The new HBO documentary about the inimitable Nora Ephron is a lovely, wide-ranging portrait, with as many high-profile talking heads as you could possibly want (Meryl Streep analyzes her; Rob Reiner shares delicious “When Harry Met Sally” anecdotes; Carl Bernstein rather grudgingly talks “Heartburn”). Directed by Ephron’s son, the journalist Jacob Bernstein, “Everything is Copy” pays tribute to her legacy as an author, playwright and director, while exploring her complicated relationships with her family members and the maddening — for many — way in which she kept her cancer diagnosis from most of her friends until the very end.
One of the most fascinating aspects of “Everything is Copy” is its focus on Ephron as a feminist icon, a label which tends to get obscured by her reputation for writing and directing romantic comedies (though they are certainly feminist works in their own right — “When Harry Met Sally” and “Julie & Julia” in particular). Ephron began her career as a journalistic trailblazer and a fearless, unrepentant humorist in an era dominated and defined by men. Indeed, most of the journalist friends who are interviewed in the doc are men — Gay Talese, Richard Cohen, Bernstein, Ken Auletta — although Marie Brenner, a good friend and a formidable investigative journalist, provides some of the movie’s best insight and stories.
As an essayist, Ephron merrily skewered anyone and everyone, and as she tells Charlie Rose in an older clip, “Writers are cannibals. They really are. And if you are friends with them, and you say anything funny to them at dinner, or if anything good happens to you, then you are in big trouble.” She began her journalism career working as a mail girl at Newsweek, a position which she says, for men, was assumed to eventually lead to a promotion to writing or editing. In contrast, she says, “If you were a mail girl, nothing ever happened to you except you continued to serve men forever.” Her time there was fictionalized in the Amazon drama “Good Girls Revolt,” coming soon to full series. In reality, she made the move over to the New York Post after collaborating on a parody version of the newspaper (“The New York Pest”) with some journalist friends. To her credit, Dorothy Schiff, the paper’s publisher at the time, scoffed at the idea that there should be retribution for anyone satirizing the paper: If they could make fun of it, they could write for it.
Ephron also wrote essays for Esquire, and in the film recalls when she was asked what she wanted to write about. “Women,” she responded, adding that she hadn’t realized that was the topic until she said it out loud. Her reputation for razor-sharp wit allowed her to barge into the sausage party that was this men’s magazine, writing essays with titles like “A Few Things About Breasts,” from which Lena Dunham reads in the film. (How much is Esquire still a sausage party? Its Wikipedia entry includes a rundown of all its top Sexiest Women Alive, but nary a mention of Ephron among its catalogue of storied contributors.)
And then there was “Heartburn,” which remains one of the greatest, sickest burns ever committed to paper, and, to a much lesser extent, film. If you haven’t read the 1983 novel (why haven’t you? Do it now!) it’s the thinly-veiled story of Ephron’s marriage to and divorce from Bernstein, who at the time was one of the world’s most celebrated journalists, having won the Pulitzer in 1973 for breaking the Watergate scandal. He cheated on her while she was pregnant with their second child, and she responded by, as Mike Nichols says in the film, crying for six months and then writing this acidly comic rendition of the breakup. In a sexist culture that romanticized the hotshot, philandering male writer (and still does), Ephron deployed humor like a tactical nuke. (“Obviously, I wish Nora hadn’t written it,” Bernstein understated at the time.) The film pulls back the curtain on some of the negotiations that ensued between the two over the film adaptation of the book, which is truly fascinating; it was actually a term of their divorce that Ephron not disparage Bernstein as a father in the movie, even if she was going to send him up as a sleazy cheat. Whether those terms contributed to the movie’s being a pale imitation of the novel isn’t completely clear — but regardless, it’s the novel that belongs to Ephron alone, and stands as one of her greatest achievements in a long career that was full of them.
We’re living in a pretty great — if not exactly sexism-free — era for women and comedy. But let us never forget that people like Ephron, with her poison pen and her willingness to mine her own painful personal experiences for humor and insight and cultural commentary, paved the way. As her son puts it in this must-see profile, “It is very powerful to be both loved and feared.”