What We Learned From Everything Is Copy, a Moving Film Nora Ephron’s Son Jacob Bernstein Made About Her

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Photo: Patrick McMullan

This story was originally posted on October 5, 2015. Since Everything Is Copy premieres on HBO tonight, we've updated and republished the article.

When Nora Ephron, the famed director, screenwriter, and essayist whose take-no-prisoners wit made her an icon for generations of women, passed away from complications of leukemia in 2012 at the age of 71, the news came as a shock not just to the public but to many of her friends. This June will mark four years since her death, and still very little is known about what went on behind closed doors. Despite the lifelong mantra that "Everything is copy," or that the worst hiccups of life always ought to be seen as material for one's writing and jokes, she'd kept her illness secret from all but a select few.

Within her inner circle, of course, was Ephron's eldest son, Jacob Bernstein, a journalist himself, who's spent the last few years writing about his mother's death and looking for answers through a fascinating documentary, Everything Is Copy, that will air on HBO tonight, March 21. Like mother, like son. The documentary, which Bernstein wrote and co-directed with Nick Hooker, is a followup to Bernstein's beautiful tribute to Ephron in The New York Times Magazine. To make it, he combed through archival footage and interviewed his mother's friends — ranging from frequent collaborators Mike Nichols, Meryl Streep, Meg Ryan, and Tom Hanks to journalists like Gay Talese and Richard Cohen — to create something that is both a loving portrait of an indelible personality and a form of group therapy aimed at answering one question: Why did a woman so committed to full transparency choose to be so guarded about the greatest battle of her life?

Bernstein debuted Everything Is Copy last fall at the New York Film Festival, and critics were enthusiastic. As Bernstein explained in his NYFF introduction, HBO is an appropriate home for the film: Ephron was writing a series for the network when she died. Though, Bernstein added, "We'd much rather have that." Everyone in the room understood what he meant.

That night at NYFF was a hometown crowd in the best sense of that term, with Ephron's dearest friends and family members there to spend one more night with her in the city she loved. Diane von Furstenberg sat next to husband Barry Diller, who tells a funny story in the movie about Ephron firing him from their high-school newspaper. The woman behind me who kept cackling at the many clips of Ephron's sharp wit turned out to be Rita Wilson. Also present was Jacob's father, Carl Bernstein, made famous for his reporting on Watergate, and made infamous in Heartburn, the novel Ephron wrote after leaving him for cheating on her when she was pregnant with Jacob's brother Max. One of Copy's most fascinating moments is watching father and son sit on a couch and have an honest, compassionate discussion about their mutual past. Carl confesses to Jacob that his great fear during the divorce was that the book and subsequent movie (starring Meryl Streep and Jack Nicholson) would affect what Jacob thought of him. Jacob pauses for a minute before telling his father, "For a while it did."

Jacob and I worked at New York Magazine together early in our careers; then, later, my job occasionally involved interviewing his mother at parties where Jacob was a guest. Sometimes he would help me figure out questions to ask her. It was great fun, and I remember how naturally that life of inquiry and commentary seemed to come to them. Everything Is Copy is about the inheritance of writing, a mantra that Ephron learned from her screenwriter mother and then handed down to her son, who now writes for the New York Times and carries the genes of a father who is likewise a writer of a different sort. (Nora's sisters Delia, Hallie, and Amy are all writers, too.) The documentary feels especially personal because, as a viewer, one can sense that it's the product of the very particular, very public mourning process by a writer whose instinct to make the movie was inherited from its subject.

That's not to say the movie is morose introspection, or hagiography. Jacob mostly stays out of the picture, while Ephron's controlling nature and ability to cut to the quick without losing her humor or charm are on fine display, as is the ambition that drove her, the insecurities that plagued her, and, most of all, what a blast (and sometimes a pain) she must have been as a mother and a friend. As someone who has not consumed all of Ephron's oeuvre, I learned a ton. These were the highlights:

  • Ephron's screenwriter father, Harry, asked her screenwriter mother, Phoebe, to marry him at the end of their first date. Her response: "Can I read your work?" Like mother, like daughter.

  • Both of her parents became alcoholics, and her mother died of cirrhosis, which many of her friends and family think led Nora to be a bit of a control freak.

  • Ephron's first job was as a "mail girl" at Newsweek, which offered zero opportunities for upward mobility compared to those afforded "mail boys." Then, during the Great Newspaper Strike of 1963, Ephron and others started writing a parody of the New York Post. It was so good at mocking the Post's style that publisher Dorothy Schiff brushed off suggestions that she sue the parodists and hired them instead.

  • Never afraid to bite the hand that fed her, here's a quote from a column she wrote about the Post for Esquire: "It is a terrible newspaper. The reason it is, of course, is Dorothy Schiff."

  • According to her first husband, writer Dan Greenburg, she used to approach celebrities at parties and say, "Hi, my name is Nora Ephron. If I invited you to dinner at my house, would you come?" They always said yes. That's how she became friends with Joan Didion.

  • As she told Dick Cavett in an interview, she'd sometimes fantasize that her husband were dead so she wouldn't have to cheat on him to live out her fantasy of marrying Mike Nichols.

  • Her divorce with Greenburg may or may not have had something to do with him dressing up hamsters and talking in high-pitched voices as them, and encouraging Ephron to do the same. Ephron also may or may not have lied about Greenburg's owning hamsters. He definitely owned cats, and it seems pretty clear that he dressed those up.

  • Ephron was the one who leaked the story of her divorce from Carl Bernstein to Liz Smith. "I think she wanted it to be final," says Smith. Their divorce took years to settle mainly because of Heartburn. Carl insisted that the divorce agreement include joint custody of their children and the promise that the movie only depict him as a loving, devoted parent. Heartburn director Mike Nichols was a signatory on the divorce.

  • Ephron was as anal at ordering in restaurants as the character she wrote for Meg Ryan in When Harry Met Sally. She's the one who broke the news to director Rob Reiner that women fake orgasms. It was Meg Ryan's idea, though, to fake an orgasm in the diner.

  • Ephron was notorious for firing people on her movie sets if, for instance, she could tell a member of the crew hadn't read the latest version of the script. She actually fired the first child actor she'd cast to play Jonah in Sleepless in Seattle. Tom Hanks's reaction when she told him: "You fired the kid?!"

She already knew she was sick when she shot 2009's Julie & Julia, though even that movie's star, Meryl Streep, didn't know until Ephron died. ("It was very hard," says Streep in the documentary, looking anywhere but at the camera, "because it was an ambush.") And she was on chemo while writing Lucky Guy, the Broadway play about New York tabloid reporter Mike McAlary that debuted a year after her death with Tom Hanks in the lead role. Hanks and director George Wolfe repeatedly pressed her on why she was so interested in writing about McAlary, who wasn't a great writer but became the highest-paid columnist in the city, and died of colon cancer at 41, shortly after winning the Pulitzer Prize for his reporting on Abner Louima. Ephron said, "This play is about somebody who has more luck than talent. And I know something about that."

In her final years, she grew softer by all accounts, writing notes to friends to tell them how much she loved them and inviting them to lunches they didn't know were good-byes. One friend, journalist Marie Brenner, recalls a wonderful four-hour lunch they had that ended with Ephron ordering for them a huge slice of cheesecake, which she never ate, and then asking Brennar if she could take her in a cab back to her apartment, which was three blocks away. Three days later, Ephron went into the hospital for the last time.

Not everyone in the family shares Nora's, or even Jacob's, attitude toward confessionalism. Delia has written about her sister's death, while Amy, also an essayist, has not. Neither Jacob's younger brother Max, a musician, nor Ephron's husband until her death, author and Goodfellas screenwriter Nick Pileggi, appear in the movie — it's still too raw for them, though they've both seen the movie privately, attended the cocktail reception, and went to dinner together during the premiere. Max simply had a different, very sweet, and very private relationship with their mother, and wants to keep it that way, Jacob told me later.

"I exist in the same world that she did," Jacob went on. "That was both kind of a bonding experience and something that’s kind of fraught in a certain way." As for Pileggi, who is portrayed in the film as Ephron's rock and the man who saw her as the great beauty she could never believe herself to be, he both understands a writer's drive and, in this case, is unable to exercise it. "They had a really fantastic love affair, and her death was incredibly painful for him, and continues to be painful," Jacob told me. "I think he was worried about being able to keep his composure. I also think he has chosen to keep their relationship between them and private. It wasn’t all copy for him. And that’s a valid and fair choice." But for Jacob and many of Ephron's friends and family he interviewed, the catharsis of making the movie is evident. "It was a way for me to continue having a relationship and a dialogue with my mother," Jacob said. "This was two years of magical thinking."

Did those two years bring him the answer to the question of why a famously confessional writer never used her illness as copy? Some friends in the movie posit that in terminal illness, Ephron encountered the one thing she couldn't turn into a joke, the one story she couldn't control. I like the assessment Jacob gives more: that for his mother, copy is the things you've already lost, the humiliations and setbacks you have to explore or make light of so they can't bring you down. Copy doesn't apply to things you want to hold onto, like a life full of people who love you and accomplishments yet to be made, or the right to die in privacy — until your death must become the copy for those left behind.