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MikeNichols at the CBS television Playhouse 90 production of Journey to the Day in 1960. From CBS Photo Archive/Getty Images.
Prove you belong here.
That’s a line from the new biography of MikeNichols that journalist Mark Harris describes as the core of the filmmaker’s work with his performers—in that instance, the then unknown Dustin Hoffman in 1967’s The Graduate. Implied in that notion, Harris adds, is another idea: Prove I belong here.
Nichols, who died in 2014 at the age of 83, won an Oscar for The Graduate and was nominated three other times for directing Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?,Silkwood, and Working Girl. He was a celebrated Broadway director who brought, among other shows, The Odd Couple to life, and made his breakthrough as half of a groundbreaking comedy duo with Elaine May.
He seemed like the ultimate insider, a smooth and sophisticated observer of class, power, and cruelty, but MikeNichols: A Life, the new biography by Harris (a past contributor to Vanity Fair), reveals this to be a kind of front. He was born Mikhail Igor Peschkowsky, the German–born son of a Russian father who came to New York in 1939. He was hairless due to a bad reaction to a whooping cough vaccine. He didn’t speak the language. His family was poor after his father died.
Nichols wore a wig and fake eyebrows after other children started mocking him as “baldy.” He scrabbled together English. He studied how to be American. “I was a zero,” Nichols says in the book. “In every way that mattered, I was powerless.”
His goal was to blend in, but his hyperawareness of all the tiny things that define “normal” became the key to five decades of filmmaking. He was trying to prove he belonged. He ended up showing all of us the ways we struggle to fit in.
Vanity Fair:What struck me about MikeNichols while reading your book is that this was someone who, from the earliest stages of his life, was not just shaping his presence, but aware of the perception of others. What better tool for a director to have than that insight into how people see the world, how people see him, how they behave, and how to shape that reality.
Mark Harris: That’s absolutely right. I mean, I don’t want to use hair loss as a single psychological explanation for Mike, any more than I would want to use being an immigrant as a single explanation…
No, but being an immigrant, being impoverished, being fatherless—all these things and more made him feel vulnerable, feel like an outsider. Yet he figured out a way to connect with people by shaping his persona and identity.
Right. And not only by shaping his persona and identity, but by watching them, as you said. By observing. As a child, he had status as a double-outsider. One, he was from another country, and two, he looked different. We shouldn’t take that as just, Wow, it sounds like he had a tough childhood. He did, absolutely. But Mike had to learn to compose himself, to create himself, to put forward a particular version of himself. That was a matter of survival for him as a child.
How did that shape his work as a director?
I think that is not only training for being a director, but it was very direct training for being a groundbreaking improv comedian before he was a director. If you’re a child who was in Mike’s position, and you’re watching how “regular American kids” behave, and picking up cues like that, what are you doing if not improvising?
The ultimate live performance.
I mean, you’re learning how to be someone else, but you’re also learning how to play someone. Yeah, I think Mike’s childhood informed who he became in absolutely profound ways.
What do you feel peoplethinkthey know about MikeNichols today?
I think that if you know any two things about him, the two things you probably know are that he was married to DianeSawyer and that he directed The Graduate. Those seem to be pretty common entry points. But I’ve talked to people who had no idea of what a crucially important theater director he was. I talked to people who had no idea that he had a career as a performer that preceded his career as a director. I mean, his partnership with Elaine May, the performing part, was really over by 1963, more or less. And so, I understand why people don’t know about that.
It was the start of everything else, wasn’t it?
It’s the most important professional relationship he ever had. It’s incredibly important to the rest of his career. And so, I’m hoping that whatever people don’t know is filled in by this book.
Is there an aspect of his work that you hope will be rediscovered? Is it maybe his work with Elaine May?
It’s hard, because with a couple of exceptions, you can find the movies. If you want to take a journey through the career chronologically of MikeNichols, film director, that’s very possible. But theater is much more ephemeral and much harder to reconstruct. If you want to know more about his partnership with Elaine May and see what that was like, you either have to listen to one of the Nichols and May albums that came out at the time, or you have to search for YouTube clips.
The theater work is lost, though, right? It’s only in memory now.
It’s always interesting to me that Mike worked in theater and film, because he spent 50 years in a medium where things last forever, and we still talk about the movies, and the same 50 years in another medium where the results vanish literally every night and have to be recreated the next day.
You mention in the book that with plays, he could refine and prepare and try again and do it again. Whereas with film, as he notes, you can’t be tired. You have one chance to get this. And yet, that’s the thing that endures permanently.
He really loved both. You have to sacrifice permanence in theater, but you always had another chance to get it right. And in movies, you have as many chances as you want to retake and get something right onscreen, but you’re at the mercy of many other things. And once you do, it’s fixed forever, and there’s no chance to make it better the next day. It’s interesting to me that there's nobody like that now, who is genuinely equally interested.
Is there a film of his that you think drifted to obscurity but deserves to be rediscovered?
Mike made hits and flops and critical successes and critical duds, but to me, Heartburn is the one that should have gotten much, much better reviews. For me, it’s a sort of vintage display of many of his strengths as a director. You have this fantastic Meryl Streep performance at the center of it, but it also shows Mike’s great ability to work with women and with material that’s about women and from women. I mean, much of the creative team of that movie was women. And it’s full of what’s very unique to Mike—helping his actors find the perfect physical gesture, or bit of business, or bit of actual behavior that turns a moment from an actor saying a line into a little peek through a spyhole at real human behavior.
I loveCatch-22.I listened to the commentary track that he recorded with Steven Soderbergh, and Soderbergh loved the movie too. It’s interesting to hear MikeNichols be the lawyer for the prosecution on that, just trashing it every chance he gets.
That’s a really interesting movie, because I can understand what Mike didn’t love about it, and I can absolutely understand what Steven Soderbergh does love about it. I certainly think it’s a movie that anybody who’s interested in MikeNichols’s career should see. And I think that’s one case where the circumstances of making that movie were so extraordinary and protracted and depleting. I don’t think you could put it in the success column or the failure column. Certainly, financially, it was a failure. And in the context of his career, it was a failure, because it was the first thing of his really that didn’t get awards. But it’s way too interesting a movie to just sort of brush off.
If he has a signature for me, a theme that seems to run through so much of his work, it’s an interest in the vulnerable or those trapped in amongst the powerful and predatory. Do you think there’s something to his favoring the underdog: women, young people, gay people, outsiders, people who are susceptible?
I think he was always interested in that. I never really came across anything where he indicated that he was conscious of that. But yeah, I think if you look at where his heart is in anything, from Working Girl, to Silkwood,The Graduate, Angels in America,Mike was really attracted to people who had to work against long odds. He was also attracted to people who sometimes would fool themselves, or delude themselves, or who needed to create a sort of illusion about themselves in order to survive, and in doing that, maybe sometimes became their own worst enemy. So I think he had multiple threads of what he cared about. But yeah, underdogs was definitely one.
What about the projects that never were, or that almost were? I was surprised that he had worked on9 to 5for instance. That was interesting. I could see that being a MikeNichols film.
He worked on 9 to 5 briefly. He worked on Melvin and Howard extensively. He turned down The Exorcist, he turned down Heaven Can Wait, and then there was a whole list of movies. I mean, at one time or another, he was going to direct A Simple Plan, and All the Pretty Horses. You could look at The Exorcist, I suppose, and say, “Gosh, I wonder what The Exorcist would’ve been like if MikeNichols had directed it?” Imagine The Exorcist was a really cute, cutting social comedy and commentary. [Laughs.] In most of those cases, I think you would have to say that he made the right decision for himself and possibly the right decision for the movie too.
You have the unique experience of having known your subject in real life. [Nichols directed the film version ofAngels in America,the play by Harris’s husband, Tony Kushner.] Was that a help or a hindrance in writing the biography?
It was absolutely both. Certainly, I would not have gone into it if I felt that because I had known him, there were certain things I wouldn’t be able to write about, or certain things I wouldn’t be able to say. I never felt that.
You had interviewed him before for a previous book, right?
In Pictures at a Revolution, there’s some tough stuff about Mike, in the way he behaved on the set, in the way behaved toward the crew. And Mike really liked that book a lot, which meant, of course, the world to me. And he never once said, “Oh, I wish you hadn’t mentioned that.” The worst stories about Mike that I got came fromMike. And so, I knew that he would sort of theoretically be interested in an honest book.
Do you miss him?
I do. He and Tony worked together, and we stayed friends until the end of Mike’s life. It wasn’t like we were sort of bosom buddies who would trade secrets or stuff like that. Over 14 years, Mike was never anything but extraordinarily kind to me, supportive, encouraging, generous, warm, funny. He would write, when you did something he liked. Actors and writers will tell you this too. When you did something he liked, the note you’d get, or the email you’d get, because he was a big emailer, was just like a gift you could bathe in. It felt really wonderful. And if you were ever able to make him laugh, which he really loved to do, you sort of felt like, Well, okay, I just made MikeNichols laugh. I’m going to take the rest of the day off, you know?
This Q&A has been edited for clarity and context and condensed from the original conversation.
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