clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

We give geniuses license to be jerks. Mike Nichols tried not to be anyhow.

The director built his long, storied career atop a series of brilliant collaborations with people who made him better.

Mike Nichols gets behind the camera while filming his 1970 film Catch-22.
Julian Wasser/The LIFE Images Collection via Getty Images
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

Mike Nichols, the director behind a wide range of seminal stage productions and movies, from The Graduate to Working Girl to HBO’s Angels in America, was always a filmmaker I respected more than I loved. The movies he made that I loved, I really loved; the rest of his work mostly left me nodding my head and saying, “That was pretty good!” before forgetting it within a couple of days.

But a new biography of Nichols — Mike Nichols: A Life, by Mark Harris — has given me a new appreciation for the director, making it far easier to see Nichols’s prodigious talents at honing a story down to its core elements and pulling fantastic performances out of almost any actor he worked with.

The book also helped me see how Nichols rarely used his camera in a flashy way, yet was very smart about how he placed and moved his camera to tell a story. Working Girl, for instance, opens and closes with swooping helicopter shots that emphasize how its hero Tess has moved up the socioeconomic ladder, even as both shots also emphasize that she’s just another cog in the wheel of capitalism, no matter how rich she becomes.

But where Harris’s book really sings is in revealing a different sort of major Hollywood figure than the ones we’re used to seeing lionized. Too often, books about great directors focus on what made them irascible assholes, constantly stomping on anyone who got in their way in the name of making “great art.” This narrative of how good movies are made is so deeply ingrained in our culture that it’s been incredibly hard to displace, even in an era when we’re more predisposed to examine the toxicity inherent to this method of moviemaking.

And yeah: Awful people have made some tremendous movies, just as awful people have written great books or made great music or [insert art form of choice]. But Mike Nichols: A Life is interested, first and foremost, in Nichols as a collaborator. That doesn’t mean he never fucked up or never treated people poorly. He could be difficult and demanding and even cruel. But he also invariably realized when he had gone too far and made up for it, and he didn’t make a habit of being needlessly demanding or unkind.

Perhaps because of that quality, Nichols attracted a loyal group of collaborators who would follow him through thick and thin, signing up to work with him again and again and again because he treated them as equal voices in the moviemaking process. Harris’s book traces Nichols’s knack for collaboration to his very earliest work, when he and Elaine May built a comedic partnership atop a series of sketches in the early 1960s, where they improvised around a series of core ideas, leveraging a creative connection between them that could seem almost like a psychic link. (Check out some of their work here.) Their comedy took the country by storm for a handful of years, until they dissolved their partnership, both to try other things and because Nichols and May had very different ideas of just how they should move forward as a team. (It would take a while to happen, but Nichols and May patched up their friendship and would work together several more times throughout his life.)

The strange frisson that developed between Nichols and May — the closest friendship they would ever have, one of the most significant creative partnerships they would ever have, and something very like a romance without ever quite becoming one — ended up also developing between Nichols and a number of other collaborators. Whether it was screenwriter Buck Henry or actress Meryl Streep, Nichols would build strong working relationships with dozens of people across his more than 50-year career.

That love of collaboration ends up being the core theme of Harris’s book. The author also traces the ways in which Nichols’s own experience as a performer, as a stage director, and as a film and TV director all informed each other. While Nichols was keenly aware of the faults that kept him from becoming a great actor, that self-awareness helped him know exactly how to communicate with actors struggling to make a scene sing when he began directing stage plays in the mid-1960s. And then his skill with bringing out the best in actors on stage translated to a skill with bringing out the best on film.

More and more, Nichols sought out talented people with complementary skills, so that even as a neophyte film director, his movies looked gorgeous, thanks to experienced craftspeople behind the scenes. He often returned to the same folks again and again. At every phase of his career, Nichols built a creative family to surround himself, one that helped him through his roughest creative patches.

And there were rough patches. Some of the best parts of Harris’s book delve into Nichols’s struggles with drug addiction, depression, and money troubles. In particular, Harris’s depiction of Nichols’s spirals throughout the 1970s and ’80s offer an empathetic view of how mental health problems can cause serious struggle even for the rich and famous. And Harris’s depiction of Nichols’s childhood, in which he narrowly escaped Nazi Germany, undergirds everything that follows.

For a nearly 600-page book (before endnotes), Mike Nichols: A Life is a bright and breezy read, full of interesting anecdotes and great observations about Nichols’s creative process and his many, many collaborations with equally talented people. Above all, it captures an iconoclast who was, nevertheless, really good at working within the showbiz system.

Nichols said frequently that he felt he was living on “borrowed time,” thanks to his last-second migration to the United States at the age of 7. But unlike a lot of people living in the wake of such trauma, Nichols seemed intent on building artistic communities where other people could thrive too. Instead of spreading pain, he tried to lessen it. That doesn’t make him unique among American directors, but it does make him a figure worth studying, if only as a contrast to the prevailing narrative of what makes a great artist.

Mike Nichols: A Life is available from booksellers everywhere. For more recommendations from the world of culture, check out the One Good Thing archives.