Debuting filmmaker Jacob Bernstein delivers a moving biographical portrait of his mother, the late Nora Ephron, in his highly personal documentary co-directed with Nick Hooker. Chronicling the life and career of the screenwriter/director of such hits as Silkwood, When Harry Met Sally, Sleepless in Seattle and Julie & Julia, Bernstein takes full advantage of his access to family members and celebrity family-friends. Everything is Copy — Ephron’s motto that, for a writer, everything that happens in life, from good to bad, is fodder — is receiving its world premiere at the New York Film Festival prior to airing on HBO in March.
Ephron (1941-2012) was immersed in the show business world early on, growing up in Beverly Hills as the daughter of screenwriters Phoebe and Henry Ephron, whose credits include Carousel, Desk Set and Daddy Long Legs. After graduating from Wellesley College in 1962, she moved to New York and landed a job at the New York Post, having proven her abilities by writing for a Post parody during the newspaper strike. Her position led to a series of essays for such magazines as Esquire, excerpts of which are read in the film by stars including Lena Dunham, Reese Witherspoon, Meg Ryan, Rita Wilson and Gaby Hoffmann, all photographed in stark black and white.
Her marriage to famed Washington Post journalist Carl Bernstein notoriously ended in acrimony, which she acerbically fictionalized in her best-seller Heartburn. For what may be the first time, Bernstein comments about his opposition to the Mike Nichols film version — “No question about it, I didn’t want that movie made,” he tells his son — and reveals that he only agreed to grant Ephron a divorce if he was awarded joint custody of their two sons and if the film portrayed him as a devoted father.
In one of the film’s more affecting moments, Bernstein wonders aloud if the book and film had affected his son’s feelings towards him.
“For a while, it did,” Jacob admits.
A slew of famous faces testify as to Ephron’s combination of sharp, sarcastic humor and tender warmth, the latter of which came to fuller fore after her marriage to writer Nick Pileggi, described by more than one friend as the great love of her life. Among those offering observations are Tom Hanks, Rob Reiner, Steven Spielberg, Meryl Streep, Gay Talese and Barry Diller, the latter humorously recalling that Ephron had fired him from their high school newspaper.
Ephron’s three sisters — Delia, Amy and Hallie — are also interviewed, with frequent collaborator Delia delivering an evocative Freudian slip.
“Two days before we died,” she begins one story, before realizing her mistake. “We died … do you believe that?” she asks, shaking her head.
The subject’s wit is also on ample display via clips from her televised interviews with such talk show hosts as Dick Cavett, Charlie Rose and David Letterman.
The film comprehensively covers Ephron’s multi-faceted career, from books to films to comic essays to plays. And while it spends much time on her hits, it doesn’t neglect the time she served in “movie jail” with such flops as Lucky Numbers and Mixed Nuts.
The most affecting portion of Everything is Copy concerns Ephron’s illness that led to her death at age 71. The film’s title proves ironic, as Ephron, who mined every aspect of her life for material, kept her fatal condition a secret from practically everyone, including almost all those closest to her. Longtime friend Liz Smith says that it was because Ephron was a “control freak” and this was one story she couldn’t control. Others say it was because she wanted to keep working and was worried she’d be denied the opportunity if her health issues were known. Either way, her decision to remain mum merely adds another level of complexity to a supremely talented woman who — judging by the tears freely flowing in the film — was as loved as she was admired.
Production: HBO Documentary Films, Consolidated Pictures
Director/screenwriter: Jacob Bernstein
Co-director: Nick Hooker
Producers: Carly Hugo, Matt Parker
Executive producers: Graydon Carter, Annabelle Dunne
Director of photography: Bradford Young
Editor: Bob Eisenhardt
Not rated, 89 minutes