Few directors have made a significant impact in both cinema and the theater; Mike Nichols was one of them. Like Orson Welles before him, Nichols was a triple-threat: a wunderkind actor, writer, and director treading the boards of Broadway before making in-roads in Hollywood with an impressive string of films (Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, The Graduate, Catch-22, and Carnal Knowledge) all before he turned 40. After 21 films, 29 Broadway productions, and one of the few members of the EGOT club (Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, and Tony Award recipient), Mike Nichols died at the age of 83 in 2014. As this year would have been Nichols’ 90th birthday, his life and work are the focus of Mark Harris’ latest book, “Mike Nichols: A Life.”
A native New Yorker, Harris fell under Mike’s benevolent spell in his late teens when he saw both The Graduate and his Broadway production of Tom Stoppard’s The Real Thing starring Jeremy Irons and Glenn Close: experiences that left a lasting impression on the revered film historian/author of “Pictures at a Revolution” and “Five Came Back.” As Harris recalls from his home in New York City, “It’s hard to describe it but it was this immaculate production not only in terms of acting, but in terms of the stagecraft. The play begins with a scene in which an actual house of cards has to fall down and collapse on cue (laughs), you just think, ‘How did they manage to do that every night?’ My first exposure to him was a combination of both incredible style and incredible precision.”
As for The Graduate, the story of Benjamin Braddock (Dustin Hoffman) floating along the uncertain waters of post-college life while juggling a sordid affair with the sex-starved family friend, Mrs. Robinson (Anne Bancroft), the film remains a perennial coming-of-age tale as revered as Simon and Garfunkel’s iconic soundtrack. “I can’t think of another movie that changes so much as you change,” Harris said. “Beyond that, the movie is such a pleasure because of its tone and style, it’s perfectly controlled that of all the movies from that period (New Hollywood), it has this strange quality of not seeming to age partly because feeling alienated from one’s self is timeless.”
Alienation was one of the many anxieties Mike Nichols endured in his life. Born in Berlin under the ominous shadows of the Third Reich, the Jewish-born Nichols and his family emigrated to America before the outbreak of World War II and settled in New York before Mike’s father died when he was twelve leaving his mother to raise him and his brother. For Harris, the striking revelation in his research on Nichols was how the affable figurehead of Hollywood and Broadway endured depression throughout most of his life. As Mark mentions, “I’m incredibly inspired by the fact that this was something that Mike had to carry with him for great parts of his life and he just kept working to find his way out of it and to find things in the world and people that would nourish him and lift him out of it. Talking about depression as a battle you either win or lose; that language can easily get punitive. Anybody who has experienced depression doesn’t want to hear someone say, ‘Oh, you just can’t give into it!’ or ‘It’s a sign of weakness.’ In terms of thinking about depression as an ongoing struggle, it meant a lot to me to learn the different ways in which Mike struggled with it.”
For Mike, his work was the antidote to his internal struggles whether he was behind the camera or watching from the wings of the Shubert Theatre. Yet his creative decisions weren’t singular thanks to his openness to collaborating with women; an instinct he carried since his early days working with Elaine May as one-half of the comedic duo, Nichols and May. As Harris emphasized, “It’s so unusual for a male artist of Mike’s generation to have had his creative life formed by equal partnership with a woman. Decades after he and Elaine were a comedic duo, Mike always viewed women as collaborators in a lot of ways that his contemporaries did not. Whether that was Meryl Streep, Nora Ephron, costume designer Anne Roth or Emma Thompson, he was unusually open and interested in telling their stories.” The all-inclusive environment was reflected in Nichols’ films in the ‘80s, starting with Silkwood (his first of four collaborations with Meryl Streep), and Working Girl (a shoulder-padded, feminist retort to the male-centric environment of the Yuppie generation).
For Harris, his latest book is more personal than his previous work as he knew Mike in the last twelve years of his life. “The Mike Nichols I knew had resolved just about all the crises and laid to rest all the demons that I learned about really for the first time in the course of the research, so even to the extent that I did know Mike Nichols, I didn’t know him as a 25-year-old on the verge of being famous or as a 44-year-old disillusioned with Hollywood and on a cold streak. This whole research process was getting to know someone I had never met and a lot of times while I doing the research, I did forget that I had known him later.”
Harris’ husband, Pulitzer-prize winning playwright and Oscar-nominated screenwriter, Tony Kushner, collaborated with Nichols on adapting his play, Angels in America, into a six-hour award-winning miniseries for HBO. “On a personal level, I was really impressed at Mike’s stamina because he had just turned 70 by the time work on the miniseries started and it was an extremely long production from start to finish. 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, ‘Woah, he’s shooting two three-hour movies back-to-back!’ He was out there working all the time.” Arguably, Nichols’s six-hour miniseries set a precedent for television programming to expand from the episodic into sprawling serializations. Even in 2011, when talking with Jason Reitman at Film at Lincoln Center after a screening of Carnal Knowledge, Mike admitted to being a fan of Breaking Bad and how the televisual landscape was evolving into a cinematic experience.
Although the play and film were set in mid-80s New York during the AIDS crisis, Angels in America resonates during the COVID pandemic. Back in October, amfAR (the Foundation for AIDS Research) presented selections of Angels in America performed by Paul Dano, Glenn Close, Laura Linney, and S. Epatha Merkerson to benefit the Fund to Fight COVID-19. As Harris recalls watching the event with his husband, “When we watched those scenes, I think we both felt surprised at how much they resonated with this pandemic. I always joke with Tony by saying whenever I’m on Twitter and I see a bunch of people responding to the news tweeting ‘I can’t wait to see the Tony Kushner play based on this’ or ‘I can’t wait to see Angels in America, Pt. 3’, you always know that something really awful is going on in the world.”
With 250 interviews from Tom Hanks, Natalie Portman, and everyone from Hollywood to Broadway, “Mike Nichols: A Life” is sure to be the literary elixir to warm hearts and raise smiles. “One thing I hope readers will take away,” Harris says, “is that there are a lot of different ways to be a director and a creative artist. Especially those of us who love movies can kind of romanticize direction as a career of fighting against the odds to realize your vision; there is certainly an element of that. But when I look at the work of Mike Nichols, he was profoundly collaborative, was genuinely interested in writers, actors, in working with other people together to create something, and who followed his passion for the work itself and particular pieces of material. Obviously, as the husband of a writer, I think that screenwriters and playwrights are incredibly valuable and aren’t impediments to the process. It’s very moving to me that Mike lived his entire career that way.”
Mike Nichols: A Life is now available.