Both as warm and as no-holds-barred blunt as its subject, “Everything Is Copy” proves a stirring portrait of Nora Ephron by her son, writer-director Jacob Bernstein. Ephron passed away in 2012 at the age of 71 from leukemia, a fatal disease whose manifestation she kept secret from all but her closest confidants. That deliberate silence struck many, upon her death, as not only shocking, but something of a betrayal, given that Ephron had previously operated by her own mother’s motto that everything in life was fair-game fodder for her work. Whether Ephron truly believed that creed is the investigative through-line of Bernstein’s doc (which, following its New York Film Festival premiere, is slated for HBO in March 2016), and helps turn it not only a loving biography of a titanic talent, but a look at the way in which artists strike a balance between the personal and the private.
Like his mother a journalist by trade, Bernstein opens his film with an overly composed shot of himself typing at his laptop – a moment whose awkwardness is only felt again, briefly, in sequences in which actors such as Lena Dunham, Reese Witherspoon and Rita Wilson read snippets of Ephron’s columns about desire, sex and aging directly to the camera in grainy black-and-white. Thankfully, those inelegant interludes don’t define the rest of “Everything Is Copy’s” aesthetic, which is otherwise marked by a seamless blend of home movies, interviews with Ephron’s relatives and adoring friends and colleagues, and video and audio clips of Ephron herself — a famed newspaper writer turned columnist turned novelist turned screenwriter turned playwright turned filmmaker — as she expounds on her writing, her movies and her I’m-always-right opinions.
In anecdote after anecdote from the likes of Barry Diller (an old high-school friend), Meg Ryan, Meryl Streep, Amy Pascal, Gay Talese, Rob Reiner, the late Mike Nichols and Tom Hanks, the Ephron that emerges is a true-blue New Yorker who rose from the depths of Newsweek (where she was a “mail girl”) to become a prestigious Esquire and The New Yorker essayist and, later, a cinematic romantic-comedy sensation courtesy of her magnetic mixture of arrogance, tough-talking forthrightness and keen insight into male-female dynamics. It’s the last of those that turned her a national celebrity when, after her bitter divorce and custody dispute with second husband Carl Bernstein, she wrote “Heartburn,” a thinly veiled fictional account of their union’s implosion that in 1986 was adapted for the screen by Nichols, Streep and Jack Nicholson.
In detailing his mother’s ascension to national stardom, as well as her eventual happy third marriage to” Wiseguy: Life in a Mafia Family” author Nicholas Pileggi, Bernstein wisely keeps his focus on his mom’s outsized personality, and specifically, on her deft ability to cut someone down with a caustic witticism one moment, and then hopelessly charm them with motherly advice the next. In examining Ephron’s upbringing in Hollywood with transplanted-New Yorker parents who found some screenwriting fame before succumbing to alcoholism, “Everything Is Copy” lays a sturdy foundation for its depiction of Ephron’s career-long use of her own ups and downs as fertile writing material. That was apparent no matter which mode she was working in, be it a 1972 Esquire column that addressed her insecurities about her small breast size, or the famous diner-orgasm scene in 1989’s “When Harry Met Sally,” or in 2000’s “Hanging Up,” which was written — and, at the time, caused a giant riff between — Ephron and her sister Delia.
Feisty and funny in equal measure, Ephron is presented as a feminist icon less because of any one particular cultural-political stand than because of her unashamed willingness to frankly discuss women’s issues in a public forum, as during a hilarious “The Dick Cavett Show” clip in which she expresses a fantasy about her husband dying so she can marry Nichols. Simultaneously, she’s cast as a control freak whose candor was, at heart, her means of wrestling dominion over her life’s most tumultuous aspects. In that regard, “Everything Is Copy” argues that her decision to keep her fatal illness from even those dearest to her was less a rejection of her “everything is copy” ethos than an act driven by her fearful inability to manage this last stage of her own story.
Anything but a morose tale of a bright light snuffed out far too soon, Bernstein’s documentary is an inspiring heartstring-tugger. Buoyed by proficient nonfiction techniques, it nimbly captures, in both words and images, the spirit of Ephron: a larger-than-life force of nature whose triumphs were born from her unapologetic embrace of ambition, and from her shrewd recognition that honesty, whether sweet or scathing, always goes down better with a dose of humor.