I still had Nora Ephron’s home phone number in my address book when she died of leukemia in 2012.
I’d been given it years before by a publicist so that I could interview her at home before the release of one of her films. In 1989, I’d interviewed her over lunch with a few other journalists before the release of “When Harry Met Sally.”
Most salient fact from that lunch: She never wrote the most famous line from that script – “I’ll have what she’s having.” Billy Crystal did. Ephron alone, though, is responsible for describing how a third of America’s males look while dancing at weddings and bar mitzvahs: “white man’s overbite.”
My fantasy before her shocking death was that one day a story would come up where Ephron would be a perfect primary source for me. And I’d just call her up and get a get a gemlike quote. It would sparkle with wit and truth and be the making of the story.
I was hoarding her number, for a future that never came.
It turns out that Ephron’s death was more of a shock than we out here even knew at the time. It was widely reported then how few people knew that she was struggling with leukemia when she died at the age of 71. But to understand how few that really was you have to watch her son Jacob Bernstein’s moving and revealing memoir of his mother “Everything is Copy” (9 p.m. Monday, HBO)
It’s an exceptional piece – as warm and sentimental as you might expect from a son’s portrait of a brilliant mother who happened to be Nora Ephron. But it’s also as bracing, truthful and surprising as you might expect from the son of Ephron and Carl Bernstein. The moment in the film when Carl Bernstein explains their weirdly funny divorce to his son can’t help but get to you.
Somewhat amazingly, the film that Mike Nichols was going to make of Ephron’s post-marital payback novel “Heartburn” became a prominent part of the Ephron/Bernstein divorce agreement. Bernstein tells his grown son that he wanted only two things at the time: joint custody of his two sons and no suggestion in the film of her novel that he was anything less than a loving and devoted father.
He won both. But not really. Bernstein didn’t want the film made. He was afraid of how it might distance him from his sons when it came out.
In one of many unpredictable moments in “Everything is Copy,” Jacob Bernstein has to admit to his father that the film did just that – It did alienate him from his father.
This is quietly primal stuff. And, if you think about it at all, exactly the sort of documentary memoir that Ephron’s amazing life deserved.
Here’s how one of the most concise journalists I know – former News Editor and future Washington Post Media Columnist Margaret Sullivan – put it in the lead of her review of the posthumous Ephron omnibus called “The Most of Nora Ephron”: “Nora Ephron started out writing about her breasts (too small) and finished up writing about her neck (too wrinkled.) In between, she took on infidelity, Richard Nixon, feminism, and food from the wonders of Lillian Hellman’s pot roast to the horrors of egg-white omelettes to a Key lime pie you might throw in a philandering husband’s face.”
“More than popular,” wrote Sullivan, “she was beloved.”
The films that did that were “When Harry Met Sally” (which she wrote), “Sleepless in Seattle,” “You’ve Got Mail” and “Julie and Julia” (which she wrote and directed). She also wrote scripts for director Mike Nichols, “Heartburn” (from her novel) and “Silkwood” (co-written by Alice Arlen.)
And that’s why its frankness is the biggest surprise of “Everything is Copy.” The title refers to something all superficial Ephron admirers know – it was her mother’s response to every setback. In other words, no matter how hard life gets, if you’re a writer, be thankful. Some day you’ll use it.
Jacob Bernstein is now a features writer at the New York Times. This film is how he has turned his mother’s life into copy. How could anyone possibly turn down his request for an interview for this film?
So his mother’s three sisters are there. So among others, are Reese Witherspoon, Lena Dunham, Rita Wilson, Tom Hanks, Barry Diller, Meryl Streep, Gay Talese, Rob Reiner and Nichols. Great Ephron footage is used, from interviews with Dick Cavett, Charlie Rose and David Letterman among others. It is rife with home movies.
Because so many friends and family members were involved, there’s a fair amount of well-earned tears.
But there is also a bracing amount of acid and bile – almost as much as you’d expect from a conscientious journalist painting a portrait of a “control freak” and a woman whose own thuggeries weren’t always pretty.
As an admiring reader, I go back to Day One with Ephron. That means her essays and columns for Esquire Magazine in the early 1960s when the magazine was ground zero for almost everything that was exciting in American writing at the time. I was one of many readers back then whose affection for her work bordered on the proprietary.
Her tone encouraged it back then. It never stopped doing so. It did so with rapid expansion and deepening profundity when female readers and filmgoers in huge numbers discovered her writings and films. By the time of “Heartburn,” earlier male readers of what had once thought of itself as a “Men’s Magazine” (Esquire) had to immediately cede how much more right to blatant proprietary readership her female admirers had.
But it never stopped some of us from wishing that she would once again apply her formidable intelligence to the kind of pieces that were collected in her first books “Wallflower at the Orgy,” “Crazy Salad,” and “Scribble, Scribble.”
You may not want to share and consecrate Ephron’s cackle at the expense of her first husband, Dan Greenburg, in this film, funny as it is. You may wonder, as so many of her friends did, why her illness was the one exception to her life’s accession to her mother’s credo that “everything is copy.” It was the one secret she kept from all but a very select handful of family and friends right to the final moment.
“Control freak” doesn’t quite cover it, I think.
It’s speculated that her illness was the one thing in life she couldn’t control.
It bites the sound wonderfully. It explains everything for TV memoir purposes.
So why, ultimately, am I left thinking that it’s a bit more mysterious than that?