Monday, April 12, 2021

No Rock Bottom to the Life: Mark Harris’s Biography of Mike Nichols

Mike Nichols directs Elizabeth Taylor in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf (1966).

Mark Harris wrote two of my favorite contemporary books about movies, Pictures at a Revolution (2008, about the transition from the old to the new Hollywood in the late 1960s) and Five Came Back (2014, about the five major Hollywood directors who made documentaries during the Second World War). But after reading his new 600-page biography of Mike Nichols, I can’t figure out why he the hell he wrote it.

Honestly, I was never crazy about Nichols as a stage director. But I only saw half a dozen of his productions, and it’s possible that if I’d been able to catch the ones that made him so famous early in his career – Neil Simon’s Barefoot in the Park and The Odd Couple, Murray Schisgal’s Luv – I might have some idea what established his soaring reputation, even though these are hardly brilliant comic texts. On the other hand, I’m familiar with all of his movies, both those he made for the big screen and those he turned out for HBO, and the superlatives that clung to him from the first – from Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966) and The Graduate (1967) – have rarely seemed convincing to me. Virginia Woolf is beautifully shot by Haskell Wexler and Richard Burton is staggeringly good in it, but as a piece of filmmaking it feels labored – and I’ve never liked the play. The Graduate is funny in the first half and Hoffman and Bancroft are wonderful to watch, but the directing is awful:  the actors are impaled on all those goddamn close-ups. Though occasionally I’ve enjoyed his movies (Working Girl) or parts of them (The Birdcage), or individual performances in them, I don’t think Nichols figured out what he was doing as a technician until around the millennium, when he made his film à clef about the Clintons, Primary Colors (1998). The movie goes spectacularly wrong when the character played by Kathy Bates is shattered by the revelation that the political-celebrity couple (John Travolta and Emma Thompson) are capable of behaving out of self-interest; Bates’s naiveté is utterly implausible. And of course the picture sank when the Monica Lewinsky scandal upstaged it. But it’s an extremely complicated piece of filmmaking, and for the first time you can really see Nichols thinking like a director. His adaptation for HBO of Margaret Edson’s play Wit, with Emma Thompson as a professor dying of cancer, is beautifully made, a genuine labor of love; you don’t have to like the play (and I don’t) to be impressed, even moved, by it. And his final picture, Charlie Wilson’s War, a truth-is-stranger-than-fiction account of the career of a Texas congressman adapted by Aaron Sorkin from George Crile’s book, is the best movie he ever worked on, a genuinely surprising political film crammed with fine performances that brought out the foxy farceur in Tom Hanks and then got to layers of sadness underneath.

I realize that my response to Nichols’s work is largely a matter of taste:  most of the time I just didn’t care for his. But Mike Nichols: A Life doesn’t make it clear why Harris thinks he’s worth writing about. Harris is compelling and entertaining on the subject of the first phase of Nichols’s fame, when he wrote and performed stand-up with Elaine May that invented revue comedy and has rarely been surpassed (perhaps only by Lily Tomlin and Richard Pryor). And it would be hard not to be engaged by the stories of his early Broadway (and off-Broadway) successes, when he didn’t seem capable of putting a foot wrong; or by the dishy tales of his interactions with some of the volatile actors he worked with, especially Walter Matthau and George C. Scott. But by the midway point the book still doesn’t seem to be going anywhere, except from one stage or screen triumph to another, or else from a triumph to a disaster that Nichols has to dig himself out of and sometimes does, sometimes doesn’t. You get early on that Nichols has imposter’s syndrome; as he becomes rich he also becomes compulsively acquisitive, and he takes terrible care of his body (abusing it with drugs, among other things). But none of these facts makes him especially worthy of a biography. His work might, of course, but Harris doesn’t make a case for it.  He does tries to argue that, beginning with Silkwood in 1983, Nichols’s work was infused, significantly and historically, with the sensibility of the women he collaborated with. But if Nora Ephron (who co-wrote Silkwood and adapted Heartburn from her autobiographical novel) is your idea of an important feminist writer, then your argument is dead in the water. When I put down Mike Nichols: A Life the only conclusion I could reach was that its subject was very famous and directed a lot of plays and movies that won awards (both for him and for his actors). And that doesn’t make him great or even especially interesting.

Elaine May and Mike Nichols.

Like any show-biz biographer, Harris quotes widely from the people who loved Nichols, especially those who worked with him, and many of them come across as thoughtful and sensitive, like Tom Hanks, Meryl Streep, Elizabeth Ashley (who would have guessed?), and Nichols’s long-time editor Sam O’Steen, who is particularly perspicacious. Diane Sawyer, his widow, seems lovely. But in the second half the book gets snowed under with praise: their praise for Nichols, his praise for his actors, Harris’s praise for the movies and plays. “What I remember about Mike on Silkwood is that he loved every single person and every single moment of it,” gushes Streep. Working together on The Real Thing on Broadway, Harris glows, Nichols and the playwright Tom Stoppard “were both formidable, effortlessly witty intellects who were secure enough to work in harmony, and [the star Jeremy] Irons, lithe, handsome, and physically graceful, embodied their ideal selves.” “Patrick Wilson was astonishing” in Angels in America,” claims Nichols. “He . . . never did anything phony . . . He walked right in, like a little kid sometimes does in a movie, and knew how to do it.” (Patrick Wilson?  Seriously?) Nichols “put you in a place where he made you feel you could do it, and then he let you go and made you want to deliver for him,” according to Clive Owen, his leading man in Closer. Kate Nelligan enthuses about Sawyer, “Her love made him accept himself, and after that he wanted to make everybody’s life better, because his had been made better.” There’s only so much of this crap that one book can stand without melting into mush.

Streep played Arkadina in Nichols’s all-star production of The Seagull in Central Park in 2001, sharing the stage with Philip Seymour Hoffman, Christopher Walken, Kevin Kline, Natalie Portman, Marcia Gay Harden, John Goodman, Larry Pine and Stephen Spinella. Here’s Harris’s assessment: “Nichols didn’t walk into the production with an argument he wanted to make about what The Seagull meant or how it should be played; as days passed, it became clear that his plan was to have the production be the sum of its performances rather than the realization of a vision.” And I guess that’s my problem with Mike Nichols. He may be the most famous American director of stage or screen who simply didn’t have a vision.

Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting Style; No Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.


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