Mike Nichols and the American Century
The director made landmark contributions to three distinct art forms. His life reflected the American experience in the latter half of the twentieth century—both its failures and its feats.
June 4, 2021
Jun 4, 2021
16 Min read time
The director made landmark contributions to three distinct art forms. His life reflected the American experience in the latter half of the twentieth century—both its failures and its feats.
Mike Nichols: A Life
Penguin Random House, $35 (cloth)
In 1941 publishing titan Henry Luce boldly challenged his fellow citizens to “create the first great American century.” Luce’s articulation of U.S. exceptionalism was outward looking and internationalist. It was a call for the country to shake off the remnants of its still powerful isolationist instincts; to enter, fight, and win World War II; to emerge as “the powerhouse of the ideals of Freedom and Justice”; and to lead the world with a “passionate devotion to great American ideals.”
Nichols was at the vanguard of a revolution in stand-up comedy, conquered the Broadway stage, and participated in the New Hollywood movement that redefined the possibility of U.S. cinema.
A version of Luce’s vision did emerge after the War, although the American Century would last only three to six decades, depending on how one counted. But there was another American century, one that took place entirely at home and reflected those ideals even more notably (if, of course, with its own profound imperfections).
Mike Nichols grew up in this American Century. In 1939—as a seven-year-old Jewish refugee from Hitler’s Germany with a few dollars sewn into the lining of his jacket, armed with neither a word of English nor a hair on his body (due to a medical malady, he would spend his entire public life in a variety of wigs and pasted on eyebrows)—he made a six-day Atlantic crossing, traveling only with his little brother. Greeted by his father (his mother would later escape Europe through Italy), Igor Mikhail Peschkowsky, not yet Mike Nichols, would have a difficult childhood. In New York he found himself crowded into a two-room West Side apartment, bullied at school, upended by the sudden death of his father, and rattled by the wildly erratic behavior of his surviving parent.
Within a decade Nichols would back into unlikely admission at the University of Chicago, which then required only a placement exam of its applicants. It was the kind of place where, standing in line to register for classes, one could become life-long friends with Susan Sontag (then only sixteen years old). At Chicago academics took a backseat to scraping by on the fringes of the theater crowd; Nichols was barely afloat and living hand-to-mouth. Yet, within another decade, young Igor—comprising one-half of the revolutionary, improvisational comedy team Nichols and May—would become one of the hottest tickets in show business. They sold out both the finest (uptown) and hippest (downtown) nightclubs, were sought after on must-see television, headlined on Broadway, and performed for President Kennedy at the President’s legendary birthday bash at Madison Square Garden. Fast forward ten more years and Mike Nichols, at age thirty-seven, would include among his accolades a Grammy Award for best comedy album, Tony Awards for three plays directed on Broadway, and an Academy Award for The Graduate (1967).
During those fifteen years between 1957 and 1972, Nichols was at the vanguard of a revolution in stand-up comedy, conquered the Broadway stage, and, with his first four films, participated in the New Hollywood movement that redefined the possibility of U.S. cinema. If neither the United States nor Nichols fully realized their seemingly boundless potential, each nevertheless soared to rarified heights. The achievements and disappointments of the latter are well chronicled in an excellent new biography by Mark Harris, Mike Nichols: A Life (2021).
• • •
In the late 1950s and early ’60s a transformation occurred in comedy—a watershed moment that mirrored the larger social-cultural shift from the conformist, strait-laced ’50s to the more daring and subversive ’60s. Out went joke telling, and in came more elaborate narratives, confessional intimacy, and challenging material. Influential voices in this movement included Mort Sahl, Jonathan Winters, Bob Newhart, Woody Allen, Bill Cosby, and Lenny Bruce. Nichols and May were distinct among these talents, as they took on previously taboo subjects in a breathtaking, high-wire improvisational style. Many of their bits became staples, but their genius was distinguished by a talent for situations—often defined by opening and closing lines fielded from the audience—that seemed to encroach on reality and flirt with disaster.
A watershed moment occurred in comedy that mirrored the larger social-cultural shift from the conformist, strait-laced ’50s to the more daring and subversive ’60s.
After lighting up the nightclub circuit, headlining major television shows, and running 311 performances on Broadway, Nichols and May burned out and went their separate ways. They would remain in each other’s lives (though not romantically—that early phase lasted weeks if not, as legend holds, days or even hours). The duo only reteamed for political events, such as performing for civil rights workers in Alabama in the ’60s, at a McGovern fundraiser, and at Jimmy Carter’s inauguration. May—a sought-after Hollywood script doctor whose own bumpier career as a writer-director includes the legendary film Mikey and Nicky (1976)—also penned the screenplays for two of Nichols’s late-career efforts, The Birdcage (1996) and Primary Colors (1998).
When the comedy team went their separate ways in the early ’60s, Nichols, adrift, fell into theater directing and found his true calling. Starting with Neil Simon’s second play, Barefoot in the Park, the fledgling director enjoyed a string of stunning hits. He worked extraordinarily well with actors and, although not a writer, had an outstanding eye for the structure and the staging of a story, and for seeing what wasn’t working and how to fix it. These gifts were rewarded with a shower of Tony Awards, including two more for Simon plays, The Odd Couple and Plaza Suite.
Hollywood came knocking. Three of his first four films—radically different in setting—were distinguished by what could be called the “Nichols touch”: weeks of pre-production rehearsals and exercises with the cast (a rarity in Hollywood), close collaboration with gifted cinematographers, and edgy, envelope-pushing material focused on the relationships between women and men. Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966), based on the Edward Albee play, was a natural first effort for a theater director. When told by studio head Jack Warner that the movie must be in color, Nichols plainly explained that he would not make the picture under those conditions; he also fought for cinematographer Haskell Wexler, who won an Academy Award for his efforts. Virginia Woolf also brought in subject matter and language that helped break Hollywood’s rigid system of self-censorship that circumscribed the content of U.S. films, the Production Code Administration (PCA).
The following year The Graduate—written by Buck Henry, who would become a regular Nichols collaborator and life-long friend— shattered the remnants of the PCA. It did so with a handful of other pictures released in 1967, including Point Blank (John Boorman) and Bonnie and Clyde (Arthur Penn). These character-driven, European influenced features included violence and sexuality, and, most significantly, moral ambiguity. Films with these elements would not have been able to find distribution in mainstream theaters just a few years prior. The very subject matter of The Graduate would have been deemed “un-filmable” by the PCA. Indeed, the possibilities of U.S. cinema were transformed by the commercial success of films such as Virginia Woolf and The Graduate.
These character-driven, European influenced features included violence and sexuality, and, most significantly, moral ambiguity
Nichols’s first misfire was the big budget, star-studded Catch-22 (1970) which was buried by Robert Altman’s scathingly irreverent New Hollywood anti-war film M*A*S*H (1970). But Nichols swiftly rebounded with Carnal Knowledge (1971). Written by Jules Feiffer and starring Jack Nicholson, Candice Bergen, Art Garfunkel, and Ann-Margaret, it was not what one might call an evening’s entertainment. The lacerating interrogation of changing romantic relations and expectations across three decades—implicitly tracking the emergence and social consequences of the women’s movement—was so explicit in its language that a Georgia theater operator was initially convicted of obscenity for screening it (the case made its way to the Supreme Court). Nichols’s third New Hollywood landmark was bitterly divisive at the time. Yet critics who saw a picture rancid with misogyny failed to notice, with the exception of Pauline Kael, that Carnal Knowledge may have been cruel to its women, but it hated its men.
Unfortunately, with the exception of the soaring HBO miniseries Angels in America (2003), Nichols would never again approach the heights of his first three triumphs as a film director. Here, too, Nichols tracked closely with the American experience. In the shallow ’70s his work was characterized by uncertainty, drift, and curious choices. The following decade it embraced the worst vices of the ’80s: drug abuse and the excessive chase of money. Even in these relatively fallow years, when Nichols might have fallen short of what his talent promised, he nevertheless still left behind accomplishments that most would envy.
• • •
Nichols’s career has been well-documented and extensively celebrated, and it is with some wariness that one approaches the new Harris biography. A project undertaken with the family’s blessing, sporting a book jacket crowded with celebrity blurbs, buoyed by countless A-List interviews, and written by a well-connected insider friendly with his subject invites suspicion. (Harris is married to the venerated playwright Tony Kushner, and he met Nichols during the film adaptation of Kushner’s play Angels in America; Harris also interviewed Nichols for his 2008 book, Pictures at a Revolution: Five Movies and the Birth of the New Hollywood.)
Harris moves deftly through the decades and avoids prurience while telling the key stories from a storied life.
Fortunately, such concerns are swiftly dissipated, although the book is not without its flaws. The last third of the narrative does indeed nearly devolve into a series of gentle and self-serving first-person anecdotes, and the study refrains from penetrating analyses of Nichols’s oeuvre. Moreover, Harris often slips into the passive voice when criticizing his subject. For example, the deeds of legendarily difficult figures, such as Walter Matthau and George C. Scott, are recited chapter and verse, whereas Nichols, who clearly had his moments, is repeatedly described as realizing with retrospective regret that, during a given production, he had been the one who violated his cherished “no assholes” rule.
Nevertheless, these are modest quibbles. Mike Nichols: A Life is extraordinarily well researched; unflinching in assessing its subject’s foibles, follies, and failings; and comprehensive. It will take its place as the standard single volume study of its subject. And the biography is not just well done, it is an absolute page-turner—even when talking about notorious fiascos such as Day of the Dolphin (1973). Harris moves deftly through the decades and avoids prurience while telling the key stories from a storied life. And, appealingly, A Life is most informative in those years that fall outside of Nichols’s glory days. Harris vividly describes, for example, how a West Side teenager was lucky enough to witness—and be utterly reduced by—Elia Kazan’s staging of Tennessee Williams’s A Streetcar Named Desire and Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman.
Nichols’s collegiate experience was defined by events that took place outside the classroom, such as meeting Elaine May and participating in acting workshops. By 1954 he would return to New York. It was not a triumphant homecoming. Despite attending classes taught by Lee Strasberg, as a young New York actor he was barely scraping by, squeezing out eight dollars a week for a one-room rental, and hoarding ketchup packets and free crackers for nourishment. Defeated, he retreated to Chicago and joined The Compass Players, the improvisational troupe that preceded The Second City. Nichols and May swiftly emerged as the signature act of The Compass. This did not, however, prevent Nichols from being fired in sleepy St. Louis, sending him back to the Big Apple, where he soon urged May to join him. Few would have placed bets on Nichols’s future in 1957.
Yet Nichols and May quickly found wealth and fame in New York. The duo even flew to Los Angeles in 1958 to sign a contract to develop and star in their own TV show, deciding against it at the last minute. The confidence and discipline to walk away from easy money would often elude Nichols in later years. However, even when considered from the gloomy perspective of 1962, when he was uncertain about what might come next and struggling with depression—bouts of which would plague the director intermittently for the rest of his life—stepping back from the precipice of mainstream domestication was one of the wisest career choices Nichols would ever make. Soon enough, as Harris recounts, “An out-of-work actor had become the hottest director in New York.”
On top of the world, Nichols lived large, setting up in a triplex penthouse in the Beresford, one of the landmark apartment buildings that line Central Park West. He also cultivated a new indulgence, buying and breeding Arabian horses, and traveled in rarified circles, often with Gloria Steinem at his side. Even his first major stumble (Catch-22) barely broke his stride; it was promptly superseded by Carnal Knowledge and then another Broadway hit, Neil Simon’s Prisoner of Second Avenue, which yielded Nichols’s fifth Tony Award.
However, as Harris observes, his “first comeback proved to be far more destabilizing than his first failure.” The dismal Day of the Dolphin was a production in which Nichols was so “brusque with the crew” that he was told it was too late to apologize. His next feature, The Fortune (1975), starring Jack Nicholson and Warren Beatty, was a staggering waste of talent. His second flop in a row, it put Nichols back on his heels. The once-charmed wunderkind spent much of his forties turning down projects—such as Chinatown, suggested by Nicholson, and Heaven Can Wait, which would have re-united him with Buck Henry and Elaine May—and virtually escorting himself out of the picture business.
Of course, as Lou Reed once said, “my week beats your year.” Similarly, even in his darkest decade, Nichols would turn in some triumphs, directing a successful run of Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya, as well as The Gin Game. He also came to the rescue as something of a producer-fixer on the big Broadway production of Annie—which led to yet another Tony Award and a massive infusion of cash. These achievements paled in comparison with his staging of Streamers—the David Rabe Vietnam-era play that was so gut-wrenching that Liv Ullmann walked out mid-performance. Streamers ran for nearly 500 nights in 1975 and 1976 and was showered with praise. Nichols would later call it the best thing he ever did on stage.
The Clinton ’90s were a decade when chasing paychecks took priority over artistic ambition.
Still, this was an era when Nichols was on the rocks, often struggling with depression, and it would be seven years between feature films, punctuated by missteps and false starts. (Though some of these reflected the best of the old Nichols’s moxie. He was fired from one project after telling legendary Hollywood powerbroker Swifty Lazard: “You’re sitting with Tom fucking Stoppard . . . who gives a shit how you see it?”) In 1983 Nichols enjoyed a major comeback with Silkwood, which, as Harris smartly observes, marked a “fascinating and permanent transition” in his career. The film was not only his first major work about a woman, it was also produced in an environment in which “for the first time, he was surrounded by women.” Written by Nora Ephron, the movie starred Meryl Streep as Karen Silkwood, based on the true story of a whistle-blower at a nuclear power plant who died under mysterious circumstances. Streep emerged as Nichols’s most important artistic collaborator, “a kindred spirit, someone who liked to act the way he liked to direct,” as Harris describes, and whose effect on Nichols was transformative. “They created a way of working—intense conversations about the character and the script, well before shooting started.”
Silkwood was followed by a string of renewed successes on Broadway, including Tom Stoppard’s The Real Thing and David Rabe’s blistering show-business takedown Hurlyburly. Nichols also reunited with Ephron, Streep, and Jack Nicholson to film Heartburn, drawn from Ephron’s roman a clef of her marriage to Carl Bernstein. Harris considers Heartburn Nichols’s “most underappreciated comedy,” but despite a fine acting turn by director Milos Forman, it is a soft and simple movie. Around this time Nichols’s mid-career penchant for self-sabotage found expression in prodigious cocaine consumption, followed by a nervous breakdown that was compounded by his abuse of the notorious sleeping pill Halcion. This culminated in a voluntary respite in the psych ward of Columbia-Presbyterian hospital. Still, Nichols would regain his footing, at least commercially, directing two films released in 1988, Neil Simon’s Biloxi Blues and another “comeback hit,” Working Girl, which garnered Nichols an Academy Award Nomination. That year the again-busy director also staged a hottest-ticket-in-town revival of Waiting for Godot in a limited run at Lincoln Center showcasing Robin Williams and Steve Martin. Nichols followed Working Girl with Postcards from the Edge (1990), Carrie Fisher’s fictionalized memoir.
More generally, though, the Clinton ’90s were a decade when chasing paychecks took priority over artistic ambition, evidenced by the vacuous Regarding Henry (1991), where “Nichols’s temper got the worst of him”; Wolf (1994), another collaboration with Jack Nicholson; and the $8 million fee pocketed for helming What Planet are You From? (2000), an ill-fated Gary Shandling vehicle. As always, Nichols could still flash his prodigious talent; The Birdcage was a big hit, and Nichols followed that film with a well-received acting turn on the London stage in Wallace Shawn’s The Designated Mourner. Nevertheless, as the twenty-first century dawned, Nichols, seventy and in failing health, seemed primed, at best, to limp through a final decade of filmmaking. But he would finish strong.
• • •
Angels in America (2003), the politically charged, trenchant critique of U.S. hypocrisy, based on Tony Kushner’s Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award winning drama, played to Nichols’s strengths. The film is arguably his crowning achievement. The cast included Emma Thompson, Jeffrey Wright, Meryl Streep (outstanding in several roles), and Al Pacino, whose performance as Roy Cohn is beyond praise. Frank Rich lauded Angels as “the most powerful screen adaption of a major American play since A Streetcar Named Desire”; the six-hour miniseries swept eleven Emmy Awards, with Pacino, Streep, Wright, Kushner, and Nichols taking home statuettes.
As with the United States, it is possible to look back on Nichols’s century considering what more he might have accomplished, and to regret his penchant for self-indulgence and self-sabotage.
Closer (2004) was another savvy choice. The small scale, hard-edged, actor’s film would allow its director to get back to basics, extensively workshopping the material with players Natalie Portman, Clive Owen, Jude Law, and Julia Roberts in advance of production. The film can be understood as a bookend to Virginia Woolf—and the performances are in that league. As Harris recounts, bowing to studio demands, the ending was scandalously re-shot after an advance screening went poorly. This is something the younger Nichols presumably would have forcefully pushed back against. Closer was generally well-received, with both Portman and Owen nominated for Academy Awards.
Charlie Wilson’s War (2007) would close Nichols’s filmmaking career on a creditable note. Although, uncharacteristically, it was a job for hire, as Nichols was brought on board by Tom Hanks. His direction of Aaron Sorkin’s very Sorkin script—people talking quickly and cleverly in crescendoing staccato—yielded a thoughtful entertainment that featured Hanks, Roberts, and the brilliant Philip Seymour Hoffman. Entering his ninth decade, Nichols had two successful stage productions still ahead of him: Harold Pinter’s Betrayal and, most fittingly, Death of a Salesman, the play that had so moved him as an aimless teenager a lifetime ago. Nichols’s Willy Loman would be Philip Seymour Hoffman (who was an important creative force behind the scenes, given his director’s limited energy and fading health). The 2012 production netted the director his ninth Tony Award, with Hoffman winning for best actor. Two years later, in a shattering blow, the forty-six-year-old Hoffman would die nine months before Nichols.
As with the United States, it is possible to look back on Nichols’s century considering what more he might have accomplished, and to regret his penchant for self-indulgence and self-sabotage. But perhaps it is better to revisit 1939 and imagine the range of possible life prospects for a seven-year-old refugee. Young Igor Peschkowsky—awkward, alien and precariously perched—would go on to make landmark contributions to three distinct art forms. He was also, as this new biography recounts, a cherished friend and a valued mentor. He lived an exceptional life, reflecting an extraordinary American experience.
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June 04, 2021
16 Min read time