Monday, February 15, 2021

Mike Nichols: A Life

When Mike Nichols stepped onto the set of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf in 1965, he had no idea how to make a movie. As the cameras rolled for the first time, he crouched in anticipation and waited for his actors to deliver the performances they had shaped in rehearsals, and there was an awkward pause before Elizabeth Taylor said, “I can’t act until you say ‘Action.’” His inexperience was exposed in a variety of unexpected ways. When planning a close-up shot of Taylor and Richard Burton walking through the front door, he worried that the opening door would hit the camera until the focal length of lenses was explained to him; and after he and cinematographer Haskell Wexler had spent four hours setting up the shot, he realised the hinges on the door had been affixed on the wrong side. “I wanted to cry,” Nichols later recalled. “I thought, oh my God, here I am making a film and I can’t even get them through the front door. I turned to [Wexler] and said, ‘Get me out of this hole.’ And he did.”

By the end of the 1960s, Nichols was among the hottest directors in Hollywood, having directed Virginia Woolf and The Graduate, two hit movies that had become cultural phenomena, earning twenty Oscar nominations between them. He was about to embark on an adaptation of Joseph Heller’s seemingly unadaptable Catch-22, and he had been given a sizeable budget and the freedom to do whatever he wanted with it, but just a few years later, his filmmaking career appeared all but over. A string of expensive flops and an abandoned production of Neil Simon’s Bogart Slept Here (later to become The Goodbye Girl) in 1975 severely damaged his reputation, and he wouldn’t direct another feature film until 1983. The theatrical wunderkind appeared to be a cinematic flash in the pan.

I’ve always been intrigued and perplexed by the maddeningly erratic trajectory of Mike Nichols’ filmmaking career. While other directors of his generation displayed a consistency of vision that gave their genre experiments a recognisably personal through line, it’s harder to define exactly what ‘a Mike Nichols film’ is. At his best he made incisive, acerbic, vividly acted portraits of complex relationships (it’s no coincidence that his sole 1970s bright spot, Carnal Knowledge, is a film about four people talking), but he was equally prone to directing bloated and drab flops that left you wondering what on earth prompted him to take on the project in the first place.

The great value of Mark Harris’ engrossing new biography Mike Nichols: A Life is the way he gives a narrative shape to this wayward career, and makes sense of the reasoning behind Nichols’ choices. Sometimes he chose a project because he really wanted to work with a particular star, sometimes he chose it because he really needed the money (Nichols liked to live the high life, and he had expensive habits, among them Arabian horses and cocaine), and often he simply trusted his gut instinct. On more than one occasion Nichols would take on material believing he could locate the theme or whip its half-realised ideas into shape during production, only to realise too late that he was in trouble. When he was struggling with the messy screenplay of Wolf in 1993, he sent out an S.O.S. to his old partner Elaine May. After reading the script, she quickly identified the nub of the issue. “Mike, you have a story about a guy who wants to become a wolf, so he becomes a wolf,” she told him. “I think this is going to be a very short movie.”
Throughout his life, Mike Nichols flourished by aligning himself with key collaborators, and Elaine May was the one he turned to again and again. Harris does an excellent job of explaining how revolutionary their comic partnership was in the context of the 1950s entertainment scene, and how perfectly their individual strengths complemented each other. She was an improvisational genius, whose moments of inspiration frequently left him in awe (Nichols once tried to trip her up by asking her to perform the title song from her forthcoming musical version of The Brothers Karamazov, and she reeled off some impromptu lyrics without missing a beat), while he had a stronger sense of narrative, pacing and structure. The seeds of his subsequent career as a director were planted in this era.

It’s hard to overstate just how enormously successful Nichols and May were. They sold out 311 performances on Broadway, they made a fortune from appearances on television shows and commercials, and Harris tantalisingly reveals how close we got to seeing a Nichols and May sitcom, as they so nearly signed a deal with Desi Arnaz and Lucille Ball’s production company Desilu. “The two went over to CBS and, on the precipice of signing a contract, looked at each other. “Maybe we shouldn’t,” May said to him. Nichols giggled. “I don’t think I will,” he said, and put down the pen. They laughed and flew back to New York.” Perhaps that was a bullet dodged, however, as the story of Nichols and May is also presented here as a cautionary tale about the price of success and how expectations can so easily become a prison.

As they became bigger and grew more reliant on the hit sketches that the paying public turned up expecting to see, they stopped changing the dialogue – which was particularly disconcerting for May, who wanted every moment to feel fresh – and the act began to calcify. The dynamic between them began to shift too, and tensions bubbled to the surface with increasing regularity. “We don’t speak, except onstage,” May told a reporter, to which Nichols added, “She resents those two hours,” and it wasn’t clear how funny such remarks were meant to be. Nichols became more controlling as May chafed against constraints and tried to reinvent sketches on the fly. “I had to push the sketch ahead because I couldn’t invent as she could,” Nichols admitted. “She was a real actress, and I was beginning to be a real pain in the ass to her. I was very controlling – ‘You were a little slow tonight.’ Once that happens, you’re in very bad trouble. We could not recover.”
Nichols’ spotty behaviour with his collaborators is a recurring theme throughout the book. After a series of painful encounters with major stars early in his career as a theatre director – an egotistical Walter Matthau kept going rogue during The Odd Couple, while George C. Scott would disappear on days-long benders during the rehearsals for Plaza Suite – Nichols instituted a “no assholes” rule on his sets, but it soon becomes clear that he often was the asshole. There are numerous accounts of Nichols behaving poorly throughout the book, most notably on the disastrous production of What Planet Are You From? in 1999.

“I got to the set and I thought, Oh my God. What do I do? Who do I have to fuck to get off this movie?” Nichols admitted, and his surly mood was exacerbated by an injury picked up early in the shoot that left him relying on crutches. He and the film’s writer/star Garry Shandling were at each other’s throats from the moment a devastated Shandling caught Nichols rolling his eyes behind the monitor after his first take, but the sharp wit and keen understanding of human frailty that made Nichols such a brilliant director could be lacerating when used with venom. “I’m sad to say that Mike just treated Garry terribly, in a way that I had never seen. He was humiliated,” Annette Bening recalls. “And it was more upsetting because Mike was a hero to us – we all knew how much he loved actors.”

It’s true, he loved actors, and most of the actors who worked with Mike Nichols loved him back. If there is such thing as a definable 'Nichols touch' it lies in his work with actors, and the multitude of techniques he used to guide them towards their best performances. This appears to have been particularly true in his stage work – which Harris superbly brings to life – where the rehearsal period gave Nichols and his actors a sense of time and a space to explore that he often missed on film productions. Whether it involved having the cast lie next to each other on cots to read through the play, getting them to swap roles in rehearsal, finding the perfect bit of blocking for that moment in the play, or simply telling a story from his own life that they could relate to, Nichols had an unerring sense for the best way to unlock each specific actor and help them find the character within themselves.

It’s a remarkable thing, to see the full breadth of Nichols’ career collected in a single volume, to appreciate just how much he managed to achieve in his 83 years, and to consider the depth of his legacy. The final chapters of the book movingly capture Nichols confronting his Jewish heritage and his own mortality, as his body began to fail him at last, but even in his weakened state he kept on working. He continued trying to develop projects in the years following his unhappy final film production Charlie Wilson’s War, and he had one last hurrah on stage in 2012, finally tackling Death of a Salesman in a celebrated revival that won him his ninth Tony Award. His curiosity about behaviour and relationships remained insatiable right up to the very end, and when he died, Harris notes, he left behind an appointment book for the coming week that was completely full.

Mike Nichols: A Life by Mark Harris is on sale now.