, culture, and politics. I know more about bagels and Barney Frank than I do about Israel. )

Writer and Filmmaker With a Genius for Humor [New York Times]

Nona Willis Aronowitz is a writer, editor, and author of Girldrive: Criss-crossing America, Redefining Feminism. Her Twitter feed is @Nona.