WHEN | WHERE Monday night at 9 on HBO
WHAT IT’S ABOUT Jacob Bernstein, son of Carl Bernstein and Nora Ephron, directs this film about his mother — who died in 2012 at the age of 71 — as seen through the eyes of her closest friends and some surviving family members. Part “American Masters” portrait, part personal quest, this film explores the life and death of the person who wrote three era-defining movies — “Silkwood,” “When Harry Met Sally . . . ” and “Sleepless in Seattle.”
MY SAY Over her career, Ephron was a star Esquire columnist, creator of iconic movies, best-selling author, successful playwright and feminist icon. She was Meryl Streep’s muse, Meg Ryan’s patron saint and helped make Billy Crystal a household name. Married to another prominent author, Nicholas Pileggi, her influence bridged two unbridgeable cultures — Hollywood and the New York literary establishment. She would have been the Dorothy Parker of her time, except that Parker hadn’t become the most famous female movie director of her time, as Ephron had.
Then, with the heights scaled and legacy secured, she died. Suffering from complications of acute myeloid leukemia, Ephron quietly went to the hospital one day, and never came out.
People die — that’s a given — but people like this don’t die without the predictable (and perfectly understandable) rush for meaning. Ephron told almost no one of her illness. For the most compulsively public of people, as Ephron was, that in itself was a mystery. “Everything’s copy,” her mother (also a screenwriter) had long ago advised her. Everything except for this.
That’s the riddle, and the spirit, of Jacob Bernstein’s quest. He obviously wants to pay tribute to his extraordinary mother but especially get to the bottom of her final mystery. Bernstein, a staff reporter for The New York Times, has quite an assemblage here to help. New York literary eminences like Gay Talese and former Knopf editor Robert Gottlieb recall the glory years at Esquire and beyond. New Yorker staff writer and Bridgehampton neighbor Ken Auletta remembers a long-ago dinner with Ephron and then-husband Carl Bernstein. They broke up weeks later — the celebrity split of the decade.
Then other stars line up — Streep, Ryan and Tom Hanks — followed by Hollywood institutions like Rob Reiner and Steven Spielberg. Lena Dunham reads an Ephron essay, Reese Witherspoon another.
Assemblages have a way of turning into crowds, and “Everything Is Copy” quickly becomes crowded. The more often the stars appear, the further Ephron recedes from view. Eulogies are also understandable, just not particularly illuminating, and invariably tedious.
But like any good reporter, Bernstein keeps his focus. “Everything Is Copy” works best when Ephron’s sisters — Delia, Amy and Hallie, all accomplished writers — are on-screen, even better when he is. Neither Pileggi nor Jacob’s brother, Max, are interviewed, and you are left to wonder about that. If two of the most important people in Ephron’s life aren’t here to help, then what hope does Bernstein — or viewers — have in solving the mystery of her life and death?
But he’s relentless, and before long an answer does take shape. Like any writer, Ephron wanted to control the story she was writing, but also the outcome — and to put the “30” (to use the old newspaper term used to signal the end of an article) on it when she was good and ready. Her life was her copy, in books, movies and essays. She had control over that, but none over her inevitable mortality.
And so, she lapsed into silence.
It’s a poignant conclusion, also plausible, and one that might even satisfy the toughest of critics: Ephron herself.
BOTTOM LINE A son’s post humous gift to his mother — and often a fascinating one.