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There is something, I am certain, for everyone in “Everything is Copy,” a 2015 documentary about writer and filmmaker Nora Ephron. Perhaps the most compelling reasons to watch it center on writing — specifically writing about oneself and one’s life, and whether everything is fair game. Not only that, but whether it’s essential to tell the stories that others might wish you would never write. The personal stories other writers might be afraid to tell.
Written and directed by Jacob Bernstein, the firstborn of Ephron’s two sons, “Everything is Copy” debuted on HBO in March. My most recent viewing was yesterday, on my late mother’s birthday, a date I picked for reasons that probably make sense only to me.
Today is Nora Ephron’s birthday. If you know her from her writing and directing such films as “Sleepless in Seattle,” “When Harry Met Sally…” or “You’ve Got Mail,” there are moments in “Everything is Copy” that you will surely enjoy. If you know that she was a reporter for the New York Post in the 1960s and then began writing a column on women’s issues for Esquire, the film has nuggets you will appreciate. Her marriage to, and divorce from, Carl Bernstein, known best for teaming with Bob Woodward in covering the Watergate break-in and aftermath for The Washington Post, was fodder for her 1983 novel “Heartburn” — and has a major role in her son’s documentary.
The title he chose for the 89-minute film about his mother speaks to a phrase she learned from her mother, and which invested much of her life’s work and her ability to deal with the most painful moments of her personal life. It is very much, like the documentary, a statement about what to leave in, and what to leave out, as a writer.
As Ephron says in the first of several sections of her own narration during the film, she and her three younger sisters had those three words ingrained in them at an early age.
“We all grew up with this thing that my mother said to us over and over and over and over again, which was, ‘Everything is copy.’ You know, you’d come home with some thing that you thought was the tragedy of your life — someone hadn’t asked you to dance, or the hem had fallen out of your dress, or whatever you thought was the worst thing that could ever happen to a human being — and my mother would say, ‘Everything is copy.’ ” Write it down, she would tell her children. It’s all material.
As an adult, Ephron wrote: “I now believe that what my mother meant is this: When you slip on a banana peel, people laugh at you, but when you tell people that you slipped on a banana peel, it’s your laugh, so you become the hero, rather than the victim, of the joke. I think that’s what she meant.
“On the other hand, she may merely have meant, ‘Everything is copy.’ ”
Ephron was born in New York City, but when she was young the family moved to Beverly Hills, California, and her playwright parents both pursued screenwriting as a career. The documentary describes their alcoholism and, eventually, the death of Ephron’s mother as a result.
“My mother died of cirrhosis,” Ephron wrote, “but the immediate cause of her death was an overdose of sleeping pills administered by my father. At the time, this didn’t seem to me to fall under the rubric of ‘everything is copy,’ although it did to my sister Amy, who put it into a novel. Who can blame her?”
Part of Jacob Bernstein’s motivation in making “Everything is Copy” was to talk with people who had been close to Nora Ephron, his mother, and to try to better understand what shaped her life and her resiliency, and to take a closer look at whether everything was indeed copy for her. As it turned on, it was not so true for his grandmother, Ephron’s mother, who was so fond of saying it to her daughters.
“My grandmother said everything was copy, but in the end, she only wrote superficially about the things that happened to her,” Jacob Bernstein says in voice-over narration during the film. “Is that part of why she wound up being less successful than my mom? In AA, they say you are as sick as your secrets. Did my grandmother’s failure to admit slipping on the banana peel hasten her demise? Did my mom’s need for control stem from her mom’s loss of it?”
Ephron’s sister Amy offers her perspective on the legacy left by their two alcoholic parents: “I think one of the things we got from them, in a sort of backhanded way, is that we got kind of survivor tools. Watching them not have the equipment to reinvent themselves fueled the kind of reinvention that certainly Nora had — not even a coping mechanism. It’s something way beyond that. It was like, ‘You’re not gonna knock me down.’ ”
Nora Ephron reinvented herself throughout her adult life, through three marriages, through the transition from reporting to column and essay writing to screenwriting and, eventually, directing. She was a mother with a toddler, and pregnant with her second son, when she discovered that her husband, Carl Bernstein, had been cheating on her. Some of her greatest successes came after that heartbreak, but getting to that point was difficult.
She had moved from New York to Washington, D.C. because of the relationship, but she returned to her comfort zone to pick up the pieces of her life after telling the world, through gossip columnist Liz Smith, that the marriage was over.
She wrote it funny
Director Mike Nichols, interviewed by Jacob Bernstein for the documentary before his fatal heart attack in November 2014, tells the story of how Nora Ephron moved into the home of Bob Gottlieb, her editor at Alfred Knopf, after leaving Washington — and the marriage to Carl Bernstein: “Very, very few, if any, people that I can think of have ever survived being publicly cuckolded — Nora being the exception that it’s like those photographs of cats that somebody took, in which they’ve decided to change direction in mid-jump. Because what she did is, in mid-jump, she moved to the Gottliebs’ house and cried for six months — and wrote it funny, and in writing it funny, she won. And betrayed women all over the world knew it and cheered.”
Three years after the 1983 publication of the novel “Heartburn,” which bore a striking resemblance to the story of Ephron’s relationship with Carl Bernstein, Nichols directed the movie adaptation. It was not as popular as the book, which was funnier than the movie and had been popular with women. This excerpt, read by Ephron in footage later used in “Everything is Copy,” might help explain that popularity.
I had gotten on the shuttle to New York a few hours after discovering the affair, which I learned about from a really disgusting inscription to my husband in a book of children’s songs she had given him. Children’s songs. ‘Now you can sing these songs to Sam’ was part of the disgusting inscription, and I can’t begin to tell you how it sent me up the wall, the idea of my 2-year-old child, my baby, involved in some dopey inscriptive way in this affair between my husband, a fairly short person, and Thelma Rice, a fairly tall person, with a neck as long as an arm, and a nose as long as a thumb, and you should see her legs, never mind her feet, which are sort of splayed.”
Marie Brenner, a journalist who was friends with Ephron and who had dated Carl Bernstein before he started seeing Ephron, says in the documentary that Ephron’s writing helped her get past tough moments in her life.
“She had detachment, so that she was able to be her own helicopter pilot, flying up when she was in front of her typewriter and getting it down without feeling the need to vomit her problems all over someone.”
Says Bryan Lourd, her agent at Creative Artists Agency: “She had the ability to go back to the typewriter and write herself out of trouble, and she was very adept and facile at shape-shifting.”
But after Ephron was diagnosed in 2006 with the blood disorder myelodysplasia, which led to the form of leukemia that caused her death, she largely kept it a secret. Brenner, while being interviewed by Jacob Bernstein for “Everything is Copy,” reflects on that turn of events: “How interesting it was, Jacob, that at the end of her life, where everything — your mother’s mantra, your grandmother’s mantra: ‘Nora, this is all material; Nora, this is material’ — at the most powerful moment of her life, when she was facing her death, it was not material. It was not a story.”
A story she couldn’t control
Which brings us back to the main point of the documentary, its raison d’être. As Jacob Bernstein puts it: “For decades, my mother put her private life front and center — writing about her physical inadequacies, the indignities of aging, and the breakup 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 choose not to address the most significant crisis of her life?”
“I think this was a story that she couldn’t control,” says Richard Cohen, a Washington Post columnist who became a close friend of Ephron’s. “The other stuff, she could control. She told it her way.”
Through the process of making “Everything is Copy,” Jacob Bernstein draws some conclusions that align comfortably with Cohen’s assessment.
“I think at the end of my mom’s life, she believed that everything is not copy, that the things you want to keep are not copy, that the people you love are not copy.” He goes on, saying that he thinks her opinion changed to being “what is copy is the stuff you’ve lost, the stuff you’re willing to give away, the things that have been taken from you. She saw ‘everything is copy’ as a means of controlling the story. Once she became ill, the way to control the story was to make it not exist.”
Meryl Streep, who played Karen Silkwood in “Silkwood,” written by Ephron and directed by Nichols, played the character loosely based on Ephron in “Heartburn.” Like many who knew Ephron — Rob Reiner, Bob Balaban, Gay Talese, and even Nichols — Streep did not know Ephron was dying. Almost no one did, including those she worked with on her last projects. Nichols’ interview includes him saying that he was too stupid to realize, as others did, that his last meal with Ephron was a goodbye lunch.
The privacy with which Ephron managed to spend her final days stunned many who knew her, including Streep: “And she’s the one who said, ‘There is no privacy. Forget privacy — it’s gone.’ And this is the most fascinating thing in the whole world to me, because she achieved a private act in a world where the most superficial parts of the most intimate acts are everywhere and sold. They’re sold.”
A means out of victimhood
In an interview on NPR’s “Fresh Air” about “Everything is Copy,” Jacob Bernstein reveals a pragmatic reason for Ephron’s privacy near the end of her life. He says that for his mother, the philosophy that became the title of the documentary “was really a means out of victimhood. It really was the belief in being the heroine of your life and not the victim, and how do you not become the victim if people are walking up to you and saying, ‘How are you? Are you OK?’ She didn’t want that. So, it was a secret that allowed her to move throughout the world in control.”
For much of her writing life, and in the personal life that helped provide the material for it, Ephron was notorious for being ruthless.
“It was part of her whole Dorothy Parker thing,” producer Amy Pascal says, “to cut people to the quick.”
That was not lost on Ephron’s son, whose interview with NPR includes this perspective: “I think that comedy exists in this thin line between bravery and ruthlessness, and part of what I was after with the film was the belief that it’s both, and that it’s possible for the kind of cannibalism that writing is to be both a tremendous source of self-actualization and something that’s a little unseemly and unfair to other people.”
Meg Ryan and others interviewed for “Everything is Copy” says that late in her life, Ephron became softer, more accepting of others’ weaknesses and even her own. But she seemed to remain a woman who considered herself an expert on relationships, and a person who wasn’t shy about giving advice to people, whether about their love life or other matters.
Donald J. Lee Jr., an assistant director and producer who worked with Ephron on “Sleepless in Seattle” and “You’ve Got Mail,” sheds some light on the void she left behind after being such an influential person in the lives of those she cared about. Talking with Jacob Bernstein, pushing the words through a throat full of emotion, Lee says, “I was riding up in the elevator after your mother died with Mike Nichols, and he just looked at me, and we said, ‘Who … who’s gonna tell us what to do?’ ”
Had she lived to see today, she would have been 75 years old. That’s the age my mother was when she died in 2006, the year Nora Ephron was diagnosed with the blood disorder that ended her life on June 26, 2012.
There are remembrances of her online today, and I’m sure there will be again on the anniversary of her death. People will continue to talk about what they learned from her through her movies, and they will remember their favorite scenes and lines from them. People will write about “Everything is Copy.” They will tweet about her, as people are doing today.
I’m certain that there are people who knew her who will say, as Lee and Nichols did on the day she died, “Who’s gonna tell us what to do?” Don’t think I didn’t say and think the same at times after my mother died. I thought about that Wednesday on her birthday. I’m thinking about the same feeling of loss that people are being reminded of today on Ephron’s birthday, a feeling that’s accompanied by the joy in remembering what made her special.
Like I do regarding my mom, people who still feel that void can return to their memories. Regarding Nora Ephron, they can open one of her books, or watch one of her movies, and discover that somewhere inside each, she is there, in her way as a writer, director or both, doing that just. Telling us what to do. Or, maybe, who we are. The part of her that was confident in her read on men and women helped her tell stories that resonated with so many.
“Everything is Copy” is out there too, and I suspect more people will discover it and watch it because of the discussion about her on social media today, and again in late June. Maybe they will learn how to be their own helicopter pilot, flying their way out of their troubles by finding a way to tell their story — and by being the hero or heroine of it.