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Nora Ephron dead; 'When Harry Met Sally' writer had leukemia

Actress Zoe Kazan and Nora Ephron attend a

Actress Zoe Kazan and Nora Ephron attend a lunch at the 2011 Tribeca Film Festival at Tribeca Lofts on April 21, 2011 in New York City. (April 21, 2011) Credit: Getty Images

Nora Ephron, a writer, producer, director and three-time Oscar nominee whose credits include the landmark romantic comedies "When Harry Met Sally . . . ," "You've Got Mail" and "Sleepless in Seattle," died Tuesday night in a Manhattan hospital.

The cause was pneumonia brought on by acute myeloid leukemia, her son Jacob Bernstein said.

Ephron, 71, was perhaps the only female filmmaker in Hollywood to amass so many well-known commercial hits that her name became synonymous with a genre. "Nora Ephron movies" focused on smart, modern women who wanted a little old-fashioned magic in their lives and usually got it. Her female-oriented formula was sometimes criticized as less than feminist, but Ephron's movies proved hugely profitable, and their quotable lines and memorable scenes often became cultural touchstones.

"When Harry Met Sally . . . ," with its then-shocking fake-orgasm scene in a diner, helped launch the career of Billy Crystal, then known primarily as a stand-up comic, and turned Meg Ryan into a bankable A-list star. Ryan would go on to work with Ephron on two more hits, both co-starring Tom Hanks. One was 1993's "Sleepless in Seattle," about a grieving widower whose plight touches the heart of a newspaperwoman across the country; the other was 1998's "You've Got Mail," an Internet-age version of the 1940 Jimmy Stewart classic "The Shop Around the Corner" (and one of the best product-placements AOL ever received).

Personal drama

Ephron turned her personal life into a movie as well with 1986's "Heartburn," based on her novel, which was in turn inspired by her famously turbulent marriage to Washington Post reporter Carl Bernstein, whom she divorced in 1980. The film starred Meryl Streep and Jack Nicholson as a food writer and a political columnist. In 1987, Ephron married Nicholas Pileggi, who wrote the screenplays for Martin Scorsese's "Goodfellas" and "Casino."

Ephron's prolific writing career covered not just screenplays and novels but stage-plays and essays. "Love, Loss and What I Wore," a play she wrote with her sister, Delia Ephron, was a critical hit; her 2006 collection of humorous essays, "I Feel Bad About My Neck: And Other Thoughts on Being a Woman," became a bestseller. She also kept up with the digital age, writing a regular blog for the Huffington Post.

Nora Ephron was born May 19, 1941, to screenwriter parents, Henry and Phoebe Ephron, in New York City, and was raised in Beverly Hills, Calif. After graduating from Wellesley College in 1962 she returned to New York and worked for several years as a journalist, but eventually found her voice as an essayist and humorist, writing for magazines like New York and Esquire. An early foray into screenwriting came when she worked with William Goldman on the Watergate drama "All the President's Men," based on the Bernstein-Woodward book, though her version was never used.

Ephron reached back to her journalism roots for her first major screenplay, "Silkwood," based on the true story of plutonium-plant whistle-blower Karen Silkwood (Meryl Streep), who died under mysterious circumstances. The film, directed by Mike Nichols, earned Ephron an Oscar nomination for writing. She earned two more for "When Harry Met Sally . . . ," directed by Rob Reiner, and "Sleepless In Seattle," which found Ephron in the director's chair. Ephron wrote, directed and produced her last film, 2009's "Julie & Julia."

Responding to critics

If Ephron frustrated some feminist critics who wished for stronger role-models in her movies, Ephron might have been enough of a role model herself. In an interview in The New Yorker before the release of "Julie & Julia," she showed little patience for cries of gender equality in Hollywood. "I can't stand people complaining," she said. "So it's not a conversation that interests me, do you know? Those endless women-in-film panels. It's like, just do it! Just do it. Write something else if this one didn't get made. It's my ongoing argument with a whole part of the women's movement."

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