Penguin Press, 688 pages, $35
Mark Harris’ portrait of director Mike Nichols is a pleasure to read and a model biography: appreciative yet critical, unfailingly intelligent, and elegantly written. Granted, Harris has a hyper-articulate, self-analytical subject who left a trail of press coverage behind him, but Nichols used his dazzling conversational gifts to obfuscate and beguile as much as to confide. The oft-told story of 7-year-old Michael Igor Peschkowsky’s arrival in America in 1939, Harris remarks with characteristic acuity, was “his first self-revelation-as-anecdote, an approach that he would eventually refine into a shield and a disguise, but also into a style of directing.”
As the reminiscences assembled in last year’s enjoyable but superficial Life Isn’t Everything: Mike Nichols, as Remembered by 150 of His Closest Friends attests, many people loved Nichols, but few truly knew him. Harris, a savvy journalist and the author of two excellent cultural histories (Pictures at a Revolution and Five Came Back, which recently premiered as a documentary on Netflix), makes judicious use of abundant sources in Mike Nichols: A Life to craft a shrewd, in-depth reckoning of the elusive man behind the polished façade.
Nichols did many things well and seemed to enjoy all of them. He began as a groundbreaking comic performer, teaming up with Elaine May in the mid-1950s to create sketches anchored in wincingly accurate observations and an improvisational genius that took them from Chicago nightclubs to Broadway. After May called it quits in 1961, Nichols surmounted the inaugural bout of a lifelong battle with depression to discover his true calling as a director. He applied his gift for rooting comedy in recognizable behavior to Neil Simon’s Barefoot in the Park, which won him his first Tony Award.
By the time he won his second Tony (for The Odd Couple in 1965), Nichols was rich and connected enough to have famous friends smooth the path to his movie debut, an uncompromising adaptation of Edward Albee’s scarifying play Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf that seemed unlikely to get past Hollywood censors. Elizabeth Taylor got him the job, and Jacqueline Kennedy helped win the reluctant approval of the National Catholic Office for Motion Pictures, without which the film would have been “unplayable for most theater chains and unreleasable in many cities.”
Nichols was hard to categorize. Was he the hard-edged satirist of contemporary manners who directed The Graduate and Carnal Knowledge? The genial ironist who made Working Girl and The Birdcage? The hack-for-fire responsible for The Day of the Dolphin? On stage, a string of Neil Simon hits put him in danger of being written off as a mere craftsman, but then, in 1976, he directed two scathing dramas, David Rabe’s Streamers and Trevor Griffiths’ Comedians; in the decade before his death in 2014, his theater credits ranged from Spamalot to Death of a Salesman. Nichols’ facility in diverse media and genres prompted critical unease. His public relish for the trappings of success — lavish homes, expensive art, Arabian horses — and for the company of other rich, famous people, reinforced the impression of a dilettante without artistic convictions.
On the contrary, Harris demonstrates that Nichols’ eclectic body of work is unified by two imperatives: Tell the truth and tell the story. Harris’ ability to pinpoint and explicate how these guiding principles informed Nichols’ career is foremost among this biography’s many virtues. Perceptive accounts of Nichols in rehearsal show him working with actors and writers to make even the most broadly comic or stylistically abstract material humanly real.
His famous habit of regaling his cast with anecdotes about himself to illuminate something in the script created an atmosphere of community and trust that encouraged actors to draw on their own experiences in performance. Nichols shared with his idol Elia Kazan a psychological acuity that enabled him to know exactly what to say to an actor to get the performance he wanted, usually with charm but with brutality when he judged it necessary. Though he directed several scripts with strong political themes — including Silkwood and, for HBO, Angels in America — his primary focus was always on characters and relationships.
Nichols’ inimitable style and charisma come across most vividly in the passages about him in rehearsal and on the set, though Harris conscientiously traces the trajectory of his complicated personal life, including the parade of glamorous girlfriends and three fraught marriages before the enduring fourth one, to Diane Sawyer in 1988. (Third wife Annabel Davis-Goff gets proper credit for sticking by him for 15 years before his worst episode of depression, sparked by an addiction to Halcion, blew up their marriage in 1986.)
The emphasis on his professional life makes sense; Nichols’ work was his life. Recalling the breakup with May, he said later that “not only had I lost my best friend, but I had lost my work — it was who I was.” That remained true of the frail old man who coughed so badly during the location shoot for his last film (Charlie Wilson’s War) that the company feared he couldn’t finish, and who directed his last play (Harold Pinter’s Betrayal) barely a year before his death.
Harris gently covers those declining years with respect for the achievements that preceded them. His marvelous book makes palpable in artful detail the extraordinary scope and brilliance of those achievements.