Near the end of her life, Nora Ephron reached out to Lena Dunham. She had seen Dunham’s film Tiny Furniture, and surely recognized herself in the young, talented writer and actress. The kinship between the two became a friendship and mentorship, and when Ephron passed, it was Dunham who wrote the New Yorker’s tribute to the great writer-director. It only seems right that these two women formed a bond that affected their lives at major turning points for each of them—Dunham’s show Girls was about to air, and Ephron was quietly fighting the illness that would take her life.
Nora Ephron’s mother famously told her, “Everything is copy.” And so it was: Ephron mined her own life for material, lending an air of sharp self-awareness to her many projects. As a quadruple-hyphenate— journalist, essayist, screenwriter, and director—Ephron battled to make films for and about women, and the results are some of the most enduringly popular movies of the century: When Harry Met Sally, Sleepless in Seattle, Silkwood, Heartburn, You’ve Got Mail. Her ability to write female characters for the screen who were witty, smart, and relatable was undeniable, matched only by the searching social critique and biting humor in the pages of her essay collections. She could do it all: write, direct, and publish the smartest essays on the shelf.
Most great comedy has a certain amount of pain behind it. This is what makes humor resonate—a comic’s ability to frame life’s bitterest pills in ways that help us grapple with their meaning and laugh in recognition. Nora Ephron’s own pain is laid bare on the page time and again, from mourning the indignity of her small breasts, to tracking the public disintegration of her marriage, to the shock of losing both friends and neck-area firmness after age sixty. This was one of her many gifts: the ability to make women laugh about what frightens and baffles them. Love, aging, navigating life as a woman: these things are not for the faint of heart, and Nora Ephron was, and still remains, an excellent guide through life’s obstacles and absurdities.
In When Harry Met Sally, Billy Crystal’s Harry declares his love for Meg Ryan’s Sally by listing her faults: “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.” This is a funny nod to their often contentious friendship, but it’s also incredibly romantic and genuine. Pure Ephron: making us laugh while making us swoon.
One of life’s greatest shocks is discovering that one’s mother watches Girls. It’s not just the amount of sex in the show—it’s that the sex is far too similar to the sex you are having. It’s not the regrettable behavior of the titular girls—it’s that you act that way all the time. Lena Dunham has put onscreen the lives of twenty-something girls— in all of their awkward, messy, humiliating glory—making it much harder to lie to our own mothers about how well we are doing.
Dunham spends a significant amount of time on Girls without clothes on, often while having decidedly un-cinematic sex. Her character Hannah Horvath gets HPV, shaves off her eyebrows, worries about the stuff that gets up around the sides of condoms, treats her friends badly, takes her bra off in a club while on cocaine, and worries about the future of her publishing deal when her editor dies. She is not tactful, she is often selfish, but she is trying hard to make her way in the world. Young women made Girls a phenomenon because they saw themselves in Dunham’s writing and her flawed, richly-drawn characters. Much like watching a particularly terrible accident, they could not look away.
Lena Dunham has suffered the slings and arrows of great success at a young age: criticism of her voice, her body, her family, her writing, her every tweet. But rather than turn inward, Dunham has allowed her audience an even more intimate look at her psyche in a new essay collection, Not That Kind of Girl. It’s a very Ephron-esque book—a balance of humor and deep introspection. She covers love, sex, friendship, the sexism of the film industry, the idea of “having it all.” Reading it, you can’t help but smile at how much it sounds like the second coming of one of Ephron’s collections—dirtier, sure, and more concerned with dynamics of gender and privilege, but with the same hilarious, heart-wrenching insight and heart. Through her fearless writing onscreen and off, Dunham inspires young women to follow Nora Ephron’s advice to, “above all, be the heroine of your life, not the victim.”
How to cite this page
Jewish Women's Archive. "Writer-Directors." (Viewed on June 22, 2021) <https://jwa.org/powercouples/ephron-dunham>.