Mike Nichols: A Life

Mark Har­ris

  • Review
By – July 5, 2021

Actors love to tell a sto­ry about Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne, the cel­e­brat­ed hus­band-and-wife Broad­way team. Dur­ing try­outs of a new play, Lunt found that he was sud­den­ly get­ting a laugh in a scene where he did noth­ing more than ask for a cup of tea. Delight­ed, he con­tin­ued to work on the moment, but to his dis­may the laughs only got weak­er from per­for­mance to per­for­mance. Dar­ling,” his wife final­ly said to him one night, try ask­ing for a cup of tea instead of a laugh.”

In the years since, prob­a­bly no Amer­i­can the­atri­cal fig­ure has been a greater pro­po­nent of this approach to com­e­dy, than Mike Nichol. Fol­low­ing a sen­sa­tion­al stint doing sketch com­e­dy and impro­vi­sa­tion with the remark­able Elaine May, Nichols made his mark as a stage direc­tor of two Broad­way come­dies by a young Neil Simon, Bare­foot in the Park and The Odd Cou­ple, before tak­ing a huge leap to the big screen, direct­ing Richard Bur­ton and Eliz­a­beth Tay­lor in the screen adap­ta­tion of Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Vir­ginia Woolf? The large­ly self-taught Nichols intu­itive­ly under­stood that the most mem­o­rable moments in both the­ater and film come not from striv­ing for an effect, but from per­form­ing sim­ple, truth­ful actions. Laugh­ter is what hap­pens on the way to a cup of tea.

Few direc­tors had a bet­ter sense of what actions would suit spe­cif­ic actors than Nichols did, and Mark Harris’s new book Mike Nichols: A Life amply chron­i­cles how his devel­op­ment of these prin­ci­ples rev­o­lu­tion­ized Amer­i­can enter­tain­ment, mak­ing the high­brow more acces­si­ble and the low­brow more respectable. Only Nichols, per­haps, could have had the intu­ition to sense the kin­ship between Simon’s Oscar Madi­son and Albee’s Martha and the audac­i­ty to import busi­ness from The Odd Cou­ple into Vir­ginia Woolf, so that both pieces, dif­fer­ent as they are, begin with rec­og­niz­able peo­ple for­ag­ing in their refrig­er­a­tors for leftovers.

The cast of char­ac­ters in Nichols’ life was tru­ly daunt­ing, begin­ning with two peo­ple he nev­er knew; Albert Ein­stein was a dis­tant cousin, and his mater­nal grand­moth­er trans­lat­ed Oscar Wilde’s Salome into Ger­man and adapt­ed it to serve as the libret­to for Richard Strauss’s land­mark opera of the same name. Pro­fes­sion­al­ly, he devel­oped long and fruit­ful rela­tion­ships with actors from the Bur­tons to Meryl Streep, Robin Williams to Natal­ie Port­man, Dustin Hoff­man to Jack Nichol­son. And seem­ing­ly all of New York’s cul­tur­al icons at the time — Leonard and Feli­cia Bern­stein, William and Rose Sty­ron, Philip Roth, and so on — were part of his circle.

All these peo­ple and more pop­u­late Harris’s vast­ly enter­tain­ing book, which, though sub­ti­tled A Life, is less a biog­ra­phy than a project-by-project chron­i­cle of Nichols’ roller-coast­er career. All the oblig­a­tory anec­dotes are here, from his escape at age sev­en from Nazi Ger­many aboard the SS Bre­men in 1939, speak­ing no Eng­lish and accom­pa­nied only by his younger broth­er, to Hoffman’s famous­ly inaus­pi­cious screen test for the lead­ing role in The Grad­u­ate, to his strug­gle to direct the undi­rectable Orson Welles in the mis­be­got­ten screen ver­sion of Catch-22. Wives and chil­dren, drugs and mon­ey — they all come and go.Not even his long mar­riage to Diane Sawyer nudges his career into the back­ground. In part, this is because Har­ris finds the self-dra­ma­tiz­ing Nichols hope­less­ly opaque, but most­ly it’s just that the sto­ries behind films like Car­nal Knowl­edge and Pri­ma­ry Col­ors, and of the New York glit­terati at their most glit­tery, are far more interesting.

Bill Bren­nan is an inde­pen­dent schol­ar and enter­tain­er based in Las Vegas. Bren­nan has taught lit­er­a­ture and the human­i­ties at Prince­ton and The Uni­ver­si­ty of Chica­go. He holds degrees from Yale, Prince­ton, and Northwestern.

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