Theater April 2021
The tragedy of Mike Nichols
A review of Mike Nichols: A Life, by Mark Harris.
In his memoir Rewrites, Neil Simon recalls a time when, as an experienced playwright with many defining Broadway hits of the era already to his credit, he decided to spy on the man who was widely deemed equally the author of the best of Simon’s productions, such as Barefoot in the Park (1963) and The Odd Couple (1965). Simon thought he might be ready to try his hand at directing himself, so he sat watchfully behind the director Mike Nichols (1931–2014) for ten days while he shaped Plaza Suite during rehearsals. At the conclusion of this intel operation, Simon declared,
I had learned nothing. I saw nothing. He had no tricks. He had no modus operandi. No method, no style. What he had mostly was his intelligence: his knowledge outside the world of the theater; his keen, sharp eye for the manners and behavior of people . . . . [W]hat we ended up with was always a better play.
In his time Mike Nichols was the presiding genius of theater directing, collecting seven Tony Awards for his art, spread out between 1964 and 2012. Yet he was an artist who worked in disappearing inks. His oeuvre is not available for public appraisal and enjoyment. In some cases no record exists; in others, the only videos available are tightly guarded at the Performing Arts Library at Lincoln Center, which zealously maintains an archive of important Broadway productions but has just as zealously limited viewing to those visitors who physically show up at its Upper West Side premises—which has been closed for a year—until recently releasing videos of a handful of performances online. Nichols’s best work survives almost exclusively in the memories of those who were present for performances. Moreover, as anyone who has seen the tape of a play can attest, the televisual record is, at best, no more than a crude summary of an experience, barely comparable to being in that place at that moment. Theater is designed for those within its four walls, and so theater directing is a cruelly evanescent profession—the opposite of public architecture.
Nichols did make an impact in a more enduring medium, but that is a tragic tale. Three of his first four films remain classics of American cinema (and the other, Catch-22, is at least an interesting failure), but after 1971, the year he turned forty, he never made a film that mattered again. As his forgiving biographer Mark Harris makes clear in the authoritative, appreciative, and marvelously rich Mike Nichols: A Life, Nichols lived extravagantly—collecting art and show horses among other follies that have ruined richer men—but betrayed his gift in pursuit of huge paychecks.1 By the end of the 1980s, the designation “A Mike Nichols film” no longer meant anything except glossy middlebrow women’s pictures destined quickly to be forgotten. In one field Nichols left almost no trace; in the other he chose, or was undone by, meretriciousness.
Nichols began musing only late in life that his great American adventure was a matter of scarcely believable good fortune. Born in Berlin in 1931 as Igor Michael Peschkowsky (or perhaps Michael Igor Peschkowsky), Nichols was the son of a Russian father and a German mother. Under German law, the Jewish family was considered Russian, hence was allowed to leave. Nichols’s father went to New York in 1938 and arranged for his two sons (Robert was the other) to follow the next year, making their Atlantic crossing without adult accompaniment. Nichols’s mother followed them to the New World in 1940. Nichols’s physician father Pavel Peschkowsky changed his name to Paul Nichols (the new surname was a patronym in honor of his own father) and found the family a home on the Upper West Side, above his office, at 155 West Seventy-first Street.
Young Mike was, due to a childhood immunization, unable to grow any body hair whatsoever, not even eyelashes, but his parents took their time about outfitting him with the needful wig, one of many sources of discomfort and unease to the boy. At various private schools Nichols proved to be an indifferent student but picked up the habits and intonations of the Eastern upper class, shedding entirely his German accent. Attracted to the University of Chicago because it didn’t require test scores, Nichols flourished in its theater scene as an actor and, later, a pioneering player in the new form of improv comedy. His friendship with another theater nerd, Elaine May, led to their developing a popular series of two-character comedy sketches in small nightclubs. When they took their act to New York in the fall of 1957, they won over the impresario Jack Rollins (who also discovered Woody Allen) and became an institution in Greenwich Village. By October the duo were attracting enthusiastic crowds at the Blue Angel on the Upper East Side, by December they were being praised in The New Yorker, and in the final week of the year they made their television debut on The Steve Allen Show. One follow-up appearance later, in January on nbc’s Omnibus, a program whose audience numbered in the tens of millions, and Nichols and May were famous. An adapted version of their cabaret act was a Broadway sensation in the 1960–61 season and helped reconceive comedy. One of the pair’s famed sketches, “Teenagers,” was about an awkward date that turns into something close to rape, yet invites the audience to sympathize with both characters’ plight. Harris astutely observes that “Nichols and May became the avatars of a generational shift from the cheerful sitcom brightness of the previous decade to something truer, more troublesome, and more cutting.”
Nichols and May were like conjoined twins who finally separated.
Brilliant as they were together, the pair grew emotionally estranged. As Harris relates in disquieting detail, the sketch entitled “Pirandello,” in which the two actors pretended to have a disturbing physical confrontation on stage, then signaled that it was all an act by jointly shouting out “Pirandello!” just before the intermission, was both a cause and effect of growing friction, and so the duo split up, although over the years they reunited for special occasions such as Democratic presidential inaugurations. (They also performed at the 1962 birthday rally/fundraiser for President Kennedy at Madison Square Garden, at which the president was famously serenaded by Marilyn Monroe. At a party afterwards, Nichols saw the attorney general dancing with the star of the evening: “I like you, Bobby”; “I like you too, Marilyn,” he heard them say.) “Pirandello” on a few occasions led to the drawing of actual blood, and Nichols and May never allowed it to be filmed. The pair was as close as lovers (both were a bit coy about the depth of their romantic liaison, which was evidently brief, back in Chicago) and fell out as lovers do. When May wrote a poison-pen play (A Matter of Position) about an imperious fellow, clearly modeled on Nichols, who took to his bed and refused to budge, he starred in the piece for what proved to be a disastrous trial run in Philadelphia. Then he took to his own bed, in deep depression. Nichols and May were like conjoined twins who finally separated. “We stayed in each other’s lives,” May noted, “but it wasn’t the same. . . . There was a formality between us that only happens when you hurt someone.”
Yet this early episode of spectacular fame and fortune (Nichols earned some $500,000 in 1959) turned out to be mere prelude. Most of the admirers he earned over the course of his career had little to no acquaintance with his brief period as a performer, though those early comedy routines sparkle to this day (and can be found on audio streaming services such as Spotify). As a casual project while he considered his future, and as a favor to a friend, Nichols agreed to direct a revue called The World of Jules Feiffer, which comprised sketches by the anarchic Village Voice caricaturist who also wrote plays. Nichols brightened up the three-vignette show, staged at the Hunterdon Hills Playhouse in Union, New Jersey, in such a way that Feiffer became the first of many to express astonishment at Nichols’s directorial wizardry. During a rehearsal, Nichols asked the author to leave the room for twenty minutes, and when he returned, “He had somehow changed everything I thought I had intended and made it more interesting, deeper, better, funnier,” Feiffer said. He asked, “Where did all this come from?” Nichols pointed to the script and said, “It’s all in there.” Nichols became a sensation all over again while working with Simon to shape the text of and direct Simon’s first big hit, Barefoot in the Park, starring Robert Redford and Elizabeth Ashley in a production that ran for nearly four years. Hollywood noticed.
Camelot had played across the street from An Evening with Mike Nichols and Elaine May, and its star Julie Andrews’s then-husband, Tony Walton, was a fan of the comedy duo. Walton sneaked in nightly to watch the final skit, which was improvised and changed at each performance. Through Walton, Nichols struck up a friendship with Andrews and the show’s other star, Richard Burton, and later with Burton’s mistress (not yet wife) Elizabeth Taylor. (Burton was too intimidated by May to befriend her, writing that she was “one of the most intelligent, beautiful and witty women I had ever met. I hoped I would never see her again.”) Visiting the Burtons in Rome, where they were shooting Cleopatra, Nichols asked Taylor whether it was a nuisance to be in possession of such beauty. She replied, “I can’t wait for it to go.” Nichols could help with that.
Taylor was only thirty-two when the two schemed to transform her into the era’s castrating harridan.
She was only thirty-two when the two schemed to transform her into the era’s castrating harridan in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? After Jack Warner bought the film rights with an eye toward casting Bette Davis, hiring the producer Ernest Lehman to shape Edward Albee’s play for the screen, Taylor lobbied Lehman for the part and won it. Then Taylor pushed for her friend Nichols to direct her, and though Lehman warned the studio boss, “They’ll eat our director alive,” keeping the star happy seemed the wisest course. Once hired, Nichols quickly and wisely asserted himself. With startling arrogance, he threatened to depart the project if Warner wouldn’t let him shoot it in black and white. Equally boldly, though the Motion Picture Production Code was still in effect, Nichols sensed that it was weakening and left in much of the play’s scandalous profanity without shooting alternate, sanitized takes. Together with another friend, the recently widowed Jackie Kennedy, he schemed to deal with the Catholic Legion of Decency, whose disapproval could sink a picture: the pair arranged for her to sit directly behind the decision-makers at the crucial screening and say, as soon as the lights went up, “What a beautiful movie. Jack would have loved it.” When she did so, the Catholic Legion cleared the movie with a rating of A-IV (“morally unobjectionable for adults, with reservations”) instead of the dreaded C for “condemned” rating, and the Production Code began to topple when the body that oversaw it, the Motion Picture Association of America, simply overruled its decision to withhold a seal of approval. Virginia Woolf became the first picture released with the mpaa advisory rating “Suggested for Mature Audiences,” which developed into today’s R rating after the mpaa obliterated the Production Code in 1968.
The staggering impact of that picture, as well as its two close successors, The Graduate (1967) and the Feiffer-written Carnal Knowledge (1971), can still be savored today (though most critics acknowledged that Nichols’s 1970 adaptation of a novel that didn’t lend itself to film, Catch-22, had failed). At that point Nichols decided, disastrously, to attempt a blockbuster, a silly marine thriller called The Day of the Dolphin (1973). Some niggling insecurity must have been at work: Nichols had been earning preposterous amounts of money since his twenties, and The Graduate was then the third highest-grossing picture in U.S. history. If he had continued to make impassioned personal statements in cinema he might have been one of the great film directors of his generation; instead, he became a hack for hire. The execrable buddy comedy The Fortune (1975) ended his boy-wonder status in Hollywood. Later he filmed a moronic left-wing conspiracy thriller theorizing that a nuclear power plant worker who fell asleep while driving thanks to an enormous dose of quaaludes was actually murdered (Silkwood), a vapid Wall Street Cinderella sitcom (Working Girl), a fusty Neil Simon G.I. comedy (Biloxi Blues), a Jack Nicholson werewolf picture (Wolf), a silly fable about moral healing through brain damage (Regarding Henry), a gay minstrel show (The Birdcage), and a powder-puff study of Bill Clinton (Primary Colors). After all of these betrayals of his talent, Nichols still hadn’t reached his nadir: that came when he accepted $8 million to do a Garry Shandling comedy about an alien, What Planet Are You From? (2000). Nichols, it turns out, was a heavy user of cocaine and even crack cocaine for many years. In this habit he was hardly alone in his industry, particularly among those who worked in the Seventies, but it’s reasonable to wonder whether drug abuse impaired his professional judgment.
When Stoppard suggested the actors “take it quite slowly,” Nichols shot back, “Yes, absolutely—either that or very very fast.”
Nichols never stopped doing interesting work in the theater, though, even if it was as early as 1966 that Robert Brustein scolded him for “becoming famous directing precisely the kind of spineless comedies and boneless musicals he once would have satirized.” Nichols remained attached to Simon long after boulevardier comedy began to sag, but he did venture further afield. His production of David Rabe’s Vietnam piece Streamers (1976), for instance, drew gasps of horror and admiration at how skillfully Nichols executed a turn from comedy to savage violence. Nichols’s innovation, in this and many other productions, was to push the actors (notoriously fond of wringing dry the attention-getting possibilities of each phrase) to sprint through the dialogue and to find new possibilities for comic potential in physical actions, or “business,” undreamt of by the playwright. Contra Simon, Nichols did have his tricks: a favorite one Harris mentions was to build comfort between his lead actors (sometimes more than two, even up to eight) by having them lie on cots and calmly recite the entire play while relaxing prone next to one another. This worked nicely for Peter Falk and Lee Grant when rehearsing Simon’s The Prisoner of Second Avenue, which won a fourth Tony for its director. Later, when directing Tom Stoppard’s adultery comedy The Real Thing, he nurtured sexual tension between its stars Jeremy Irons and Glenn Close by telling them, “If you ever get lost, drown in each other’s eyes.” The play had been coolly received in London but proved to be a sensation in New York, in part due to Nichols shortening the interludes between scenes. On the first day of rehearsal, when Stoppard suggested the actors “take it quite slowly,” Nichols shot back, “Yes, absolutely—either that or very very fast.”
Nichols captured his fifth Tony award for directing that play and past seventy went on to win two more, for his incandescently silly Monty Python’s Spamalot (2005) and for his deeply felt homage to Elia Kazan’s original 1949 production of Death of a Salesman (2012) that used a replica of the original set and starred Philip Seymour Hoffman as Willy Loman. By then Nichols had developed a well-honed habit of setting the mood for actors by gently sharing long anecdotes from his own life. The actors playing the Lomans responded with their own stories, and soon a stage family emerged. The intimacy Nichols created shone through in the final product, which Terry Teachout of The Wall Street Journal termed “the capstone of a career.”
That career was mainly built around drawing laughter, and the biggest laugh Nichols ever got—the historic laugh, the generational laugh, the laugh that would forever be remembered and anthologized and is still heard today—came in just his second film. When that middle-aged gentleman, so keen on being helpful, draws Benjamin Braddock aside in The Graduate and says, “I just want to say one word to you . . . are you listening? Plastics,” the moment announced the Boomer cultural reformation. It’s unfortunate that Nichols never grasped his own warning to avoid a career in crass fabrication. The word that he allowed to seduce and derail him was “blockbusters.”
1 Mike Nichols: A Life, by Mark Harris; Penguin Press, 688 pages, $35.
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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 39 Number 8, on page 47
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