Book Review: Mike Nichols A Life

Among his many talents, Mike Nichols had a talent for celebrity, which meant in part a talent for friendship, as we learn early and often in Mike Nichols: A Life (Penguin Press. 688 pages.). Both Elizabeth Taylor and Jackie Kennedy, two of Nichols’ pals, were instrumental in launching his successful and lucrative career as a movie director – Taylor by lobbying the movie studio to hire him as the director of the film adaptation of Edward Albee’s play “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf,” even though Nichols had no background in filmmaking, and Kennedy by convincing the National Catholic Office for Motion Pictures not to condemn the film, despite its unprecedented foul language.

Nichols’ celebrity, and his celebrated friends, are not the main focus of this biography, although author Mark Harris would have been remiss to leave out Nichol’s fourth wife Diane Sawyer, or his best friend Richard Avedon, or such long-time buddies as Stephen Sondheim.   But Harris is the author of two previous film histories (Pictures at a Revolution: Five Movies and the Birth of the New Hollywood about the making of five films, including the Nichols-directed “The Graduate,” and Five Came Back: A Story of Hollywood and the Second World War, the war-time experience of five Hollywood directors), and he is primarily interested in Nichols’ work.  This does not mean just his films: There is plenty here for theater lovers. Much of the book is taken up with a  chronological accounting of each of the 21 films Nichols directed and the 29 Broadway (and handful of Off-Broadway) shows with which he was involved.

As rewarding as this literal play-by-play, though, what most draws you through the voluminous journey is more likely to be the same seductive and elusive qualities that attracted friends, colleagues and fans to Nichols, from the moment he became a celebrity at the age of 26 until his death at 83 in 2014.

As Mark Harris makes clear, Mike Nichols was a character of his own invention. He was born Mikhail Igor Peschkowsky, a Jew in Nazi Germany who lost all his hair as a young child due to a botched vaccination, relying on wigs for the rest of his life. Not until 1939, when he was seven, was his family able to arrange for his escape.  He and his younger brother  traveled alone on a ship to New York, knowing just two phrases of English: “I don’t speak English” and “Please don’t kiss me.” Harris gently questions this anecdote, which Nichols polished for interviewers throughout his life, astutely describing it as “his first self-revelation-as-anecdote, an approach that he would eventually refine into a shield and a disguise, but also into a style of directing.”

After an awkward, sullen childhood, exascerbated by his father’s early death and his mother’s neglect,  Nichols took off for college in Chicago, transforming himself into an aloof, sophisticated wit — and embracing 1. theater. 2. improvisation, and 3. Elaine May. The comedy duo Nichols and May, with their sharp, hip satire, became a hit on the nightclub circuit, a favorite on television, and the toast of Broadway.

And then they tired of the act, breaking it up (but remaining friends until the end.) Nichols became depressed (as he would in lulls throughout his career) — until a producer friend suggested he might want to try his hand at directing; there was a new play being tried out at Bucks County Playhouse. 

“In one day of work, he had discovered exactly what he wanted to do for the rest of his career.” The play was eventually entitled “Barefoot in the Park,” it won for Nichols the first of his ten Tony Awards, and was the first of numerous collaborations with playwright Neil Simon.

Nichols’ instantaneous attraction to directing came in part, he explained, because being a director was like a surrogate father. “If you’re missing your father, as I had all during adolescence, there is something about playing the role of a father that is very reassuring.” And that’s how his casts came to see him (we learn that both Kurt Russell and Cher during “Silkwood” started calling him Dad.)

Chapters about individual shows in “Mike Nichols: A Life” often read like the “making-of” magazine features that are timed for the opening of a play or the release of a movie – lots of quotes from those involved, and detailed attention to the process. These accounts largely avoid the boosterish quality of many magazine features; Harris is blunt about such inside dope as how Walter Matthau and George C. Scott were jerks to work with. Especially effective were the chapters about the films that are still familiar, and admired  – in addition to Virginia Woolf and The Graduate at the beginning of his film career, they include Wit and Angels in America (both on HBO) near its end. (I’m not sure whether it’s a coincidence that all but one of the accounts I found most fascinating were Nichols’ screen adaptations of stage plays.)

On the other hand, some readers might tire of (or outright rebel against) the equally lengthy and respectful detail given to his outright flops and commercial entertainments.  Somebody is quoted about Melanie Griffith getting high during the filming of Working Girl:  “what really shocked me was how vulnerable Mike was. He was a serious artist, and she was his instrument, and if his instrument was impaired, he couldn’t do his work.”

Nichols himself  seemed to have a less exalted view of what he did, and was  actually noted for treating his casts like human beings. Natalie Portman ,who was cast in his late-in-life production of Chekhov’s “The Seagull” at the Delacorte in Central Park, says he was the only older man who mentored her without doing anything creepy. She also recalls: “He would always say that the problem with New York theater was that everybody forgot that it needed to be fun, and the audience was filled with couples who would rather be anywhere except with each other at home.”

 “Mike Nichols: A Life” is threaded with Nichols’ wit, but also what Harris calls Nichols’ half century of show business wisdom — or, as playwright Beau Willimon puts it:  “Everyhing he said seemed like it should be embroidered on a pillow”

He had much to say in particular about comedy, reflecting on his own rise to fame and fortune: “Elaine and I had a rule. Never try for a laugh. Get the laugh on the way to something else.” Harris repeats the rules that Nichols posted to his cast of “Spamalot” to keep them in line in the months and years after opening, e.g. “Strip back to the basics — what you do must remind us of real people.”

Mark Harris works to show us the real person behind the celebrity, an effort that proves nearly impossible for a man whose memorial service was “so packed with celebrities that even the famous dropped their guard and gazed at one another in fascination…” Many believed, Harris writes, “that Mike was the last of a certain kind of cultural celebrity — someone who could travel between film and theater, who understood art and politics and fashion and history and money, a man of the world and of his century.”

Photographs and captions from the book:


Author: New York Theater

Jonathan Mandell is a 3rd generation NYC journalist, who sees shows, reads plays, writes reviews and sometimes talks with people.

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