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Mike Nichols: A Life
by Mark Harris

Book Review by Michael Ladenson

In 1980, when I began studying for my MFA in stage directing, a student asked our teacher how you got a directing job. "Every producer," he said, "has a list of directors. At the top of the list is Mike Nichols. And somewhere on the list will be you." That remark about the top of the list was accurate, for at that time Mr. Nichols, who died in 2014, was the ideal director every playwright and producer wanted. For over half a century, renowned for his urbane wit, he bestrode the worlds of theater and film like a colossus, a near-guarantee of commercial and artistic success. In "The Season," his account of Broadway's 1967-68 season, William Goldman included an unflattering chapter that portrayed Nichols as a shallow narcissist, prone to self-promoting directorial gimmicks, but Goldman called him a "culture hero." Now, Mark Harris has woven the culture hero's tempestuous life and career into a biography, titled simply Mike Nichols: A Life. And he has managed to make a life of numerous ups and downs into a chronicle as exciting to follow as a Hollywood action film.

Harris begins with Igor Michael Peschkowsky, a 7-year-old from a troubled marriage, permanently hairless from a faulty whooping cough vaccine, escaping from Nazi Germany with his little brother. His English limited to "please don't kiss me," little Igor goes to a life of being bullied ("Hey Baldy!") at the Dalton School in New York, where his classmates include Henry Zuckerman, later to become one of his chief artistic collaborators under the name Buck Henry. When Igor becomes Mike Nichols, he doesn't realize that his days of being bullied are over. Who wouldn't want to know how that happens?

Nichols never wrote an account of his career, and those who dream of following in his footsteps will not find a thorough account of his techniques here. Harris includes some tantalizing hints, such as how the director coached Robert Redford and Elizabeth Ashley to battle each other onstage in his first Broadway hit, Barefoot in the Park. And late in the book, he describes how Nichols co-founded The New Actors' Workshop and coached students: "What is the event of this scene? ... What's the secret cause? The scene is a ball of yarn, and if you pull, eventually you'll get to the secret at the center." The book is full of anecdotes but doesn't share the secret at the center of Barefoot in the Park or Nichols' other great Neil Simon hit, The Odd Couple, not to mention his late career summit, the HBO film of Tony Kushner's Angels in America. Nonetheless, the copious interviews and anecdotes give scattered examples of Nichols' practical stage wisdom.

Such wisdom is encapsulated in the quote with which Harris begins the book:

... in art, and certainly in the theater, there are only two questions.. the first question is, "What is this really, when it happens in life? Not what is the accepted convention... but what is it really like?" And the other question we really have to ask is "What happens next?"

Where the book excels, as such a biography should, is in charting the trajectory of its subject's adventurous journey through show business. Many of these stories have been told before, for Nichols was generous about giving interviews. But I've never seen a more thorough account of how the former Igor made his way to The University of Chicago and hooked up with Paul Sills, the genius who founded an improvisational theater that later blossomed first into the Compass Players and then into The Second City.

Any treatment of Nichols' life must detail how he met Elaine May, the mercurial performer (later a writer and director) with whom he formed an improvisational team that revolutionized comedy and gave him his first taste of stardom. Harris recounts the familiar story here and makes it as fresh as if it hadn't been told before: how she spotted him in an unbearable school production of Strindberg's Miss Julie and later encountered him in a subway station, where the two immediately launched into an improv about spies. Nichols, who spent some time studying with Lee Strasberg, and May, an intensely focused actress, used their improv tools to move beyond the door-slamming antics and mother-in-law jokes of conventional comedy, as in this meeting of a tearful mourner and his funeral home "grief lady":

May: Would you be interested in some extras for the loved one?
Nichols: What kind of extras?
May: Well ... how about a casket?

If you look at the sketch now on video, it's startling how neither actor telegraphs that laugh line. They stay as resolutely in character as if they were playing an Ibsen drama. This sophisticated sense of reality endeared Nichols and May to New York hipsters and showbiz big shots like Steve Allen and Milton Berle, and led them to ever more exclusive club engagements and eventually a successful Broadway run. It was the era of the Beatles, Mort Sahl (who didn't appreciate Nichols and May opening for him one bit) and Lenny Bruce—the dawn of the hipster takeover of American culture.

Harris' style is never intrusive; he appears to be a writer of the clear-pane-of-glass variety, a transparent window onto the events he chronicles. Nichols' path was never a straight trajectory upward, and Harris excels in recreating the up-down roller coaster of his journey: from New York, where he studied with Strasberg (from whom Nichols gained "the best thing about acting I've heard to this day," an intriguing comparison of breaking down a scene to making fruit salad) and was fired from a series of survival jobs (including at Howard Johnson's, where a customer asked what the ice cream flavor of the day was and Nichols, ever the smart-aleck, answered "chicken"), slinking back ignominiously to Chicago and eventually finding salvation with Compass and May. You never roll your eyes at the next setback but follow the subject's adventures as avidly as you might hang on James Bond's battles with Goldfinger.

Harris avidly recounts the familiar story of how Nichols and May finally stopped because, unlike her partner, she couldn't bear repeating the same material again and again. He does deal with the sexual did-they-or-didn't-they question about Nichols and May (the answer appears to be yes but briefly). Harris vividly portrays how the two parted company after a disastrous experience when Nichols starred in an awful play by May that closed out of town. He fully recounts his subject's despair about being half of a dissolved comedy team; deeply affected by Elia Kazan's productions of Death of a Salesman and A Streetcar Named Desire, he never imagined they might suggest a future path. That is, until Nichols again found salvation upon being asked, quite out of the blue, to direct a play by an unknown writer named Neil Simon. Trying out at Pennsylvania's Bucks County Playhouse, Barefoot in the Park became a surprise smash. When the play opened on Broadway:

What critics saw onstage that night was a comedy of the kind they had been trudging to for a decade or more, but this time played with effortless verisimilitude—the acutely funny lines were combined with a rare glimpse at how people go about their lives in the privacy of their own homes, their physical tics, their tiny irritations, the odd habits that you never realized everyone shared until someone revealed them to you onstage. It was the Nichols touch, honed by his years of working with May and getting the audience to say, "Yes! How did you know?"

Harris gives a satisfying account of how Nichols parlayed this success into more plays, such as the next Neil Simon comedy, The Odd Couple, starring Art Carney and a temperamental Walter Matthau, including how Nichols approached his much-acclaimed staging of the first act's boisterous poker game. And after that, he shows us the subject finagling his way into his triumphant first movie, directing Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?. (Taylor even pulled some strings and got him a better toupee.) Of course, this success is followed by The Graduate (screenplay by Buck Henry), for which Nichols won an Oscar and shook up Hollywood casting by giving the lead role, a young WASP aristocrat, to an unprepossessing New York Jew named Dustin Hoffman. The end result: the third highest grossing film in history at that time; a compendium of European art house flourishes and deadpan urban humor; a mandatory cultural experience. With success comes money, and Nichols began a close friendship with photographer Richard Avedon that showed him how to become part of the world of the rich.

Along with these successes, Harris follows Nichols through a lot of hard times, such as four marriages and struggles with addiction to Halcion, cocaine and cigarettes. Meanwhile, Nichols became the ultimate actor's director, expert at playing Daddy to a variety of thespians, including Melanie Griffith, Kurt Russell, Harrison Ford and, ultimately, Meryl Streep (when she won an Emmy for Angels in America, Streep called him "my master and commander, my king." Not too shabby.) Concurrently, Harris doesn't give short shrift to his subject's cinematic flops, such as Day of the Dolphin and Catch-22. But it doesn't take a flop to floor Nichols, who struggled with depression his whole life. Like a true depressive, he passed on a number of exciting film projects, including Chinatown, the Two Jakes, Sophie's Choice and A Chorus Line. Then came a Halcion-induced delusion that he had lost all his money (he hadn't), leading him to call friends like Stoppard and beg them to take care of his children.

Eventually, Nichols clawed his way back from all these setbacks. In theater, he renewed himself with David Rabe's Streamers, Tom Stoppard's The Real Thing, the Monty Python musical Spamalot, and a sensational revival of Death of a Salesman, in the movies Silkwood, The Birdcage, and Angels in America, among other things. He won nine Tony Awards, two Emmys, an American Film Institute Life Achievement Award and a Kennedy Center Honor; as the New York Times commented, "Mike Nichols picks up Tonys the way cashmere picks up lint." He reunited with Elaine May, who became his favored screenwriter.

In marriage, he found apparent true love with newscaster Diane Sawyer. And he entered his final inning with a resolve to become a better man, a better father to his children, and a guy who doesn't make rude comments to restaurant servers. Stereotyped for directing fluffy plays with all-star casts, he turned his sights to Chekhov (The Seagull with Streep and Kevin Kline), Beckett (Waiting for Godot with Steve Martin and Robin Williams), Pinter (Betrayal with Daniel Craig) and Arthur Miller (Death of a Salesman with Phillip Seymour Hoffman and Andrew Garfield). He drew from his actors a series of brilliant performances: Streep in Silkwood and Angels, Emma Thompson in Wit, Al Pacino in Angels, Hoffman in Salesman. By the time he directed the Miller play, William Goldman's master of self-serving directorial cleverness had become a true actors' Daddy, benevolently sharing stories about his life. His assistant, Trip Cullman, reported "I remember all of us sitting around the table ... and Mike anecdotalizing for hours on end. I was thinking, when are we going to work? It took me a while to realize that he was creating trust. It was such an enormous lesson—that you don't have to start controlling everything right away." The show won him his last Tony.

Harris is especially thorough covering The Birdcage, Nichols' Elaine May-scripted version of Le Cage aux Folles. He includes an amusing discussion, featuring Nathan Lane, of whether these two straight people making a movie about a gay couple could legitimately include the word "fag." Since Harris is married to Tony Kushner, he presumably knows his way around such an issue. Lane also gives a touching account of Nichols' brother-sister solicitousness toward his old partner. And speaking of Kushner, Harris provides an equally thorough account of the making of the Angels in America film, featuring Streep, Emma Thompson and Al Pacino.

Thorough as Harris usually is, he leaves some odd little gaps. Felicia Bernstein died from lung, not breast, cancer. In discussing Nichols' film version of the Neil Simon play Biloxi Blues, Harris alludes to a deep-seated animosity between writer and director. Since Simon unstintingly praised Nichols in his memoirs, you wonder exactly what happened here. Describing Nichols' superb stage production of David Rabe's army barracks play Streamers, Harris focuses on the breezy comedic handling of the play's early scenes, omitting Nichols' understated, sublimely creepy staging of the play's climactic violence. Talking about Nichols' troubled all-star production of Rabe's Hurlyburly, he doesn't mention any trouble with Harvey Keitel, who openly despised the director. And he doesn't bring up the flashiest piece of staging in the production, a seduction in which William Hurt and Sigourney Weaver stripped each other's clothes off. That's a bit like discussing Psycho without mentioning the shower scene. He also doesn't reveal that, amid all the Hollywood glitterati—Hurt, Weaver, Keitel, Christopher Walken—a little known theater actress named Judith Ivey walked away with the show.

Gaps aside, this is a comprehensive account of one of the greatest American show business lives of the last century. Mike Nichols truly lived the dream, resoundingly ringing the top bell in at least three different industries. This is how he did it. Wandering through its pages you will find a catalogue of cultural royalty: Streep, Mr. and Mrs. Leonard Bernstein, Stephen Sondheim, Jack Nicholson, Lillian Hellman, Jackie Kennedy, William Styron, Matthew Broderick, Jules Feiffer, Tom Hanks, Simon and Garfunkel, and many more. If in your heart you harbor any devotion to the business of shows, you will pick up this book and sincerely not want to ever put it back down.

Mike Nichols: A Life
By Mark Harris
688 Pages
Penguin Press
Publication Date February 2, 2021
ISBN: 978-0399562242
Now available in Hardcover/Kindle Edition/Audible Audiobook