Exploring the genius of Mike Nichols
January 23, 2016
"This is what you need to know about movies:
You get lucky in various strange ways."
~ Mike Nichols
There was this level of sophistication to Mike Nichols back in the day that, once he hooked up with the brilliant Elaine May, first as a stand-up comedic partner and, later, as a writer/director team, set him apart from the pack.
His improvisational phrasings when delivering a set-up or a punch line or, even, a casual physical gesture, often featured the understatement of a jazz musician. The impression was of one who had "chops" to spare. Showing one’s complete hand could be so passé. Not that his peers didn’t partake, but Nichols and May had little time for such nonsense. They were too busy raising the bar. Dry and wry had arrived.
The world of stand-up comedy would only be the first art form to feel the erupting skill-sets of Mike Nichols, however. Upon dipping his toe into the cinematic pool of his time, the ripples from his first two features as a director, an adaptation of Tennessee Williams’ "Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf" followed by "The Graduate," would become a storm surge.
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The rub in all this is that, due in part in to Nichols’ decision to not meet a publication deadline for his autobiography, filmmaker and playwright Douglas McGrath has assembled an intimate documentary film utilizing a set of interviews Nichols made with his friend and fellow director Jack O’Brien just four months prior to his death in mid-November of 2014.
The result, "Becoming Mike Nichols," is now set to premiere with a single screening Thursday, January 28 at 8:30PM at The Egyptian Theatre on Main Street in Park City. Originally scheduled to debut February 22 on HBO, attendees of this year’s Sundance Film Festival will now actually be the first to see it.
I suppose one could ponder whether Nichols’ initial attempt at stage directing, 1964’s Tony-winning interpretation of Neil Simon’s "Barefoot in the Park" starring a young Robert Redford, played any role in securing this seemingly abrupt change-of-venue. Myself, I just don’t have time for such conceits. Right!
Covering everything from his childhood to his later work on "Carnal Knowledge," "The Birdcage," "Silkwood," "Waiting For Godot," "Angels in America," "Working Girl," and others, the comfortable chat between O’Brien and Nichols evolves unhurried, seemingly without timeframe, and hovering at any topic until Nichols wishes to move on.
"Mike’s enthusiasm for a subject became ours," McGrath comments in explaining editing decisions. A mention by Nichols to him during a phone call that "I think most directors do their best work early. I think I did. I think ‘The Graduate’ is my best film" prompted McGrath to give him and the subject nearly 20 minutes of the film to expand on the notion, including touching upon all those wonderful Simon and Garfunkel montages and how he "discovered" Dustin Hoffman.
The dude was fearless — a trait he acquired while working with The Compass Players in the ’50s when he first met Elaine May. They never rehearsed. He "revered the unconscious," is how he put it.
"Not naming something, not deciding what to do, being brave and going out empty is the only way. And it’s both terrifying and thrilling. And what I didn’t know is that it applies to directing, too." Living on the edge had never seemed so perfectly comfortable.
Nichols compiled an extraordinary body of film work, one that, in total, received 42 Academy Award nominations, not to mention his personal wins of one Oscar, four Emmys, nine Tonys, and a Grammy. Becoming Mike Nichols was obviously a work of love, as was the film of the same name.