The myth of Motherood

How well do we really know our mothers? The sons of Nora Ephron and Glora Vanderbilt each try to answer that very question in two new documentaries.

“I’ve always thought that my mother comes from a place and a time that no longer exists. A bygone world, “says newscaster and CNN presenter Anderson Cooper at the beginning of the film about his mother, Gloria Vanderbilt. And in fact, she did: She was nine years old when she inherited one of the largest fortunes in the United States, built up through her grandfather’s railway company. The following year she found herself in the middle of what was later referred to as  “the trial of the century”, when her mother and her aunt Gertrude Whitney (who would later found the Whitney Museum in New York) both fought for custody of her. As an adult, her life was frequently the stuff of gossip columns: She dated Frank Sinatra and Marlon Brando, married four times, studied art and had a career as an actress in both film and theater. She was one of the first people in the United States who made designer jeans. Outside of the United States, she is perhaps best remembered for the perfume that bore her name.

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Gloria Vanderbilt with her husband Wyatt Cooper and sons Carter and Anderson photographed by Jack Robinson for Vogue in the 1970s. Carter took his own life when he was 23 years old, a family tragedy that is also discussed in the documentary. Photo: HBO

Anderson Cooper began filming his mother when he was a teenager, even back then thinking about making a documentary about her. In Nothing left unsaid he also interviews his 91 year old mother, although Cooper has left the direction of the film in the hands Liz Garbus, a two time Oscar-nominated filmmaker with several similar HBO projects behind her. Either way: When you’ve lived a life with so many epic qualities as Gloria Vanderbilt, the result is bound to be entertaining. For large parts of the movie Vanderbilt tells us her own story in her own words: She talks about the nanny and “surrogate mother” who was abruptly taken away from her when she was ten years old, about her son Chris who no longer is on speaking terms with her, about her son Carter who took his own life, about husbands she divorced or who died. There’s something matter-a-fact in the way she recounts even her darkest moments, a kind of impenetrable wall separating her from her own pain. “Inside me, I have a hard diamond that nobody can get to and no one can break. I’ve always known that about myself, “she says in the film.

The portrait that American journalist Jacob Bernstein has made of his mother, the late director, author and writer Nora Ephron, is warmer and more intimate. My starting point here is also different, I must ad, as Ephron is one of my favorite writers and a great role model. She has written one of the finest comedies I know of, When Harry Met Sally, not to mention a bunch of sharp, witty essays published in magazines like Esquire and The New Yorker and later as books.

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Nora Ephron as a young journalist in the 70s, when she worked as a reporter for The New York Post and wrote a column for Esquire magazine. Photo: HBO

The thing I admire the most about Ephron, though, is the way she took hold of her own life and turned her personal lows into her greatest professional highs. That was especially true when it came to her divorce from Watergate journalist Carl Bernstein, who had an affair with another woman while Ephron was pregnant with their second child. Nora Ephron way to deal with this miserable situation was to write the bestselling novel Heartburn, which was later made into a film starring Meryl Streep and Jack Nicholson. “If your husband is cheating on you with a runaround, get Meryl Streep to play you. You’ll feel much better”, she later said.

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A few of my favorite books by Ephron, smart and incredibly funny notes on life as a woman. In the documentary about her Steven Spielberg says that getting Nora Ephron to laugh felt like winning an Oscar.

The title of the documentary, Everything is Copy is a quote Ephron frequently used. It came from her mother, who was also a screenwriter and believed that anything sad that happened in your life was valuable because you could use it in your writing. For her eldest daughter it was also a way to take control of the story. “When you slip on a banana peel, people will laugh at you, but if you tell them that you have slipped on a banana peel the laugh belongs to you. You are the heroine, not the victim. “When Ephron writes about how much she hates her neck, how an apartment became the love of her life and how she regrets not wearing a bikini for the entire year when she was 24  (“If anyone young is reading this, go, right this minute, put on a bikini, and don’t take it off until you’re thirty-four. “), the joke is on her, but on her terms.

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Photo: Random House

There was one story she did not tell, however, and that was the story of her own illness. When Nora Eprhon died of cancer in 2012, only a handful of her friends and family knew that she was sick. The rest were in for a great shock, something several of them – including Tom Hanks, Meg Ryan, Steven Spielberg and Meryl Streep – talk about in the movie. Why would she keep this a secret? her son asks himself. Was it because this was the only story she could not control?

Gloria Vanderbilt and Nora Ephron were very different mothers, or so it seems, yet they both raised sons who would spent years of their lives digging deeper into who their mothers were. So much about our parents are unknown to us. They continue to surprise us long even after their gone. But if we look closer, there are great stories there to be discovered.

Nothing left unsaid and Everything is Copy are available on HBO.

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