Sometime Tuesday afternoon the internet started buzzing about a piece by gossip columnist Liz Smith which read a great deal like a eulogy for her friend, author and filmmaker Nora Ephron.
Ephron's publisher quickly issued a statement saying that Ephron was alive, and that seemed to settle things; it was just a banked obit run by accident, never mind, forget it ever happened.
And then, later Tuesday evening, the news broke that Ephron was gone after all. And I thought: Wow, all this back-and-forth over her death would have been funnier if she'd written it.
Ephron could mine comedy from the oddest angles. Silkwood, the movie she wrote about the doomed nuclear-plant whistleblower, has laughs in it. Heartburn, the book and film she wrote about the end of her marriage to Carl Bernstein - and which stars Silkwood's Meryl Streep as Ephron's fictionalized alter ego - finds unexpected comedy in rage and betrayal. And of course Sleepless In Seattle opens with that heartbreaking radio monologue in which Tom Hanks's widowed single father tells the world he's so lonely he doesn't know what to do with himself.
Monologues were Ephron's secret weapon. Having started as a journalist and essayist, she never stopped working lengthy observations into her scripts. When it's not affectionately riffing on Woody Allen's earlier, funny films, Ephron's script for Rob Reiner's When Harry Met Sally...is bursting with long speeches from both of its title characters about the things that irk them. (Second bananas Bruno Kirby and Carrie Fisher have a couple as well.)
Her own directorial efforts are packed with similar asides; This Is My Life has a running thing about how anyone in the Western world is only ever two phone calls away from anyone else; You've Got Mail has that thing about The Godfather containing all the advice anyone needs to live life, as well as all those e-mails exchanged between Hanks and Ryan. Julie & Julia might be even more verbose, though you can tell Ephron was a lot more interested in Meryl Streep and Stanley Tucci than she was in Amy Adams and Chris Messina.
As a film critic, I'm obliged to note that Ephron was a far better writer than she was a director; I suspect most people who look up her IMDb page will be surprised to discover how many of her films they don't associate with her. Michael, Mixed Nuts, Lucky Numbers, that misbegotten meta-update of Bewitched - no, let's not get into that now.
Instead, let's focus on the good stuff: those scripts for Silkwood and Heartburn and When Harry Met Sally ... (and My Blue Heaven and the barely-remembered Cookie, too); the unapologetic schmaltz of Sleepless In Seattle and You've Got Mail, the way the love story of Julia and Paul Child sneaks up on you in Julie & Julia. These are comforts; pleasurable in the moment, easy to digest, relatively guilt-free. And until now, you could watch them without feeling a pang of loss for the woman who wrote them.
It's hard to find the funny in that.