Watching “Everything Is Copy” (HBO), on the life of Nora Ephron, it’s clear that the late writer and filmmaker was willing to use, and to massage, the truth. Of the narrator’s hamster-loving first husband, in her 1983 novel “Heartburn,” Ephron’s own ex-, Dan Greenberg, says the strange trait is an invention; of 1989’s “When Harry Met Sally…” the screenwriter admits that Meg Ryan’s cheerful, high-strung co-lead is based “more or less” on herself. As New Yorker editor David Remnick remarks of Ephron’s inimitable essays, “her voice in print really replicated her voice—almost—in life.”
Indeed, in “Everything Is Copy,” as in the other films nominated for Outstanding Documentary/Nonfiction Special at this year’s Emmys, the subject’s work inhabits this space between the dashes, the “almost” and the “more or less.” It’s where the biographical blurs into the fictional, where fact and craft diverge. Which raises the question: Do we need to understand the artist to understand the art?
Let’s set aside the (fair) concern that selecting five documentaries about near-contemporaneous American artists reflects the limitations of both the TV Academy and the networks, a certain built-in preference for films whose central figures are already well known. If one focuses not on the similarities among the films—”Becoming Mike Nichols” (HBO), “Everything Is Copy,” “Listen to Me Marlon” (Showtime), “Mapplethorpe: Look at the Pictures” (HBO), and “What Happened, Miss Simone?” (Netflix)—but on their subtle distinctions, a spectrum of answers to the aforementioned question emerges, and by extension a stronger sense of what we want from such profiles in creativity.
As it happens, the personal aspect of each film is important, even essential, to understanding the artist, but the most insightful portraiture—which is, after all, another form of criticism—demands that we see beyond the biographical: It’s not a reflection but an act of interpretation, whether the tool is a camera or a paintbrush.
Of course, certain subjects resist interpretation, or at least attempt to. Both Ephron’s lacerating sense of humor and Mapplethorpe’s postmodern sense of self—”I think life’s about using people and being used by people,” he once claimed—seem designed to deflect closer inspection. As a result, neither “Everything Is Copy” nor “Mapplethorpe: Look at the Pictures,” despite their abundant pleasures, stretches (much less defies) our prior understanding of what the two artists were aiming for. The former, directed by Ephron’s son, Jacob Bernstein, and the latter, which uses Sen. Jesse Helms’ attack on Mapplethorpe’s erotic photographs as a framing device, are but useful introductions, intelligent glosses: Ephron is a perspicacious observer of the battle of the sexes, Mapplethorpe a provocateur with a bullwhip.
That these are not new readings of either figure might not be a failure on the part of the filmmakers, but it is a disappointment. “It was easy to be around him because he was so busy being ‘Robert Mapplethorpe,'” as one of Mapplethorpe’s former models comments, and both films struggle to scythe through the implication of the quotation marks—that there was, in fact, a difference between the person and the persona, that Ephron and Mapplethorpe drew inspiration from their intimate lives, as opposed to replicating them. The warm touch of her romantic comedies and the hard edge of his photographic “obscenities” were not traits, but talents, and “Everything Is Copy” and “Mapplethorpe: Look at the Pictures” are too circumspect to illuminate the difference.
For Liz Garbus, the director of the Oscar-nominated “What Happened, Miss Simone?” it’s the combination of the personal and the political that defines the strange arc of the singer’s career, and with the help of Simone’s unforgettable voice, the film edges nearer to an explanation of her brilliance. It was circumstance, we learn, that led to the birth of “Nina Simone,” the stage name adopted by Eunice Waymon when she began her career in Atlantic City, and it was circumstance—the rise and radicalization of the Civil Rights Movement—that informed both her enraged classic, “Mississippi Goddam,” and her more affirmative one, “Young, Gifted, and Black.”
READ MORE: How Liz Garbus Made ‘What Happened, Miss Simone?’
What it was in Simone’s sound that might have made her “the patron saint of the rebellion,” per critic Stanley Crouch, is more difficult to pin down, though it’s there, on full view, in long, uninterrupted stretches of Simone’s soulful performances. That Garbus leans on the biographical to account for the sharp ache in the singer’s voice is not terribly surprising, and Simone’s rambling, poignant concert at Montreux in 1976—”You’ll never know the pain of using a name you never owned…”—suggests that there’s truth in this approach. On the whole, though, “What Happened, Miss Simone?” devotes scant attention to the artist’s aesthetic choices. And they were, as one archival interview with Simone indicates, choices: “Sometimes I sound like gravel,” she says, describing the work of generating an emotional response. “And sometimes I sound like coffee and cream.”
This is, perhaps, the signal failure of such portraits: The treatment of art as a natural outgrowth of the artist’s experiences, rather than the product of specific decisions informed, but not necessarily defined, by his or her life. By contrast, Douglas McGrath’s “Becoming Mike Nichols,” which limits itself to years between Nichols’ collaboration with Elaine May and 1967’s “The Graduate,” is unsatisfying because it offers such extraordinary insight into those decisions. (It’d still be fascinating at four times the length.) Anchored by Nichols’ sparkling, effortlessly funny intelligence, the film, culled from his final two interviews, combines backstage gossip, technical explication, and philosophical investigation. It’s open to both the sedulous and the serendipitous, from the metaphorical advantages of black-and-white film and the shot-by-shot planning of the montages in “The Graduate” to the fact that Nichols’ brother, in a stroke of luck, happened to send him Simon and Garfunkel’s “Sounds of Silence” in the course of filming. “What happens in a good movie is that you allow all the things that are useful to feed into the movie,” Nichols says of “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf,” as if to remind us that art is part act, part accident.
This is, as it happens, the notion at the heart of Method acting, which features in the finest of the five Emmy-nominated films, Stevan Riley’s exquisite, arresting “Listen to Me Marlon.” Pairing archival footage of Brando with previously unheard recordings the actor made throughout his life, Riley transforms the “highly personalized documentary on the life activities of myself, Marlon Brando” into one of the most thorough elucidations of the performer’s process ever committed to film. Against Brando’s first screen test, we hear his description of the close-up as a transformation of the actor’s face into a proscenium arch, as full of action as the Broadway stage; alongside footage from “The Men,” Brando notes that the Method is not, as it’s since been misinterpreted, about immersion for its own sake, but about learning patterns of movement and rhythms of speech so precise that cinematic cliché becomes impossible.
In short, as it traces Brando’s uncomfortable relationship with fame, his initial success in the 1950s, his fallow period in the 1960s, and his resurgence in the 1970s, “Listen to Me Marlon” weaves the strengths of its competitors—the personal (Brando’s father), the political (Sacheen Littlefeather), and the aesthetic (a reconsideration of his famed “coulda been a contender” speech in “On the Waterfront”)—into a sublime, perceptive whole, casting the actor’s entire oeuvre in new terms. It is the (self-) portrait as criticism, working counter to the conventions of “Everything Is Copy,” “Mapplethorpe: Look at the Pictures,” “What Happened, Miss Simone?” and even “Becoming Mike Nichols”: “Listen to Me Marlon” understands the artist by first understanding his art.