Heretic, Rebel, a Thing to Flout: Mike Nichols—A Master’s Touch
Richard Brody on the American Masters tribute to Mike Nichols, directed by Elaine May. would be remiss if I didn't mention your relationship with Mike Nichols. Your comedy team Nichols and May produced sketches that, as far as. La Cage aux Folles: Richard Avedon and Mike Nichols had month claims that Richard Avedon had a relationship with Mike Nichols; The . Original duo: Nichols and his original comedy partner Elaine May (above in ).
His name, when rarely invoked, was never accompanied by the unheard rumble of an organ, a trumpet voluntary of a buildup, but by the same matter-of-factness that made Marlon Brando gay. Mike Nichols was in a singular category. Nora had a special relationship with him that was rarely mentioned. If she went to the Fifth Avenue apartment he shared with Diane Sawyer, she never talked about it.
If they had lunch, she said nothing. If he warned her off a project under consideration, she was mum. If he did like a script, loved a script, improved a script—whatever—I knew nothing about it. Nora and Mike were celibate lovers.
Back when Nora had first approached Nichols and asked him to dinner, he had not yet reached cult status. For both Mike and Nora, their meeting was something like love at first sight. They had their own language, I think—a matter of nods and frowns and common cultural references. They knew whose marriage was a sham and who could not act and who had a bad drug problem. They knew the business—the business of movies and the business of theater and, because they were hyperventilating readers, the business of books and magazines.
They had words, a torrent of them, but they talked also in shadows and in knowing they were both smart—but neither smarter than the other. They learned from the ricochet. He was no mere film person, no Beverly Hills-Brentwood person, but someone who while recognizing the pleasures of Los Angeles preferred the stimulating abrasiveness of New York—just as she did. He was a figure of the theater—just as her parents had been before and after their movie careers.
He had been a performer, an actor, an entertainer, and he had about him the air of the worldly German-Jewish intellectual, a man familiar with all the Marxes—Karl and Groucho and the boys—and someone who appreciated depravity. He had come to America from Nazi Germany on a boat that delayed its departure for a broadcast by Hitler.
Here, also, was a very smart, dark-haired Jewish girl who not only could make a joke but get one, too. Nichols and May had created a pioneering and astoundingly successful comedy act and had had a brief romantic involvement. But the essence of their relationship—and of their act, which had originated in improvisation—was a kind of cerebral chemistry that had become apparent shortly after they bumped into each other in a Chicago train station.
Nichols and May
May, whom Nichols had met just once before, was sitting on a bench. Both Nora and Mike had a surfeit of talent, almost too much to handle, big and small ideas sloshing around in their brains, searching always for the meaning—the hidden meaning—of anything, its essence. Nora and I would sit and discuss something for what seemed liked hours, searching for the point—the point of a column, the thing that was hidden, the thing she could reveal, the point, the point, the point—while Nichols, with a wry observation, could get to the essence of a play or a movie with a snap-of-the-fingers metaphor that materialized even as he spoke it, and his actors immediately knew what the point was.
I had a script I was pushing, an idea that was perking. I was flattered, but not quite convinced. And he loved her.
The mentor Mike and the mentee Nora became near equals, although Mike always remained the dominant one. It could be as good as wisdom. But their relationship did not start on an even keel. After all, it was Nora who came to interview Mike, not the other way around.
So it was Nora who sought approval from Mike and who, in the way she judged these things, did not get it back. It was in the can. Nora and Mike had become close. Yet he was not inviting her to dinner. So Nora asked Mike to lunch. They met at a place on Madison Avenue, across the street from the Carlyle Hotel, where Nichols was living. Nora said there was something she wanted to talk to him about.
And I said, what do you want to talk about?
Nichols and May - Wikipedia
But there was trouble in paradise professional differences and personal conflicts led to a sudden and somewhat bitter break-up of the act at the pinnacle of their success. In later years they would reconcile and work together again. Still later he appeared in a play by May and she wrote screen plays for The Birdcage and Primary Colors.
At loose ends Nichols went to Vancouver, British Columbia to act and direct in regional theater. The play starred Robert Redford and Elizabeth Ashley and was a huge hit running for performances and earning Nichols his first Tony for direction.
This amazing run of hit earned Nichols three more Tony Awards—four if you count when his work on The Odd Couple and Luv split the honor. The man behind the camers. It did, but Warner Bros. The studio even trusted him with the hottest stars in film and the center of tabloid gossip, Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor playing against type as slovenly, snarling middle aged drunks at war with each other and their own deep disappointments in themselves.
The film was an eye opening tour de force for all involved, including George Segal and Sandy Dennis as the young academic couple drawn in and devastated by the central maelstrom. Released in the film is now famous for shattering the old Production Code and ushering in a new era of frank language and adult themes to Hollywood movies. It was nominated for thirteen Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Director for Nichols, and is one of only two films ever to be nominated in all major award categories.
Taylor and Dennis walked off with Oscars. Nichols followed up the next year, with an even greater success—The Graduate, based on the novel by Charles Webb. Once again Nichols tackled themes that were too hot to handle for commercial films only a year or two earlier.
And, as noted by many, without ever mentioning the political turmoil of the sixties, the Vietnam War, or the emergence of the counter culture the movie captured the dilemmas of a generation. Now considered one of the most iconic films of the decade and a certifiable classic it launched the career of Hoffman, and unlikely leading man. This time Nichols took home an Oscar and a Golden Globe as well. During these heady years on Broadway and in Hollywood, Nichols was married to his second wife, Margo Callas with whom he had a daughter, Daisy.
But cool is relative term. His accomplishments that decade would be career triumphs for most. Its reputation has improved with age and is now something of a cult film. The conviction was over turned in Supreme Court in a case that virtually ended local film censorship. The latter was his last film for eight years. No matter, the theater was still welcoming. Nichols also branched out into producing. His first foray was into television with the critically acclaimed and ground breaking series Family which took a hard, frank look at an upper-middle class family and ran from to He shared producing duties with Aaron Spelling and Leonard Goldberg.
The show won the Tony for best musical which Nichols, as producer, got to take home and add to his collection. Tandy won a Tony for her performance. While the film was not successful, it eased Nichols back behind the camera. He came back in a big way in by directing the acclaimed Silkwood, based on the true story of the fate of a young woman who became a union activist and whistleblower at an Oklahoma nuclear power plant.
Back on Broadway was an exceptionally busy year.
The Real Thing was nominated for seven Tonys and won five, including another trophy for Nichols. On Thursday Goldberg, who credits Nichols with giving her a career and with whom she remained close, broke down in tears on her show The View trying to talk about him.
The marriage lasted from to and produced two children, Max and Jenny. It was a lasting and happy union for 28 years until his death. Heartburn was adapted by Nora Ephron from her autobiographical novel based on her marriage to reporter Carl Bernstein of Watergate fame. He re-united with old friends Nicholson, Streep, and Channing for the film.
Working Girl in starring Melanie Griffith, Harrison Ford, and Sigourney Weaver was one of the most successful films of the decade. It earned Nichols another Oscar nomination for best picture.
Nicholas was developing a taste for autobiographical and Roman a clef films. Next up were two collaborations with Elaine May as his screen writer. The first, Primary Colors was a political satire based on Bill and Hillary Clinton in his first run for the White House, bimbo eruptions and all. John Travolta and Emma Thompson were the stand-ins for the famous couple. Predictable trouble and hilarity ensue—but real hilarity. Although the French film had been made twenty years earlier, this was startling new ground for a mainstream American movie, especially in the highly sympathetic portrayal of its over-the-top Gay characters.
Lincoln Center Honors in capped nearly half a century of work. Nichols got to see a parade of his friends and collaborators, including Elaine May praise him for his work and dedication to his craft.
Not resting on those considerable laurels, Nichols launched new ventures into television, this time in on cable with its greater freedoms. He collaborated with Emma Thompson on the screenplay adaptation of the play Wit and Thompson starred as a doomed cancer wracked intellectual struggling with an impersonal and dehumanizing medical system and her own fragile mortality.
That put him in the very exclusive club of those who have won a Grammy, an Oscar, a Tony, and an Emmy. Most critics never thought it could be made into a film, let alone a made for TV mini-series.