Sometimes it takes a minute for a documentary to hit me. This was the case with Everything is Copy, Jacob Bernstein’s tribute to his late mother Nora Ephron. I had watched it weeks ago and it burned slowly in my subconscious.
Maybe it had something to do with me wanting to hear more from the folks who adored Nora, were influenced by her sharp essays, dined at her lavish dinner parties, starred in her classic films like When Harry Met Sally and Sleepless in Seattle or suffered at the swing of her mighty pen.
Selfishly, I wanted this journalist, screenwriter, essayist and director to tell us about her battle with acute myeloid leukemia. Or simply say cancer sucks. Isn’t everything copy?
Maybe Nora thought writing about her illness was cliché. We’ll never know.
She would’ve celebrated her 75th birthday this month.
Nora Says Give ‘Em the Axe
“Everything is copy” is what Nora’s mother (also a screenwriter) told her children whenever they came home with a new drama or heartbreak.
What struck me most was an audio clip of Nora saying: “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. You become the hero rather than the victim of the joke.”
Duh. I never thought about it that way. But it’s the reason I laugh at my goofs before anybody else. If I’m the star of my show, I’m always the hero, even when I slip on a banana peel.
I also realized that:
- Sometimes you gotta fire the cute kid. Nora had a reputation for being difficult. Nobody enjoys diva behavior but as creatives we’re passionate about defending our art. I’ve learned that I can’t trust anyone to go hard for me. That’s my job. I also have to know when the puzzle pieces don’t fit and when somebody has to go. Nora did too. She fired the original kid who played Tom Hanks’ son in Sleepless when he went all starstruck with his onscreen papa.
- Career flops will make you holler for a do-over. Being a creative means there’ll always be blood on the dance floor. Sometimes your blog post goes viral and your movie is scooped up at Sundance. Sometimes it bricks hard at the box office. Nora had hits and weathered her share of flops too, like Lucky Numbers. (Not my fave Nora movie.) In her book I Remember Nothing and Other Reflections Nora said:
“Flops stay with you in a way that hits never do. They torture you. You toss and turn. You replay. You recast. You recut. You rewrite. You re-stage. You run through the what-ifs and the if-onlys. You cast about for blame.”
- Survive the false destinies to get to the real one. Some lovers bring the sunshine out of us and others, um, not so much. I believe love is a custom fit. Nora married three times to find Mr. Right and there was hell to pay when the Valentines melted. Infidelity in her second marriage (to Watergate journalist Carl Bernstein) ended up on bookshelves and big screens in the form of Heartburn. Nora’s third hubby (author and screenwriter) Nicolas Pileggi proved to be her real destiny, the right fit. Ironically, Nicolas, the guy who wrote about gangsters and crime (Goodfellas and Casino) softened Nora’s sharp edges. We should all have a love supreme.
- There’s power in the pivot. She didn’t lean in during motherhood (that concept didn’t exist at the time), instead she became the master of the pivot and transitioned into screenwriting because 1) it paid better than banging out reported pieces for pubs like Esquire and 2) it offered flexibility. She made it look easy. I’m certain it never was. Being a woman in Hollywood is not a cakewalk.
- Everything isn’t copy. Sometimes you keep things to yourself, like a rare strain of cancer. That sounds so strange at a time when social media seduces us to document the mundane (hey, look at my green smoothie!) to the outrageous (hey, read my scathing twitter rant about my cheating ex-boyfriend!). Nora was sick for six years and only her immediate family and a handful of friends were privy to this information. For those who were paying attention, Nora left clues about immortality in her work.
In I Remember Nothing, there’s a list of things she said she’d miss. There’s the obvious (her hubby and sons) and the things we take for granted like:
Dinner with friends in cities where none of us live
Coming over the bridge to Manhattan
There’s something satisfying knowing that Nora Ephron misses pie. I’d rather know that than read a tragic story about her illness any day.