In making a documentary about a dead loved one, there is a huge risk that the subject may come out smelling like a rose, a perfect human specimen in every way. Thankfully, in Jacob Bernstein’s tribute to his mother Nora Ephron, Everything is Copy, the audience gets much more from the film than warm stories and fond memories. This is the story of a life filled with contradictions. Right up until her death, Ephron is revealed to have been to be as hard as often as she was soft, as mean as she was kind and in the end, she contradicted a career trademarked by honesty with the concealment of her Leukemia diagnosis, the blood disorder was ultimately responsible for taking her life in 2012.
“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, so you become the hero rather than the victim of the joke.”
This quote, from the subject herself, is the ethos Ephron forged her career by, passed down from her mother, the notion that “Everything is Copy” informed elements of most, if not all of Ephron’s work, from her early essays in Esquire, all the way through her work as a playwright, screenwriter, producer, director and blogger.
The piece is a combination of home movies, archival footage and readings of Ephron’s works, alongside a litany of anecdotes from friends, colleagues and family. These old high school friends, ex-husbands and family members combine with famous faces, the likes of Meryl Streep, Tom Hanks, Rob Reiner, and the late Mike Nichols to weave together the story of a young, die-hard New Yorker who rose from the mail room at Newsweek to become a noted essayist, a genre-defining romantic comedy maven, and feminist pioneer.
In examining Ephron as a feminist icon, Everything is Copy shows the audience that Ephron’s relevance to the feminist movement is not necessarily the result of any particular cultural or political stand she took, but because she was willing to frankly discuss women’s issues in a public forum. In writing about her own life she unapologetically explored feelings of physical inadequacy, concerns about aging, fake orgasms, and even death. Nothing appeared to be off limits for Nora Ephron. This complete openness has in turn influenced a new generation of female writers and film-makers, Diablo Cody, Mindy Kaling, Jennifer Weiner and Lena Dunham are only a few of the writers who credit Nora Ephron and her work as critical to their success.
Bernstein explores his mothers impact on her circle of friends. Almost every person interviewed tells him the same thing, ‘she was tough’ and the implication is that she had to be. Ephron’s trademark mix of hubris and candor, combined with her acute insight into male-female dynamics turned her into a national celebrity with the publication of Heartburn, a thinly veiled fictional account of the very difficult breakdown of her second marriage to journalist Carl Bernstein. The novel was a smash hit, and went on to be adapted for the screen by Mike Nichols to moderate success in 1986. Thankfully though, Bernstein is able to keep the focus of his film on his mothers larger than life personality and the impact and influence she had on those around her.
In examining his mothers career-long use of her own ups and downs as writing material, Bernstein also questions his mothers reasoning for keeping her Leukemia diagnosis a secret from all but a few of her closest confidants. The documentary translates as a vehicle for Bernstein to make peace with her decision to shut the world out of her final chapter. It settles on the fact that her illness was the one story she wasn’t able to control in her usual way, and her new method of control became to make it not exist. It is in this moment of understanding Bernstein delivers the most powerful lines of the film, “I think at the end of my mom’s life she believed that everything is not copy,” Bernstein concludes “that the things you want to keep are not copy, that the people you love are not copy, that 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.”
How refreshing, to see a story about a woman on screen who wasn’t perfect but was dearly loved anyway, who knew what she wanted and went and got it, or as Mike Nichols notes in the film, “went and did it, which is far more important”. Bernstein’s tribute to his mother is both heartbreaking and stirring, and the treatment given to her story captures a larger-than-life force of nature who was unapologetic and often brutally honest in her pursuit of success.