Under the aegis of the 92Y
Asked how this biography came about, Mark Harris admits that his previous books, featuring several characters and plot lines, gave him an advantage. “If anyone’s storyline went dry, I could jump to plot B…” The author wanted an enlivening challenge. “Mike’s story is so emblematic of the 20th century,” he begins.
Seven year-old Mikhail Igor Peschkowsky (1931-2014) emigrated to America with his three year-old brother in 1939 to join their physician father in New York. (His mother followed.) Neither boy spoke English. The Nichols family – the doctor had changed his/their name – were German Jews. At four, adverse reaction to a vaccination for whooping cough made Mike bald creating the necessity for false eyebrows and wigs, forcing him to overcome awkwardness. He didn’t acquire his first set till college and not until Elizabeth Taylor found him a great wig maker did Nichols appear entirely natural.
Harris separates the artist’s life into two halves, improvisational comedy/ performing and directing theater and film which continued on parallel tracks over fifty years. Scott points out that Nichols seemed to be at the forefront of change with each art form.
Mike Nichols had seen Elaine May around Chicago. They both became members of The Compass Players, predecessor to Second City. As Nichols tells it, he noticed May sitting alone at a train station, sat down and began talking to her as if a Russian spy. Without missing a beat she responded in kindred character. May told Harris she and Nichols found the same things funny. In 1957, Nichols was asked to leave Compass because the two of them were so good together, they threw off company balance. May then quit. The two formed Nichols and May.
Their 60 year friendship (they would go on to read all each other’s scripts and May would write for Nichols) began with a partnership that looked at “tiny little vanities, hesitations, and pretensions. Situations were very simple. It’s what they did with them that was revolutionary,” Harris says. “We never wrote a skit, we just sort of outlined it: I’ll try to make you do say something or we’ll fight—whatever it was.” (Mike Nichols)
Between 1956-1960, the comedy duo went from small audiences, to nightclubs, to national radio and television, and then Broadway. Neither artist was prepared for the speed and impact of the trajectory. Stories paint them as deer in headlights. The vinyl of An Evening with Mike Nichols and Elaine May, winner of the 1962 Grammy for Best Comedy Album can be purchased.
Asked whether they were dating, Nichols retorted yes, they were dating Comden and Green. (Betty Comden and Adolph Green, also unmarried collaborators.) “I think it’s pretty clear he loved and was in love with her. It was a challenging personal and professional relationship,” Harris says.
While he was content doing the same scenes every night, May wanted to develop new material. She wrote a play for her collaborator. He didn’t like the script, she was critical of his performance. The pair separated in anger-for about a year and a half. For him the breakup was “cataclysmic.”
“Nichols talked about the fact that improv awakened his interest in directing,” says Scott. “Mike said the partnership worked so well because she’d fill in ideas, coming up with infinite tangents based on a premise, while he’d structure the material, deciding when things should move from one beat to the next- kind of like a director…,” according to Harris.
His first Broadway job was Neil Simon’s Barefoot in the Park. It was then Nichols decided he’d found his métier. He won three Tony Awards before turning to film and would later garner a total of nine. Harris notes that a Neil Simon play can easily be produced as a series of jokes. “Mike’s staging was a breakthrough. He had the actors play it as if we were spying on them in their 6th floor walk-up, concentrating on emotions underneath what was said,“ says Harris. In 1966, Time Magazine called Nichols “the most in-demand director in the American theatre.” He was an actor’s director.
According to Harris, The Graduate was supposed to be Nichols first foray into film direction. Through friendship with Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, however, he was offered the adaptation of Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf before the other project reached preproduction. Woolf is a four character, one set play very much in Nichols’ theater wheelhouse and a good transition piece.
“It ended up blowing the whole production code wide open,” Harris notes. “There was great contrast in dealing with the stars. Burton was a great film actor but an active alcoholic. Taylor was very game, but there were grave doubts she was enough of an actress to play the part.”
The wherewithal it took to get through that shoot gave Nichols the confidence to take on The Graduate, essentially an indy with unknown Dustin Hoffman in the lead. Scott remarks that very much like Taylor, the nature of Hoffman’s performance was not apparent on set, but rather showed up later on screen. Nichols was paid $150,000 and 16 percent of the profits, making him a millionaire. It was the director who asked Paul Simon to change what became the title song from “Mrs. Roosevelt” to “Mrs. Robinson.”
The Oxford Dictionary defines Auteur as: a filmmaker whose personal influence and artistic control over a movie are so great that the filmmaker is regarded as the author of the movie. Harris believes Nichols hit the ground running as just that. The director’s take on dynamics of human relationships is utterly distinctive. “Do you think he approached comedy and drama differently,” Scott asks his guest. “Mike was much tougher directing comedy. He’d do anything to help a dramatic actor and cried easily. With comedy, he was a drillmaster intolerant of any actor who would chase a laugh.”
“Let’s talk about his collaboration with Meryl Streep which lasted a very long time,” Scotts says. Nichols said that Streep’s energy on 1983’s Silkwood, their first film together energized the set. “Finding truth through detailed behavior was her approach to acting and his to directing,” Harris notes. The two would make Heartburn, Postcards from the Edge, and Angels in America together on film and The Seagull on stage. When he died, he was planning a version of Terrance McNally’s Master Class starring Streep as Maria Callas.
“One of the things I admired about the book is though it’s interested and sympathetic, I wouldn’t say it’s uncritical,” Scott comments. Apparently Harris’ writing addresses professional failures as well as the darker side of Nichols’ personality – including congenital, often medicated depression. The director was often paralyzed by disappointment. He also had a manic side which unleashed temper and lead him for a time to cocaine and crack. “Mike himself was candid about all of this,” Harris says. “I knew him the last 12-14 years of his life, however, and he’d largely put old behavior behind him.”
“Since my bias as a critic is the work, we haven’t talked about his personal life,” Scott says. More’s the pity. Nichols was a famously attentive and loyal friend as well as highly affecting on a professional level. Alas, no one but Streep comes up in today’s interview. Married and divorced four times, he produced three children by two mothers. The last marriage, to Diane Sawyer, seemed to all a great love. Mike NIchols died of a heart attack in 2014 just shy of 83.
When Nichols was honored by Lincoln Center in 1999 for his life’s work, Elaine May said: So he’s witty, he’s brilliant, he’s articulate, he’s on time, he’s prepared and he writes. But is he perfect? He knows you can’t really be liked or loved if you’re perfect. You have to have just enough flaws. And he does. Just the right, perfect flaws to be absolutely endearing.
Sounds like an excellent read.
Opening Photo courtesy of the 92Y. Left Mark Harris, Right- A.O. Scott