One of this new year’s most buzz-worthy celebrity biographies is Mark Harris’ Mike Nichols: A Life (Penguin Press). Harris, whose previous book, Five Came Back, was adapted into a Netflix limited series, etches a masterful portrait of Nichols, a promethean talent. He started as a performer, who with partner Elaine May, helped usher in a new era of comedy. As a stage and screen director, he put his inimitable stamp on some of the most popular and provocative films, plays and musicals, including the original Broadway production of The Odd Couple, The Graduate, Angels in America, Spamalot and The Birdcage.
Nichols’ beginnings were not auspicious. He and his brother fled to America from Nazi Germany. He grew up an immigrant and “unsmiling child” whose feelings of being an outsider would inform his best work. Redbox carries 13 of Nichols’ films. Each has in common indelible performances and stories told with perceptive wit and intelligence. Some are among the funniest films ever made. We talked to Mark Harris about Nichols’ legendary life and career, his prodigious output and how to recognize the “Nichols touch.”
Redbox: What was your introduction to Mike Nichols?
Mark Harris: The first time I was ever aware of him was The Graduate. I imagine I was a senior in high school, and it made a huge impression on me. Many years later, he started working with my husband (Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Tony Kushner) on the HB0 adaptation of Tony’s Angels in America. When I started working on Pictures at a Revolution (about the five 1967 Best Picture nominees), I knew The Graduate was going to be a huge part of it, so I got to talk to him a lot then. I grew more and more fascinated by him. He lived a unique life. He achieved extraordinary success at such a young age as a performer and then left it behind to walk into what would become 50 years of a bifurcated career as a film and theater director. I wanted to explore how an artist thinks at every stage of his career and life, how a director shapes his career and hones his instincts and prioritizes his work.
Redbox: The people who spoke to you for the book—Meryl Streep, Julia Roberts, Elaine May—is a testament to the quality of his work and the esteem his actors had for him.
MH: I interviewed about 250 people. I thought I had enough (for the book) and it was time to start writing, but by no means did those 250 people exhaust the worlds of Mike Nichols. I don’t know if I could have done the book without Elaine May, but I’m certainly glad I didn’t have to try.
Redbox: As a sucker for stories about unrealized projects. I am intrigued by the proposed casting of Doris Day and Ronald Reagan as Mrs. and Mr. Robinson in The Graduate. Do you have a project of Mike’s that you most regret never came to fruition?
MH: I really want to curate a film festival of movies Mike passed on. He had really good instincts about what to turn down. I just recently re-watched The Exorcist. I can’t imagine that movie as directed by Mike Nichols, and I don’t think he could imagine it. He hoped to do a season of theater with a repertory company led by Meryl Streep in which she would do plays by Tennessee Williams, Chekhov and Ibsen. That would have been extraordinary. Mike really loved companies of actors. He was sorry he couldn’t pull it off.
Redbox: Can you give an example of the Nichols touch in one of his movies?
MH: That’s an interesting question. He always said it was the job of the director in any moment to answer the question: What is this situation really like? Often the way he answered that was by coming up with these wonderful, unexpected grace notes in his movies. interesting physical bit of business that audiences could connect with. In The Graduate, Benjamin is about to check in to the hotel for his tryst with Mrs. Robinson, and he’s trying to play it cool. The desk clerk, played by Buck Henry, hits the bell on the counter to summon a bellboy and a panicked Benjamin instantly puts his hand over the clerk’s hand to mute it. Michael was great about finding the small moments that made everything play more real. Often those were huge, unexpected laughs.
Redbox: Redbox carries 13 Mike Nichols films for rental, purchase or streaming. I’d like your take on some of them. We start with Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, his first film as a director. It starred the biggest celebrity power couple of them all, Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor.
MH: He was very nervous about it and working with Elizabeth Taylor. In his circle and the smart set in general, the thinking was Richard Burton would do great, but she would be out of her depth. Mike’s discovery of her strength as a physical actress how to play to that strength was a very important development as a director.
Redbox: The Graduate.
MH: Mike really didn’t know exactly what he wanted out of the last shot of Benjamin and Elaine on the bus. But he found the moment—their smiles slowly fading from their faces, the adrenaline wearing off as they ride toward an uncertain future. Mike found that by getting on the bus and sitting with the actors and saying, ‘Think about this feeling’ and ‘Imagine this just happened.’ He let the camera roll. He believed that even if you’ve planned everything in advance, you still have exploring to do. Some directors find that terrifying. Mike was open to discovering something in the moment. That’s another example of the Nichols touch.
Redbox: Catch-22 was the first setback in his movie career, but in recent years its critical stature has risen.
MH: Catch 22 was the first movie where Mike was treated as a giant success. He had an unlimited budget, a huge cast and anything he wanted, he got. Catch-22 is an interesting movie to look at. There are Mike Nichols moments in it and his work with the cast is phenomenal. But I was struck by what Buck Henry said about it later, that when he saw the finished film, he realized that Catch 22 is a set of attitudes, but it doesn’t have a lot of recognizable human behavior. In a strange way, it was the first thing he directed where the material was not an ideal match for him. I still think there is a lot to love and admire in it. When it came out, it was consigned to being in the shadow of M*A*S*H, which had just had beaten it to theaters and was the huge unexpected phenomenon that Catch-22 definitely was not. Since then, regard for the two movies has balanced out a bit.
Redbox: Heartburn, which was based on Nora Ephron’s book about her marriage to Carl Bernstein and stars Meryl Streep and Jack Nicholson.
MH: It’s one of my personal favorites and one that I really think got a raw deal when it opened in 1986. Mike is really in top form with the kind of observational comedy and attention to performance that characterizes his strongest work. Movies are sometimes hostage to the moment they come out. There had been so much press about Ephron and Bernstein’s marriage and divorce and her book about it, and it was very hard for some people to clear that clutter out of their head and appreciate the movie. Thirty-five years later, Heartburn is a movie that deserves a second look. It holds up very well.
Redbox: Working Girl
MH: That was a big success for Mike. It got him an Oscar nomination for Best Director and it was the first of his movies since The Graduate to be nominated for Best Picture. Mike thought that he was making a kind of critique of hard-driving Wall Street capitalist culture and how it can swallow you up, but he was also making what he described as a Cinderella story. It became really clear when the movie came out that the Cinderella story was the more powerful. It has wonderful performances. Joan Cusack and Sigourney Weaver are hilarious and Harrison Ford is a charming leading man. It perhaps wasn’t as biting as the movie that he thought he was going to make.
Redbox: The Birdcage
MH: A lot of Mike’s decisions about what to direct were made in a fairly simple way: Do I believe in this material? Do I like the people I will work with? The answer to all of these was positive. He loved Robin Williams, who was an established comic tornado and movie star. But he also loved Nathan Lane, who was not well known to movie audiences at that point. The Birdcage allowed Mike to do two things that he really loved to do with actors. One is work with a star in a role that is suited to him, and that was Robin, and he loved to elevate someone to stardom by virtue of their talent by putting them in the perfect role, and that was Nathan.
Redbox: What can we learn from Mike Nichols’ story?
MH: On the most basic rags to riches level, it’s a story that ends a lot better
than it starts. That is an appealing American story. For me, one of the most moving things about Mike’s story was from this 20s into his 80s, he found new ways to challenge himself. He never let himself grow weary or cynical about his work or treated it as a way to make money. For any artist, I hope one thing they draw from Mike’s story is the value of evolving as an artist in a way that allows them to stay interested in what they are doing for their entire life. It can be painful and you can be lost and frightened and not sure if you still have anything to contribute. Mike’s story is about fighting through those hard times, and trying to come out of the dark forest and survive.