In a former life I was a labor lawyer, working for Hollywood studios. And that’s where I met Nora Ephron.
In the movie industry there are rules upon rules in various union contracts about credits on screen and in ads — about where they go, how big they need to be, and whose name goes before others. It’s insane to the average person, but really, really important to people who work in movies.
Ephron had a film, “Sleepless in Seattle.” She wanted to give the now-very-famous Marc Shaiman a music supervisor credit for selecting the many wonderful tracks for that film. And she wanted to give him credit in a prominent position in the credits before the movie. This was not permitted by her own union, the Directors Guild of America, because it was perceived as a slight to other DGA personnel (the assistant directors, for example) whose names got shoved in the back. ( I know this all seems nuts, but stick with me.)
So we had an arbitration. The DGA on one side, insisting its rules be followed, and the studio, Ephron and me on the other. I was at the time a rather junior lawyer, and she was, well, Nora Ephron. I was not to be the only one enchanted by her.
She was the best witness I had in over 20 years of lawyering. We had a cruddy case (because the rules were the rules), but she was not to be denied. I would ask her a question and she would still be going 15 minutes later, with the arbitrator, the poor DGA lawyer and I transfixed. She, in that very deliberate voice that compelled you to smile, explained why a piece of music was chosen, what it did for the scene and why the scene couldn’t have worked without it. It was a mini-film class. She sprinkled in anecdotes and jokes along the way, radiating warmth and sophisticated wit that I thought only existed in movies like the ones she made. (At times it did seem like a movie about a urbane New York director.)
At the end of her testimony, the DGA lawyer wisely passed. We won the case. Well, she did. I managed not to get in the way. The film was a hit. The musical selections were wonderful, and Shaiman became a Broadway and film composing star. Ephron was gracious throughout, no star fussiness about her. Although I do recall her asking for a Snapple, which was unknown on the West Coast at the time. After being told, “A what?,” she displayed a look of astonishment coupled with pity that only New Yorkers can pull off when confronted with a place lacking the creature comforts of Manhattan.
Like so many others, I’ve adored her films and books, in part because they were modern renditions of classic romantic comedies. But nothing in print or on the screen could top her live testimony. In an increasingly boorish and unpleasant world, she was then, and throughout her career, a literary wit who reminded us that charm could be nurtured, cultivated and pulled out at opportune moments to delight those lucky enough to be in one's company. And for a brief time I was lucky to be in her company.