No one has made a narrative biopic of Nora Ephron’s life yet, which is probably a good thing. I don’t know how women would cope if Nora got the Walk The Line treatment. She’s too important, too special, too near and dear to too many of us. We would get all dressed up in our best black roll necks and march hand in hand to the nearest Odeon, availing of Nora-inspired pre-dinner meals – 1970s food that we read about in Heartburn but are only now daring to try: brown sugar crab apples, a casserole of lima beans and pears, Swiss potatoes.
And then we would take our seats and watch some well-meaning actress Get It Wrong. She would be too pretty or not pretty enough. Too self-serious or too much of a joke. There would either be too much or not enough about Carl Bernstein.
Luckily, Nora Ephron does not have a flashy Hollywood biopic. She has a documentary made by her son, Jacob Bernstein. Everything Is Copy was released in the US in 2015 and has just been added to Sky On Demand in the UK.
It’s a thrill, at first, to see Jacob. The two-year-old “Sam” we read about in Heartburn is now 39, with legitimate questions about his late mother. Why, when her motto was “everything is copy”, was she so secretive about her own declining health? How did her saber-toothed writing affect the lives of the people she openly parodied, such as her first husband, Dan Greenburg (“I have never owned hamsters, nor did I dress them up in outfits,” he testifies fiercely) and her close friends (“At one point she was very mean about me and then I just had to remember she was funny,” says a somewhat bruised Barbara Walters).
Skilful as Jacob Bernstein’s documentary is, there’s nothing in there, in terms of biographical detail, that the average Nora fan doesn’t know already. Strangely, the most thrilling details about Everything Is Copy are the parts where Nora’s son breaks from the glass-ceiling-smashing, fast-talking, joke-making, multi-hyphenate legend of his mother and instead allows room for her humanity. The humanity, that is, of being a little bit of an arsehole.
Nora Ephron was no picnic. She follows the grand tradition of Dorothy Parker and Nancy Mitford – women who were more in love with language than they were with kindness
This is not new information. Nora Ephron was no picnic. She follows the grand tradition of Dorothy Parker and Nancy Mitford – women who were more in love with language than they were with kindness. Her sister Delia, who possesses much of the signature Ephron wit but less of the barb that went with it, writes about it in Sister Mother Husband Dog (Etc.): “Losing her is like losing an arm, it’s that deranging. But in regard to the daily pains of my life… I relied on my husband. Nora didn’t have the patience I needed. She didn’t allow herself any moping or self-pity.”
She stole lines, she returned thoughtfully chosen birthday presents, she could be cold. She dealt badly with tragedy, with need, with vulnerability. “In my novel Hanging Up, I left out the part where Nora didn’t come to our father’s funeral,” says Delia. “Nora would have used that.”
“You fired the kid?!” exclaims Tom Hanks, recalling the first day of shooting Sleepless In Seattle, Nora’s second directorial outing after her debut flop, This Is My Life. Yes, she fired the kid – she couldn’t have sub-standard child actors on her set, not when so much was riding on Sleepless. She fired a lot of people, sometimes for good reasons, sometimes for no reason at all. She needed to know that people were on her side, partly because she knew how rarely women are afforded second chances in Hollywood and partly because she just liked having a lot of people around who agreed with her. When she died, in 2012, one of the first things her long-term collaborator, Mike Nichols, said was, “Who’s going to tell us what to do?”
All of this – the admirable traits and the slightly less admirable traits – are held up to the glinting sunlight. Nothing is exaggerated to make her a villain, or flattened to make her a victim. There are no sloppy explanations of why she was the way she was, no talking head telling us that she had to be tough to survive as a woman in show business. Nora simply was who she was and it’s immensely refreshing to see not just a documentary about a creative woman, but a documentary about a creative imperfect woman. It sometimes feels like we are flooded with narratives about difficult male geniuses – honestly, it’s the reason I can’t pluck up the energy to see Phantom Thread – but seldom does it swing the other way. Female achievement stories are towers that are built to be torn down, whereas male ones seem to endure like trees that repeatedly get hit by lightning, becoming more interesting the more gnarled and strange they become.
More women deserve to be the subjects of their own documentaries, but, more than that, more women deserve to be documented in precisely this way – their faults glimmering like stars in the eyes of their loved ones.