Nora Ephron Documentary Made by Her Son Curiously Omits Husband and Youngest Son
“Everything Is Copy” is Jacob Bernstein’s entertaining and loving remembrance and tribute to his late, famous mother Nora Ephron. (He co-directed with Nick Hooker.) The title refers to a comment by Nora’s screenwriter mother, Phoebe Wolkind, who told her daughter, “Everything was copy.” On Phoebe’s deathbed – she died of drink – she commanded Nora, “You’re a reporter. Take notes.”
(Phoebe and husband Henry Ephron wrote many classic movies, including “Desk Set” starring Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy, 1957.)
Nora and her mother – as well as Nora’s three sisters, all writers – believed everything that happened to you was material that could be turned into stories, essays, books, films. In other words it was all fair game to mine for material. And this way you controlled the narrative.
The great gift of the documentary, which is by no means a hagiography, is to once again hear Ephron’s words, witty and wise, in her voice. “When you slip on a banana peel, people laugh at you; but when you tell people you slipped on a banana peel, it’s your laugh,” which comes from her anthology “I Feel Bad About My Neck” and which is voiced by Ephron in the documentary. “So you become the hero rather than the victim of the joke.” Always be the heroine, never the victim was her empowering mantra.
The biggest surprise of the documentary is that we don’t hear from Ephron’s husband of 25 years Nick Pileggi. Her youngest sister, Amy, is interviewed briefly, but younger son Max is not interviewed in the film. Perhaps for them her death in June 2012 at age 72 is still too close but it would have been illuminating and terrific to hear from Pileggi especially, whose absence in the film is conspicuous.
There are no big revelations about Nora’s life for anyone who followed her work or was familiar with her movies. Although maybe for the first time you hear Carl Bernstein on “Heartburn” and the effects of the film on him, where he was turned from a Watergate hero to “a goat” as someone says in the film. “The divorce between my parents went on for years and like many celebrity break ups had less to do with heartbreak than a mutual obsession with reputation. They fought over custody and child support and the movie adaptation of ‘Heartburn.’ For my mother ‘Heartburn’ was her central act of resilience, for my father it was steeped in revenge,” says Jacob Bernstein in the film.
“No question about it, I didn’t want that movie made,” Bernstein tells his son in the film. A condition for the divorce, to which Mike Nichols, who directed the film version of Nora’s book, was that Bernstein was awarded joint custody of Jacob and his brother Max and that nowhere in the film was the father to be portrayed as anything but “a loving and caring” father. Nora agreed. Mike Nichols was a signatory on the divorce papers. “It was the craziest divorce ever,” Bernstein said.
An emotional highlight in the film is when Bernstein confesses to Jacob that he was worried how the film might affect how his son regarded him and Jacob admits, “For a while it did.” Bernstein replies, “That was really interesting… for a while it did.” It seems like a spontaneous moment in the film and that this was a discussion they were having for the first time.
Early in the film as Jacob is interviewing his aunt Delia, she asks her nephew if he thought Nora would be happy that he’s made this documentary. “It was her philosophy in a certain way,” he replies.
Yet only Nora’s family members and closest knew that she had a blood disorder for the last six years of her life. When her friends were called by Jacob only a few days before her death and told of her condition they were shocked.
Jacob muses in the film, “For decades, my mother put her private life front and center. Writing about her feelings of physical inadequacy, the indignities of aging and the break up of her marriage to my father, but at the end of her life she chose to stay silent about the blood disorder that killed her. Why after being so open about everything else did she chose not to address the most significant crisis of her life?”
This was a story she couldn’t control someone suggests. And she was a control freak Delia says.
Close friends like Meryl Streep had no idea Ephron was sick and felt “ambushed” by news of her death. The various theories for why Ephron never wrote about her illness are bounced around, including that she was concerned how news of her infirmity would affect her career and opportunities to direct films, but nothing conclusive or satisfying is concluded. Nora never said why she chose not to tell she was sick. Even in the final month of her life, as she was dying in the hospital, she worked on scripts, including with her sister Delia, with whom she often collaborated.
Liz Smith, who knew Ephron well, weights in why Nora didn’t tell friends she was so ill. “She did it because she was a control freak.”
Celebrities and notable people who appear in the film to talk about Nora and read from her essays, include film agent Bryan Lourd, Richard Cohen, Bob Balaban, Barry Diller, David Remnick, Marie Brenner, Gay Talese, Steven Spielberg, Carl Bernstein, David Greenberg, Amy Pascal, Rob Reiner, Rita Wilson, Tom Hanks, Lena Dunham, Barbara Walters and the late Mike Nichols.
This is not a sentimental look at Nora Ephron, who could be bitchy and brusque and always hilarious, wise and witty. She softened after her marriage to Pileggi. “My mom was kind and she was generous,” Jacob says in the film. “She was also stern and unfailing honest and the combination of those things made people seek her approval. It’s very powerful to be someone who’s both loved and feared.”
“Everything Is Copy” is an HBO Documentary Film release schedule for next spring.