Mark Harris’s Mike Nichols: A Life

The Daily — Feb 16, 2021
Mike Nichols

In each of his first two books, Mark Harris tells five stories at once. Pictures at a Revolution captures a crucial moment in the transition from the old Hollywood to the new, chronicling the making and marketing of the five 1967 films in the running for the best picture Oscar. Five Came Back, “a work of history and of collective biography,” as Harris calls it, takes measure of the impact of the firsthand experience of the Second World War on the lives and films of Frank Capra, John Ford, John Huston, George Stevens, and William Wyler.

Talking to Marc Maron on the WTF podcast, Harris notes that as he began work on his new book, Mike Nichols: A Life, he realized he wouldn’t have the option of “cutting away” from one narrative track to another. But of course, he soon found that there is no lack of inertia in the story of the man who teamed up with Elaine May to launch a groundbreaking, star-making comedy act, directed twenty features and nearly thirty plays, most of them on Broadway, and won an Oscar, nine Tonys, four Emmys, and a Grammy. “Mike Nichols: A Life reads much faster than its 600-page length would suggest, as Harris’s crisp, funny, empathetic prose essentially glides one through Nichols’s life and career,” writes Chuck Bowen at Slant.

The life begins in Berlin, where Mikhail Igor Peschkowsky was born in 1931 to Pavel, a doctor and the son of Russian-Jewish immigrants, and Brigitte, the daughter of two respected German-Jewish writers, Gustav Landauer and Hedwig Lachmann. When Nichols was four, a whooping cough vaccination left him with the inability to grow hair, and at seven, he and his three-year-old brother Robert crossed the Atlantic alone to join their father, who had fled from the Nazis a few months earlier, in New York. Mike Nichols arrived in America bald and unable to speak but a few words of English. At school, he was the butt of jokes, and at home, his parents fought openly in front of the boys. Not a happy childhood.

But he picked up the language, wore a wig, and learned how to apply false eyebrows, a procedure he’d go through every day for the rest of his life. “It takes me three hours every morning to become Mike Nichols,” he once told actor George Segal. He enrolled in the premed program at the University of Chicago, where Paul Sills, one of the cofounders of the Compass Players, the first improvisational theater in the country and the precursor to the famed Second City Theatre, told Elaine May that she simply had to meet Mike Nichols, “the only other person at the University of Chicago who is as hostile as you.”

Nichols and May hit it off immediately. The sketches they performed introduced a fresh, improvisational flair to a comedy circuit grown stale with 1950s-era punchline-driven stand-up. “Their humor posed itself against Ike and the suburbs, but without so much as a foretaste of countercultural spite,” writes Stephen Metcalf in the Los Angeles Times. They were a hit on The Steve Allen Show, and their Broadway show, An Evening with Mike Nichols and Elaine May, ran for more than three hundred performances.

May aimed to keep the show spontaneous and alive, to take chances, while Nichols leaned more toward winning over the audience. That friction eventually led to the end of the act in 1961, but they remained friends and collaborators throughout the rest of Nichols’s life. May, whose own films include A New Leaf (1971), The Heartbreak Kid (1972), and Mikey and Nicky (1976), was a much sought-after screenwriter and script doctor for decades, and wrote the adaptations for Nichols’s The Birdcage (1996) and Primary Colors (1998). “In the shadow biography of May that weaves in and out of Mike Nichols,” writes Erik Adams at the A.V. Club, “Harris acknowledges that the do-overs afforded again and again to Nichols were never extended to his first creative other half—particularly not after her own Day of the Dolphin-sized flop, Ishtar.

After the breakup of the act, Nichols, who had studied acting for a spell under Lee Strasberg in New York, turned to directing. In 1963, he premiered Neil Simon’s Barefoot in the Park, starring Elizabeth Ashley and a young actor with a thin resume, Robert Redford. It was the first of four hit Broadway productions Nichols directed over the next eighteen months. He met Richard Burton, and then Elizabeth Taylor, who was looking for a meaty role that would allow her to prove that there was more to her as an actor than her beauty.

Nichols knew nothing of lenses or shot composition when he stepped onto the set of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? He didn’t even know that Taylor or Burton or George Segal or Sandy Dennis wouldn’t start acting until he said “Action.” But Virginia Woolf, an adaptation of Edward Albee’s play about a middle-aged couple fighting it out one long, drunken evening in front of their young guests, squeaked by the censors—the Motion Picture Association of America had to overrule the Production Code Administration first—and scored thirteen Oscar nominations and five wins.

Nichols won his first and only Oscar for directing The Graduate (1967). Redford, who very much looked like the young Benjamin Braddock that Charles Webb had created in his 1963 novel, wanted the lead role, but Nichols insisted on casting the little-known Dustin Hoffman. “People who watched Hoffman’s test were unimpressed,” writes Louis Menand in the New Yorker. “Then they watched it on film. Nichols later said that Elizabeth Taylor was the only other actor he worked with who could do what Hoffman did. He called it that ‘deal where you do nothing and it turns out you were doing everything. That’s what a great movie actor does. They don’t know how they do it, and I don’t know how they do it.’”

Reviewing Harris’s “engrossing” biography, Phil Concannon notes that he’s “always been intrigued and perplexed by the maddeningly erratic trajectory of Mike Nichols’s filmmaking career. While other directors of his generation displayed a consistency of vision that gave their genre experiments a recognizably personal through line, it’s harder to define exactly what ‘a Mike Nichols film’ is.” In the New York Times, James Wolcott suggests that Nichols’s “dexterity and cool engineering have worked against him in posterity as a ranking auteur, denying him the canonical status and mystique of other New Hollywood directors (Altman, De Palma, Scorsese, Coppola, Spielberg). The absence of gnawing compulsions, recurring themes, maestro flourishes, and other distinguishing marks makes him difficult to place.”

Chuck Bowen offers one possible way to get a handle on the Nichols filmography, noting that he “combined the sketch instincts he honed with Elaine May with the method acting he learned from Lee Strasberg to inform plays and films with a behavioral minutia that enriched, and at times usefully distracted from, the plots themselves. If one wishes to consider Nichols on auteur terms, this attention to behavior would be the best element on which to seize.”

It was also a major draw for some of America’s greatest actors. Both Meryl Streep and Jack Nicholson worked with Nichols on four projects each, and after some dramatic reshuffling that Harris recounts in an excerpt from the book at Vulture, he cast them together in Heartburn (1986), Nora Ephron’s adaptation of her own novel about her breakup with Carl Bernstein. “Today,” writes Harris, “Heartburn stands as perhaps Nichols’s most underappreciated comedy; it’s both funny and unfailingly acute about the manners and mores of the privileged class of people it depicts, and it’s also one of the few studio films of the period in which a male director subordinated himself to the perspectives of a female screenwriter and a female protagonist. (Silkwood is another.)”

Silkwood (1983), with Streep playing Karen Silkwood, the real-life activist who blew the whistle on the unsafe working conditions at a nuclear power plant in Oklahoma, is hard to track down and see, but it will be streaming as part of the Museum of Modern Art’s series Mike Nichols: Bookends, which runs from February 25 through March 7. Streep and Nichols worked together one last time on Angels in America (2003), the six-hour HBO miniseries based on the 1991 Pulitzer Prize–winning play by Harris’s husband, Tony Kushner. “On a personal level,” Harris tells David Stewart at the Film Stage, “I was really impressed at Mike’s stamina because he had just turned seventy . . . I mean, Mike gave more of a year of his life to Angels in America, and it was a hard, complicated shoot where you had to be mentally present every day. I thought, ‘Whoa, he’s shooting two three-hour movies back-to-back!’ He was out there working all the time.”

Talking with Harris for Variety, Adam B. Vary asks whether he imagines that a career like Nichols’s might be possible today. “If we were to just say that the thing that was unique about Mike Nichols was that he sustained parallel fifty-year careers as a movie director and as a stage director, and was genuinely not more one than the other,” says Harris, “that alone is something that I think we would struggle to find a contemporary parallel for. But then when you add to that the idea that before either of those careers began, he had this amazingly influential career as a performing artist that kind of reshaped comedy for decades to come, it’s very hard for me to think of a parallel figure.”

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