The special nuance in Nora Ephron’s humor — whether in person, in print or said by actors on screen — was that she often made you realize that truth and honesty can be as stark as the difference between public and private. That so opinionated and open a person died in 2012 keeping her illness secret from nearly everyone was shocking to friends and loved ones.
Now her son Jacob Bernstein, himself a writer, has crafted a lively, probing documentary about her, “Everything Is Copy,” and it’s a fitting tribute to the influential journalist-essayist-filmmaker: insightful about the life of a successful writer, engaging about how a smart modern woman navigated the world, but also quizzical about how Ephron was as a daughter, sister, wife and mother.
The title refers to a piece of cynical advice Ephron’s screenwriter mother gave her about the ups and downs of life: It’s all material. A child of both coasts, Ephron’s canny ability to turn experience and observation about women into deeply funny, trenchant pieces (most famously for Esquire), brought her a Dorothy Parker-ish renown that still dazzles decades after she left journalism behind for success writing and directing romantic comedies (“When Harry Met Sally,” “Sleepless in Seattle”).
Bernstein even tasks the likes of Lena Dunham, Meg Ryan, Reese Witherspoon and Rita Wilson with reading her prose out loud, a technique that makes you grateful for the words, if not necessarily the arty presentation (they’re in black and white and deliberately grainy).
Elsewhere, though, it’s a smartly laid-out insider profile, with a host of luminaries and loved ones — editors, colleagues (Meryl Streep, Mike Nichols, Tom Hanks), family (fellow writing sisters Delia and Amy) and two ex-husbands (including Jacob’s dad, Carl, subject of her blistering marriage roman à clef “Heartburn”) — expounding on her waggish gifts and not-always-appreciated certainty of attitude.
Though mostly spirited, “Everything Is Copy” earns its eventual sadness as only a portrait of a seasoned, gimlet-eyed humorist who avoided goodbye tears should: Ephron’s legacy in processing life was that you can either cry about it or laugh about it. As Mike Nichols says to Bernstein regarding how his mother turned the indignity of a husband’s infidelity into a hit novel: “In writing it funny, she won.”
‘Everything Is Copy’
Running time: 1 hour, 29 minutes
Playing: Laemmle Playhouse 7, Pasadena; debuts on HBO March 21