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Doc Corner: Nora Ephron and Mike Nichols Get Posthumous Tributes on HBO

Glenn here. Each Tuesday we bring you reviews and features on documentaries from theatres, festivals, and on demand. This week we’re looking at two biographical HBO documentaries about cinema legends.

Despite a resume that reads as limited, Nora Ephron's reputation over film and pop culture general looms large. Directed by her son, journalist Jacob Bernstein, there is likely little this new biographic documentary Everything is Copy that won’t be familiar to fans of the witty essayist/author/screenwriter/director’s work – not least of all when featuring old clips of Ephron narrating her own books directly the camera. But thankfully Bernstein’s film isn’t simply a rehash of his mother’s life, rather he occasionally finds minor nooks and crannies of her life that she herself hadn’t written about at length. Helped by words from her sisters and friends, an image of Ephron is formed that while no doubt glowing allows for us to learn even more about her than her famously candid words previously allowed.

Beyond all of that, first and foremost, Everything is Copy is an entertainment. A breezy and bright glimpse of a woman whose wit was matched by her scathing honesty and who left behind many works of cultural significance that are worth parsing over. 

New York movies, Nora's death, and a conversation with Mike Nichols after the jump...

Bernstein utilizes a neat storytelling trick by having passages of her life begin with an introduction by her own words, yet spoken by the many younger women and contemporaries whom she inspired; names like Lena Dunham, Meg Ryan, Reese Witherspoon, Gaby Hoffman, Rita Wilson and more. Filmed in grainy black and white – or at least processed to look that way – they act as calming moments of bliss amid the storm that was her life, full as it was with marriages, divorces, personal struggles and triumphs, movies, plays, and books. Small anecdotes prove equally amusing such as when Steven Spielberg notes that when he once made her laugh, it was just like winning an Oscar. It is in fact a recurring theme that anybody in her orbit wanted to impress her. With each passing essay extract, snippet of dialogue, or moment of clarity, the reasoning for a film about her beyond mere familial love and celebrity duty is proven.

Everything is Copy also works quite wonderfully as a New York movie. Not just any New York movie, but the sort that Ephron herself would make as pieced together by archival footage and movie clips that present the city as a glowing beacon of architectural skylines etched into the sunny skies of the Upper West Side. It is perhaps interesting to note how significant her very private death plays in the film’s touching final 30 minutes. If, as we’re lead to believe, Ephron was adamant about keeping the details of her encroaching dance with fate a private secret, how are we to feel about prying into it now years later? This quandary is one of the only issues to stand out among the delights that Bernstein’s film offers.

Death likewise lingers over Becoming Mike Nichols, a project that was birthed out of a desire by producer Frank Rich to get Nichols’ own words down since the Oscar-winning cinematic great had never and had no desire to write a personal memoir. This film, directed by Douglas McGrath and pieced together out of two separate (yet curiously identical if you’re paying attention) interviews – one in front of an audience, the other one-on-one, both conducted by stage director Jack O’Brien – and interspersed with stage and film clips, focuses predominantly on the early era of Nichols’ life, the period that lead to the concept or the idea of ‘Mike Nichols’ as we know it: his early work on the stage with Elaine May, and his earliest film projects, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf and The Graduate.

However, the film feels only half-baked and while I admire the documentary’s efforts in segmenting his career to allow a heavier focus on one thing over another, this film ultimately feels like a part one on a much larger work with sequels that never came to pass. Apparently Nichols himself wasn’t all that interested in discussing his later work, which is disappointing given he hardly stopped making great works after winning a best director Oscar for The Graduate (including Angels in America for HBO, the network that produced this film). Whatever the reasons, it certainly doesn’t stop Becoming Mike Nichols from being an interesting watch for fans - i certainly appreciated the early footage with May that I'd never seen before - but the finished product works best as a DVD supplement as perhaps a primer for a Nichols newcomer before diving into his esteemed filmography.

In a neat twist, Nichols appears in Everything is Copy so the two sit side-by-side as almost sister films about two of the great artists of their times. Both films are available on HBO platforms.

Oscar Chances: I believe both received Oscar qualifying runs so I would expect to see them on the very long list of Oscar contenders later in the year. Everything is Copy may stand a chance of gaining some attention, but it's rare for docs about filmmakers to advance far for whatever reason.


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Reader Comments (8)

every time i read about this Nora Ephron doc, i kick myself for not having watched it yet. MUST GET TO THAT THIS WEEK.

March 29, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterNathaniel R

...and then we can all watch Heartburn!

March 29, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterCorey

These films were certainly entertaining, touching, and heart-felt, and folks who admire Ephron and Nichols should probably add them to their must-watch list (along with Elaine May's version on Nichols for PBS American Masters). However, as a longtime fan of both amazing creators, nothing in either film is fresh or revelatory. In this era of internet with instant access to all kinds of archived materials on artists and celebrities, just Googling Nora Ephron, for example, provides links to most of the clips shown in this doc. And her friends and family who were interviewed for the film have said similar things in the press, either at the time of her death, or prior to, during various award ceremonies, tributes, etc. Hallie Ephron (a sister, who appeared very briefly) provided some of the same great anecdotes on the whole Ephron clan at a book festival panel I attended a couple of years ago.

And as Glenn points out, the Nichols doc certainly leaves the audience wanting part 2, part 3, and so on. Say what you will, but he got a seriously f-ing great performance out of Melanie Griffith in Working Girl. But again, you can probably find Q&As with him re some of his other greats like Angels in America, Wit, and my fav, Silkwood.

But, if you know nothing about these two beyond some general sound bites and their work, I highly recommended both films. Thanks, Glenn!

March 29, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterPam

I guess we should add something at the end to suggest reading Kyle's book about Mike Nichols if the movie gets you interested in him as a person and as an artist (and, really, who isn't?)

Pam, I had certainly heard most of the material from Ephron's film in one form or another, but liked some of the ways it told it here which set it a little bit above the bar from mere Wikipedia doc.

March 29, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterGlenn Dunks

I love and admire both Ephron and Nichols so much, they had the gift of giving laughter, wit, and insight in many forms. I have seen the doc on Nichols and wanted more.I have yet to see the one on Nora, but will soon.

March 29, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterLadyEdith

Do either of these two remotely have a contemporary to them in cinema? So much talent there. And so much class too!

March 29, 2016 | Unregistered Commenterforever1267

Everything is Copy was such an enjoyable watch. If you haven't seen it, I really recommend it.

Ephron is one of those people who's interviews are great to listen to. I looked up some youtube videos after the documentary and her AFI tributes to both Nichols and Streep are fantastic.

March 30, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterNem

Nem, enjoyable is such a good way to describe it. Even if you have seen the interviews and read the novels and heard her friends, the fact that her work was so enjoyable makes the film enjoyable by default. Ephron's Streep tribute is one of the funniest things I've ever seen. It's even featured in the doc, although unfortunately not the entire thing.

March 30, 2016 | Registered CommenterGlenn Dunks

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