Director Jacob Bernstein recently debuted a new documentary about his mother, the late great Hollywood wit, at the New York Film Festival.
Few filmmakers take inspiration from the lives of their mothers—but director Jacob Bernstein’s mom was portrayed by Meryl Streep in Mike Nichols’s comedy Heartburn (1986). Nora Ephron, novelist, essayist and playwright, but best-known as a screenwriter, director and producer, is the subject of Bernstein’s documentary, Everything Is Copy. Ephron, who died in 2012, penned the screenplay for Rob Reiner’s When Harry Met Sally (1989), and she wrote and directed other romantic comedies, such as Sleepless in Seattle (1993) and You’ve Got Mail (1998). Her last film as a writer-director was Julie & Julia (2009), which starred Streep as Julia Child.
Bernstein conducts original interviews with Ephron’s sisters Delia, a co-writer on You’ve Got Mail and Bewitched, Amy, also a writer and screenwriter, and Hallie, a novelist and teacher, as well as with Ephron’s close friends and frequent collaborators, including Streep and Mike Nichols. Notable for their absence are the filmmaker’s brother, Max Bernstein, and novelist-screenwriter Nick Pileggi, Ephron’s husband of 20 years. Family photos, home movies and archival footage, including clips from televised interviews of Ephron, comprise the visual mix, from which Bernstein fashions an entertaining debut documentary. Everything Is Copy also features dramatic readings of Ephron’s work, by Reese Witherspoon and Meg Ryan, among others, but these slow the pace and are often ineffective.
The filmmaker, a journalist by profession, briefly interviews his father, Carl Bernstein. They speak about Heartburn (Knopf, 1983), the roman à clef Ephron adapted for Nichols’s film; it is based on her marriage to Bernstein and their subsequent divorce. Famous for his tenure at The Washington Post, Bernstein and his co-reporter Bob Woodward, broke the story of the Nixon administration’s Watergate scandal. (The 1976 film, All the President’s Men, chronicled their investigation.) Bernstein threatened a lawsuit to block the publication of Ephron’s novel, and he held up the release of the movie because, he says in the documentary, he feared he would be portrayed “as a bad father.” Jacob was a toddler and Ephron was pregnant with Max in 1979, when she discovered that Bernstein (played by Jack Nicholson in the film) was having an extramarital affair.
The resulting tabloid headlines damaged Bernstein’s reputation, especially when it was reported that Ephron, also a well-known journalist, gave birth prematurely. These events are discussed by several of Ephron’s closest friends in Everything Is Copy, including journalist Marie Brenner. At one point, she chides Jacob Bernstein for not asking her a direct question about his father. She dated Bernstein before he and Ephron met in 1976, and she says that during their affair, he would call his other girlfriends from her telephone. Ephron’s novel and its cinematic adaptation are hilarious, if bittersweet accounts of infidelity, and Bernstein underscores their importance to his mother’s work—they are evidence of a lesson Ephron learned from her mother. Hollywood screenwriter Phoebe Ephron taught her daughters that “everything is copy.”
Bernstein inserts a corollary, a remark Ephron once made about the way to recover from the embarrassment of slipping on a banana peel: “But when you tell people you slipped on the banana peel, it’s your laugh,” she says. “So you become the hero, rather than the victim of the joke.” The filmmaker suggests that this anecdote not only spells out the intent of Heartburn, but also Ephron’s best-selling non-fiction, some of it based on similarly humiliating experiences, most recently that of aging. If Bernstein’s interview with Bernstein père is any proof, Ephron got “the laugh”—her former husband apparently still feels the sting of her “copy.”
Less satisfying in Everything Is Copy is Bernstein’s investigation into the apparent contradiction in Ephron’s personality. How does one reconcile the romantic comedies with the scathing social commentary Ephron wrote at The New York Post and Esquire? Or the wry, self-deprecating humor of the sort in I Feel Bad About My Neck (Knopf, 2006)? Ephron might snort at her son’s clichéd conclusions: she “softened” because of her happy marriage to Pileggi, and the fact that she was aging, and suffering from acute myeloid leukemia.
Much is made of Ephron keeping that cancer a secret for six years, but not why she did it, a question Bernstein’s celebrity subjects are unable to answer without criticizing the industry that employs them. Ephron might never have gotten film production insurance. Others blow smoke when asked about her secrecy, Liz Smith declaring that Ephron was simply a “control freak.” A clear retort from Bernstein would surely have divulged strained familial relationships, or led to a discussion of how Ephron, diagnosed in 2006, managed to make Julie & Julia.
Having once interviewed Ephron for an article about the collaboration between movie directors and their composers, I was struck by her assiduousness, but mostly by the passion with which she described the scoring of her movies as her last “rewrite,” what made them “whole, breathing things.” She spoke of composer George Fenton (Bewitched, You’ve Got Mail) as “divine,” and Alexandre Desplat (Julie & Julia) as “a delight.” Ephron’s effusiveness is apparent in some of the archival footage in Everything Is Copy, and in the way close friends remember her, but Bernstein’s portrait, sometimes disappointingly objective, elides that aspect of her personality. In fact, the filmmaker appears to consciously strip away the essential ingredient in every great biography—the biographer’s affection for their subject.