Nora Ephron is a writer whose influence is like oxygen: it’s everywhere to the point that it’s invisible. Before our current surge of smart, cynical romantic comedies, there were her canny takes on relationships that helped redefine the genre. Before Gawker, there was the sharp, self-assured, not a little nasty tone of the Esquire columns that made her famous. And before “oversharing” became the mating call of concern trolls ’round the world, there was the blistering novel she wrote about her own divorce.
That last work, Heartburn, is perhaps the most dramatic example of the idea that “everything is copy,” Ephron’s infamous motto — passed down from her screenwriter mother — and the title of the documentary celebrating her that will air Monday on HBO after initially premiering at the New York Film Festival last fall. Fittingly, it’s written and directed by someone with firsthand knowledge of the extent to which Ephron lived according to that mission statement, and sometimes didn’t: Jacob Bernstein, the oldest of Ephron’s two children with Watergate journalist and Heartburn inspiration Carl Bernstein.
Ephron explains the meaning of “everything is copy” in voiceover, a device made possible by the audiobook version of her two final essay collections, which she recorded herself. “When you slip on a banana peel, people laugh at you,” she says. “But when you tell the story, it’s your laugh.” It’s as much a PR strategy as writing advice: get to your story and shape it before somebody else does.
Thanks to this philosophy, Ephron’s particular story is already well known. She grew up the oldest of four sisters in Beverly Hills, the children of two moderately successful screenwriters who descended into alcoholism when Ephron was in high school; she went to New York after graduating from Wellesley and landed a reporting gig at the New York Post by writing a send-up of one of its leading columnists (Post publisher Dorothy Schiff, famously: “If they can parody the Post, they can write for it”). Her Esquire column followed, timed perfectly to the rise of voice-centric magazine writing, and then Heartburn, and then the film adaptation of Heartburn, starring Jack Nicholson and Meryl Streep and directed by Mike Nichols. A thriving film career followed, though not without its share of duds, before her death in 2012 from leukemia, a disease that, in a shocking break from her lifelong pattern, she chose to keep almost completely private.
But the way Bernstein lays out this story turns his proximity into an advantage. It’s hardly a tell-all, and understandably errs far closer to tribute than exposé. Yet both Bernstein and his deep bench of interviewees are candid about their relationships with Ephron; after a standard opening ten minutes praising her brilliance come more nuanced segments exploring her personality, her divorce, and her years-long disease alongside her career — not that, thanks to that motto, any of the former can necessarily be separated from the latter.
All three of Ephron’s sisters spoke to Bernstein, including her creative collaborator Delia. (“Do you think Nora would be happy you’re doing this?” she asks, disarmingly.) So did her friends among the New York literary (Gay Talese, Victor Navasky, Bob Gottlieb) and Hollywood (David Geffen, Amy Pascal) elite. High school classmate Barry Diller and celebrity mentee Lena Dunham chime in; actors both discuss their work with Ephron (Meryl Streep, Tom Hanks, Meg Ryan) and provide dramatic readings of her writing (Gaby Hoffmann, Reese Witherspoon, Rita Wilson). Even without their anecdotes, in which Ephron fires Diller from the school paper or throws dinner parties for Joan Didion, what emerges is a portrait of a charismatic, connected, and ferociously ambitious woman.
Bernstein’s most fascinating conversations, however, are with his own father. In his narration, Bernstein is impressively clear-eyed about his parents’ drawn-out split, which he diagnoses as more a case of two highly public figures negotiating their reputations than two people ending a marriage. Exhibit A is Heartburn, which Ephron saw as an act of resilience in the face of her husband’s infidelity and the public humiliation that resulted from it and Carl Bernstein saw as an act of revenge that put his relationship with his own children at risk. In the documentary’s most tragicomic twist, Bernstein recounts how the novel’s film adaptation became as much a negotiating point of their divorce as custody; Ephron had to agree to portray her ex as a loving father before she got his blessing.
It’s the most wrenching example of Ephron turning her own pain into art, even as she took others’ along for the ride. The film’s other highlight, intriguingly, is an almost perfect inverse of the Heartburn drama: refusing to narrativize her pain, and eventually blindsiding the general public and even close friends because of it. Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen speculates that Ephron didn’t make her illness known because “it was a narrative she couldn’t control”; Bernstein himself theorizes that at the end of her life, Ephron no longer believed in her mother’s professional credo.
Either way, it’s another study in how Ephron’s decision to narrativize her own life affected her relationships, one that demonstrates the impact of her work by probing its biggest blank. Some seem offended they were never told; others suggest the offended parties might be making someone else’s death about them. Without Ephron’s definitive voice to make sense of it, the film goes out with “What I’ll Miss,” from I Remember Nothing, instead. The clarity and wit Ephron added to all that raw copy are perhaps more obvious in absentia.
Everything Is Copy airs Monday, March 21 at 9pm on HBO.