“Everything is copy” is a family affair. Director Jacob Bernstein explains that the title of the film is a mantra passed down from his grandmother to his mother and now to him. In his telling,“Everything is copy” refers to a writer’s unique power to take ownership of everything that happens to her by retelling it on her own terms. The film explores the life and work of writer and filmmaker Nora Ephron, and one detail renders the director’s chosen framework especially piecing: Bernstein is her son. Despite the reverence and love made so clear when Bernstein presents his mother’s life, he remains disconnected from his mother’s story. This is just the first taste we get of the kind of familial ruptures which infect the film’s respectful tone. Even as a mother, Ephron always seemed to prioritize her storytelling. Ephron’s own parents didn’t encourage her directly in her artistic work, but instead served as negative examples to fuel her ambition. Friends and creative partners of Ephron suggest that she had been spurred toward greatness by the failure of her parents, also writers and filmmakers, to become famous or well-regarded. This family of artists seems to put ambition before all else.
That might help to explain Ephron’s tendency to be so private when she chose, a privacy that was especially mysterious in the context of her incredibly public persona. Because the tone and content of her writing were so personal, Ephron’s success paradoxically depended on her carefully curated public image. Perhaps her family threatened that power, and that’s why she needed to keep her artistic career so solitary. At the end of her life, in ill health and unable to adequately control her image anymore, she stopped living publicly altogether and hid even from her close friends. While everything is copy, it’s only copy when she wants it to be, and her power lies in that distinction between open and secret.
Nora Ephron always had a way of owning her public image that is certainly a facet of the secrecy of her personal life, although much of her distinct style came from the opposite of secrecy. She enthralled her audience with the “copy” she could produce out of her greatest losses. Her break-out 1983 novel Heartburn came from her greatest pain yet: the discovery that her husband, Watergate journalist Carl Bernstein, had been cheating on her, and their resulting separation. When her story was adapted for the big screen (thrusting the family’s mess even further into the public sphere, only thinly veiled in the guise of fiction), Meryl Streep was cast as the vengeful wife. Although Streep had at that point won Academy Awards for her diverse acting roles, Ephron jokes that Streep’s greatest challenge was “playing me.” There’s some truth to it: playing the writer of your own movie requires a certain confidence in one’s own ability to empathize with another person that only the most intrepid of actors could maintain. But Streep’s job in this case may not have been so difficult. Close connections between Ephron and her actors were common in her filmmaking career. Periodically throughout the documentary, Ephron’s favorite actors and friends (Reese Witherspoon, Lena Dunham, and, of course, Nora’s star, Meg Ryan) read excerpts of her writing. As the actresses read her funny little essays on everything she loves and hates about what women love and hate, their delight is audible, not only for their personal love of Ephron, but also for their appreciation of such a humorous take on experiences they’ve known so well but never disclosed.
This is the magic of Nora Ephron: she speaks to emotions that have never been named before. Bernstein points out that perhaps Nora’s success can’t be attributed to her genius, but just to her lucky break in being born when she did. Maybe Ephron’s particular humor, Bernstein suggests, wasn’t momentous or timeless, but just resonated especially well with the feelings of her contemporary readers. Ephron herself appears to have acknowledged that luck in her very last work, the Broadway play Lucky Guy, which centered on the uncanny success of relatively ordinary New York Daily News reporter Mike McAlary. Ephron wasn’t revolutionizing the art of her contemporaries, but aligning herself with it. By capitalizing on her own terrible private experiences, Ephron could get at the secret everyday desires and frustrations ordinary people didn’t know they had.
More than luck or any level of genius, Ephron also had ambition fueled by her parents’ descent into mediocrity. Now, with the creation of this documentary, her son adds himself to the web of tensions between so many creative and ambitious family figures. He seems to lack his mother’s glowing personality, retreating into the position of the scrutinizing analyst with a poignant emotional stake in the subject of his research. But Bernstein doesn’t romanticize his mother’s character. He makes it clear that Ephron could be malicious. She didn’t feel guilty about letting her contemporaries, and even her friends and ex-family members, receive public abuse for the sake of her art’s truth. Ephron could be petty. We get a sense from the underlying bitterness in her sisters’ interviews that they had always competed, and Nora hadn’t been especially supportive of her sisters’ work after she made her way in the industry on her own. Though the sisters’ bitterness is presented in jest, it displays a clear sense of Ephron’s success as it contrasted that of her siblings in their much smaller artistic careers. But the biting parts of that glowing personality give us a more poignant sense of Ephron’s character. Her sensibilities didn’t always fit those of her sweet and polished romantic comedies. She worked hard for what she got and veiled that strife in her incisive essays and whip-smart screenplays.
The documentary ends on a disorienting note when Bernstein addresses Ephron’s ill health late in life. Many of Ephron’s closest friends mourned (with a certain sense of having been betrayed, perhaps understandably so) that she retreated into herself as she felt the end of her life approaching. She didn’t even tell most people she was sick. “Everything is copy,” her mother had told her, but this time, as her sister pointed out, it wasn’t. Nora Ephron had always conducted the various parts of her life and her image with such precision. She probably wouldn’t have wanted this telling of her story to end that way. Or maybe she would’ve thought it was funny.
The 53rd New York Film Festival ran from September 25 to October 11 at the Film Society of Lincoln Center.