It was a family mantra passed down through the matriarchs, starting with Jacob Bernstein’s grandmother: “Everything is copy.” In this documentary tribute to his mother, Nora Ephron, Bernstein profiles Ephron’s professional life as a journalist, screenwriter and director, using both her own words and those of others close to her. “Everything is Copy” reveals nothing extraordinary, but it is a treat to hear the profound respect that Ephron’s friends and coworkers had for her and her influential work.
Before she created the touchstone titles “Sleepless in Seattle,” “When Harry Met Sally” and “You’ve Got Mail,” Ephron was a journalist. In “Everything is Copy,” Gay Talese says one can’t always tell with a daily paper how strong of a writer someone is; but once Ephron started writing essays, everyone began to take notice. Her editor at Alfred Knopf talks about how she broke through a lot of glass ceilings. She launched herself into the intellectual stratosphere of New York City with her writing for Esquire Magazine, especially with her essays during the growing women’s rights movement, introducing people to feminism with succinct and sparkling essays that were easy to digest.
The quippy remarks from everyone who admired Ephron reflect her own writing. She could be acerbic — “she had a razor in her back pocket,” says one — but she also refused to mask any sympathy for her subjects when she felt it. The love felt for Ephron and her work shines through in the interview segments. Steven Spielberg says making Ephron laugh was like winning an Oscar. “She understood love, I think,” reflects Meryl Streep.
“Everything is Copy” follows Ephron’s career chronologically, but it is intercut with other figures — Lena Dunham, Gaby Hoffmann, Reese Witherspoon, Rita Wilson — reading some of her essays out loud. Those shots are black and white and simply framed, giving viewers the time and space to fully focus on Ephron’s words.
The entire documentary is littered with sharp, clever, biting remarks that Ephron has said throughout the years, — on the air or to journalists — spicing up Bernstein’s narration. Her gift for turning a phrase is made strikingly obvious. She cuts off one talk show host who is trying to defend Julie Nixon — about whom Ephron had written — shrewdly guessing that he nurses a soft spot for her. He admits it, smiling, asking if she doesn’t, and she adamantly replies, “I think she’s a chocolate covered spider.” Later on, when asked what makes Tom Hanks (“Sleepless in Seattle”) and Meg Ryan (“When Harry Met Sally”) the king and queen of romantic comedies, she says, “Two great brains, and the fact that they look like they’re from the same food group.”
The documentary focuses just as much on Ephron’s personal life as it does on her professional career, perhaps because she used her own life as material for her screenplays. The story of her divorce is intercut with shots from the film adaptation of her novel “Heartburn,” directed by Mike Nichols. Nichols talks about how Ephron dealt with being “publicly cuckolded,” an experience not many people survive. The awe in his voice is apparent when he relates how she did it.
“She moved to the Gottlieb’s house, 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.”
There’s a montage in the documentary of all the interviewees being asked if they knew she was sick towards the end of her life. Every single one says no, even those working on “Julie and Julia,” the film with which Ephron had the closest working relationship. Nora Ephron died of leukemia at the age of 71, very rapidly. Her death is portrayed as a shock to the entire populace of New York City. There’s a montage of clips from different news sources and channels sharing the news of her death, demonstrating her transnational influence.
“Everything is Copy” would’ve been stronger if Bernstein had abstained from projecting his own psychoanalytic interpretation of his mother’s decision to keep the news of her sickness from people onto her story. But the last word of the documentary is “pie,” followed by a lazy jazz number that fades in and out as the end credits roll. It sounds strange, but it works. It’s the last thing that Ephron said she would miss about life in her final book, “I Remember Nothing and Other Reflections.”