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Nora Ephron, Roger Ebert: Because they could not stop for death

Chris Jones

3:44 PM CDT, April 4, 2013

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There is something very unusual about Nora Ephron's bio in the Playbill for her new play, "Lucky Guy," a piece about famed tabloid newspaperman Mike McAlary, which opened Monday night on Broadway and stars Tom Hanks. The little sketch of Ephron, stuck in the usual spot, starts out conventionally enough, listing her screenwriting credits (such as "This Is My Life," "Sleepless in Seattle" and "Michael"), her first Broadway play ("Imaginary Friends" in 2002) and her journalistic bona fides, including youthful years spent in the newsroom of the New York Post, back when a deliciously stewing scoop could be savored, and marinated in the barroom, all the way until the next morning when the suckers could finally catch up. The bio tells of best-sellers and a new collection of essays, "The Most of Nora Ephron," due out this fall.

But it makes no mention of one salient fact. Ephron died in June.

Her death came from complications from acute myeloid leukemia, a condition with which she had been diagnosed some six years earlier, although she had told almost no one. One possible explanation for the omission can be found in an essay Ephron's son Jacob Bernstein wrote for The New York Times Magazine last month, under the headline "How My Mother Planned to Outwork Death."

"The thing is," Bernstein wrote, "you really can't turn a fatal illness into a joke. It is almost the only disclosure that turns you into the victim rather than the hero of your story. For her, tragedy was a pit of cliches. So she stayed quiet."

Ephron did not stop working. As Bernstein points out, his mother spent that six years directing a film and writing two movies and two plays, including her homage to McAlary, who, surely not coincidentally, also did some of his best writing while battling cancer. Perhaps that was why Ephron was so attracted to his story, and why "Lucky Guy" is told with such sentimental affection for a profession that can be so much fun, people tend to forget to quit and go home.

Ephron could, of course, have been writing about Roger Ebert, the Sun-Times movie critic who died Thursday. Even as he was in his last days, Ebert wrote a note to readers, burying the lead in a way no self-respecting tabloid editor could possibly approve. With his characteristic policy of full disclosure, Ebert penned a note to his fans to say that his cancer had returned (in that way, he and Ephron could not be more different) and that he was taking a "leave of presence" (a term Ephron surely would have loved).

But even as he suggested (at the time, improbably) that he was going to cut back, Ebert unleashed a dizzying barrage of new projects and branding initiatives on a digital landscape that did not even exist when McAlary was churning out those columns about police corruption and coverups for the Post or the Daily News — depending on which was making him the most lucrative offer in an era when a city columnist with the right Rolodex of chatty cops could command a multiyear, million-dollar contract. The colorful, mostly Irish editors and writers who populated McAlary's retro, booze- and emotion-soaked world were often betting men. And at the moment when Ebert's note came out, if you were to bet on any writer with a real chance of outworking death, Ephron-style, Ebert surely would have been that writer.

In the end, not Ebert, nor Ephron nor McAlary were so lucky. But then that depends on how you define luck. As vividly depicted by Hanks — one of those rare actors who can manifest boyish charm and a pall of existential sadness at precisely the same moment — McAlary had a great time living out the truism, and truth, that everything can be copy. He reached his peak at a very good time: back before Rudy Giuliani had cleaned up New York, back before the economics of the news business were upended by the digital revolution, back when money was still sloshing around a hypercompetitive multipublication landscape. It is, of course, a different world now. Just a couple of weeks ago, Time Out Chicago announced plans to abandon its print edition and cut its staff.

Just a couple of days before he died, Ebert was in brand-expansion mode, keeping on keeping on. But then Ebert, a lucky guy, also was a world unto himself.

McAlary also knew no such world of contraction. Sure, the dysfunctional elements of the 1980s and '90s tabloid universe are acknowledged in this play — which was directed by George C. Wolfe and also features a raft of character actors like Peter Gerety, Courtney Vance and Christopher McDonald. Along with his driving ambition fueled by envy, McAlary was also a boozer who would get behind the wheel. But Ephron, clearly, had no heart for some expose of sexism, selfishness and mercurial reportage. Maura Tierney, who plays McAlary's wife, Alice, has scenes where she justly complains of being left alone, parked in the burbs with the kids while McAlary prowls the Midtown streets, and gets drunk at Elaine's, all in a perpetual search of ideas for columns. McAlary could be a smug jerk and a lousy spouse. But Tierney's moving and exceedingly complicated performance also makes clear that she knows who she married and that her workaholic, never-say-die husband could not live any other way.

Tierney, surely not coincidentally, is a cancer survivor herself.

"Lucky Guy" is at the Broadhurst Theater, 235 West 44th St., New York, 212-239-6200, telecharge.com.

cjones5@tribune.com