February 20, 2019

Son turns a camera on his mom, Nora Ephron

When journalist Jacob Bernstein was a boy, his mother, the iconic wit, essayist, author and filmmaker Nora Ephron, repeatedly told him “Everything is copy.” The advice came from her own mother, Phoebe Ephron, a screenwriter who used the mantra whenever Nora talked of adolescent heartbreak or a setback. “When you slip on a banana peel, people laugh at you. But when you tell people you slipped on a banana peel, it’s your laugh,” Ephron wrote in her memoir “I Feel Bad About My Neck.” When you write about your tragedies, she wrote, “You become the hero rather than the victim of the joke.”

Ephron — who unabashedly used her own life as material for her blisteringly hilarious essays and books, and whose films include the popular romantic comedies “Sleepless in Seattle” and “You’ve Got Mail” — emphasized that adage as Bernstein was growing up in New York. “It was when I complained, or when my mother thought I was being self-pitying,” he said during an interview in Century City. “Her voice in print really replicated her voice in life.”

As Phoebe was dying of cirrhosis, in 1971, she even advised Ephron to “take notes.”

Bernstein, now 37, took notes himself, discreetly, as Nora Ephron spent her last days in New York-Presbyterian Hospital; she died of leukemia in 2012, at 71, surprising the world, including many friends who knew nothing of her illness. Those notes became Bernstein’s compelling essay, “Nora Ephron’s Final Act,” published in The New York Times Magazine in March 2013, and they now are a basis for  his new documentary, “Everything Is Copy — Nora Ephron Scripted & Unscripted,” premiering on March 21 on HBO.

Shot during an 11-month period in 2013 and 2014, the documentary features archival photos and film of Ephron as well as interviews with her friends and colleagues, including director Mike Nichols (“Heartburn”), Meryl Streep, Tom Hanks and her sisters Delia and Amy. The film also describes the Hollywood fame and trials of her parents, both screenwriters who eventually succumbed to alcoholism. Their demise made Ephron determined to achieve self-reliance and to succeed as a writer, even if that meant doling out ruthless scrutiny, in print, to colleagues and friends.

After graduating from Wellesley College, Ephron got her start working first as an intern in the John F. Kennedy White House, then in the mailroom of Newsweek, and went on to write for the New York Post, Esquire and many other publications, producing biting and droll essays about such topics as her body image and aging.

She is also the writer of such films as “When Harry Met Sally” and “Heartburn” and co-writer and director of “Julie & Julia” and “Sleepless in Seattle.” “Heartburn” was based on her novel of the same name — a thinly disguised expose of the breakup of her marriage to Bernstein’s father, Watergate journalist Carl Bernstein, due to his infidelity while she was pregnant with Jacob’s younger brother, Max, now 36.

Making “Everything Is Copy” was, for Bernstein, a means of keeping his mother alive. “It was two years of magical thinking,” he said.

He said he dealt with his grief by immersing himself in work. “I wanted to do her proud,” he said. “And that felt like the best way to honor her. I was not interested in being a person who fell apart after his mother’s death.”

During an interview, Bernstein was affable and occasionally self-effacing; he described himself as a working journalist currently assigned to the style desk of The New York Times.

As a mother, Bernstein said, Ephron was “wildly funny, a fantastic gossip, entertaining and intimidating and frustrating, occasionally unforgiving … [and] unsparing about self-pity and foolishness.”

He recalls “her office, just filled with pages coming out of the typewriter”; her famous dinner parties, and frequenting her film sets as a child. Bernstein’s documentary does not mention that Ephron was Jewish; the documentarian believes that fact was fairly evident to her fans, and that she was, in essence, a nonreligious, “Woody Allen Jew” with a penchant for Zabar’s, potato latkes and gefilte fish. “Godlessness was for her a form of religion, a belief in self-sufficiency above all else,” Bernstein wrote in his New York Times essay.

Young Jacob, however, attended a Jewish school from preschool through the fourth grade, mostly because he was reluctant to transfer to another school.

Later, while a student at the prestigious Dalton School, he wanted to have a lavish bar mitzvah like many of his classmates. “The bar mitzvah culture there was that you had these mothers who didn’t work; they [instead] threw bar mitzvahs,” Bernstein said. “It was just this whole thing of showing up the other parents, about how much money you could spend on this ostensibly religious event. … [So] when my mother said we weren’t going to spend more than $1,000, that’s when I decided I didn’t want to have a bar mitzvah.”

Bernstein went on to attend Vassar College and got his first job in his early 20s writing a gossip column about the magazine business for Women’s Wear Daily. He said his mother was proud of his writing, but could be ruthlessly blunt when he sometimes asked her to evaluate his work. “When she was editing, I would not say that ‘nice’ was the first word that comes to mind,” he recalled.

It was several months after Ephron’s initial diagnosis of myelodysplastic syndrome (MDS), in 2006, that she told Bernstein the news, as he sat on her living room couch.  “She said she had this blood disorder, and that she didn’t want to tell me the name because then I would Google it,” he recalled. “But she said that she was on a medication that was working, and it basically worked for years. So I got lulled into a sense of false security.”

Over the next six years, Ephron eschewed her “Everything is copy” motto when it came to her own illness; she did not write about it, and told only a handful of friends and relatives about her disease.

Bernstein wasn’t surprised by her decision. “I think that victimhood, to her, was unthinkable,” he said. “And she was at a point in her life where she had learned how to find herself in stories about other people.” Ephron’s last work, the play “Lucky Guy,” was inspired by the true story of a reporter who achieved his biggest scoop while dying of colon cancer.

Bernstein said he did not immediately set out to make a documentary about his mother after her MDS turned into leukemia and killed her. The idea came to him 2 1/2 months after her death, when another filmmaker mentioned that she hoped to make a documentary about Ephron. “I think there might be someone in line in front of you,” Bernstein replied, meaning himself.

Bernstein’s younger brother, Max, a musician, declined to be interviewed for the film. “There was some concern over whether this would be a classy thing that everyone felt proud of, or would it be well-meaning but slightly misguided — ultimately a narcissistic exercise by the son of a famous writer,” Jacob Bernstein said. “Max also had a private relationship with our mother that I think he wasn’t totally interested in sharing.” (Max is now supportive of the film, his brother said.)

Meanwhile, Bernstein’s father, Carl Bernstein, put off being interviewed for “Everything Is Copy” for two years. As one interviewee says in the film, the Watergate journalist went from being perceived as a hero to a “goat” in the wake of “Heartburn,” and he didn’t want his long-ago, rancorous divorce dissected yet again.

When Carl Bernstein finally agreed to appear on camera, he revealed to Jacob that he had worried that his depiction in “Heartburn” might affect how his sons regarded him. Jacob responded by admitting, for the first time, that it had. “I thought he had [committed] an act of disloyalty, and viewed him as irresponsible,” the filmmaker told the Journal.

Bernstein said his father has been fine with the film. But what would Ephron have thought of it? “She would have probably told me that it was fabulous,” the younger Bernstein said. Then again, “She might have said,  ‘It’s almost good,’ ” he added with a laugh.