Nora Ephron would write about anything: sex and marriage and infidelity, her sisters and her children, her neck and her breasts. She turned sharing into a kind of extreme sport, where the idea of off-limits was for amateurs. The mentality came from her mother, who always told Ephron and her three sisters: Everything is copy. But when Ephron was diagnosed with leukemia, the cancer that killed her in 2012, she landed on the one story she wouldn’t tell.
Well, she wouldn’t. But her son, journalist Jacob Bernstein, would. Apples, trees. You know.
“I knew when she died that I was going to write about her in some way,” he told Variety of his documentary debut. “And I was also self-aware enough to know that I wasn’t going to write a book that was better than any of the books she wrote about herself.” Bernstein’s film, Everything is Copy, debuted at last year’s New York Film Festival and premiered on HBO on Monday night.
Bernstein builds his narrative not around a celebration of his mother’s inherited mantra but an investigation of it; he holds it up to the light to see it more closely. “What is the cost of ‘everything is copy’?” he asks in voiceover. Given her refusal to find fodder in her illness, Bernstein wonders, “Did my mom really believe this mantra of hers?… Why after being so open about everything else did she choose not to address the most significant crisis in her life?”
The tone is loving but fair, honest about Ephron’s weakness and character flaws, even at the end of her life. (Bernstein captures the progression of her illness in a perfect line: “The days turned into weeks and the weeks turned into pneumonia.”) It is striking how open so many of Ephron’s closest friends are about how betrayed and angry they felt upon discovering Ephron had been keeping her cancer a secret. Meryl Streep, who completely unaware that, while she was starring in Ephron’s Julie and Julia, Ephron knew she was ill, said learning of Ephron’s condition “was very hard because it was an ambush.”
There’s not much futzing with the format here. The documentary starts with adorable home videos and an introduction to Ephron’s parents, screenwriters who found success and then alcohol and then failure, or maybe success and then failure and then alcohol; Ephron and her sisters never quite settle on a timeline. Ephron landed at the New York Post, where, as she told it, “The editor was a sexual predator. The managing editor was a lunatic. Sometimes it seemed that half the staff was drunk… I adored it.” In finding her way to Esquire to write a column about women, her sister Delia remembers, “She becomes a star.” (Excerpts from some of her most iconic work, at Esquire and elsewhere, are read by the likes of Lena Dunham, Gaby Hoffman, and Reese Witherspoon.)
And of course there are the movies and the scenes you know so well you probably can’t remember a time before you knew them, they’re so embedded in the pop culture lexicon, the I’ll-have-what-she’s-having moment (a line, incidentally, Ephron didn’t write). There are the luminaries who say they wanted desperately to be liked by her. Charlie Rose says, “I so much wanted her to think that I was as interesting as she was,”; Steven Spielberg admits, “I always wanted her to like me,” and that making her laugh “was like winning an Oscar.”
Maybe the most telling part of the film comes from one of the When Harry Met Sally… stars, Meg Ryan, as an explanation of Ephron’s love for a cutting line: “Her allegiance to language was sometimes more than her allegiance to someone’s feelings. It was just too good of a setup sometimes, for her.”
At times it almost feels like the audience has been invited into a room where we don’t belong, like when Delia describes how “Nora wasn’t really there” when their father died, or when Bernstein tries to suss out from his mother’s friends and his dad how aware his mother was about Carl’s capacity for infidelity. And it’s remarkable how devoted Ephron’s closest confidants are to telling the truth of her, even when it is unflattering — how she was both dazzling and controlling, insightful and judgmental, and possessed, in the words of her Knopf editor Bob Gottlieb, an “overwhelming need to have success.”
“I thought she was really funny and very mean,” Barbara Walters tells us. “And at one point she was mean about me, and I just had to remember that she was funny.”
Everything is Copy honors Ephron’s writing style: Emotional material punctuated with perfect one-liners and populated by your favorite brainy boldfaced names; warm reflections on love that endured and wry appraisals of relationships that blew apart. Bernstein mostly stays off-screen, save for his interviews with family members. With plenty of footage of Ephron reading from her work and giving the kinds of delightful interviews that make even MVP Jennifer Lawrence look like a late night dud, Ephron gets to tell a significant chunk of her own story, even as the opportunity to make sense of it all — to put her hits and misses in context, to bend her life into a narrative arc — is given to the loved ones who survived her.