Why Mike Nichols Was the Egalitarian Auteur

Why Mike Nichols Was the Egalitarian Auteur

People Watching

Mike Nichols, the egalitarian auteur.


The only piece in their revolutionary comedic repertoire that Mike Nichols and Elaine May chose never to record was called “Pirandello.” As a result, the 18-minute meta-theatrical sketch lives on only in the mythical retellings of those lucky enough to have seen it onstage in the early 1960s.

It began with the pair playing young siblings imitating their parents fighting; then, without announcing the transition, they moved seamlessly into playing the parents themselves. At some imperceptible point, they fall out of character and become Mike Nichols and Elaine May having an uncomfortably personal onstage argument. She would insult his virility; he would storm into the wings in a huff. Then he’d come back and grab her so hard he would sometimes tear her shirt; she would sob. They ad-libbed new cruelties every night to keep each other on their toes. Once, according to Nichols, he slapped May a few times, and she clawed at his chest hard enough to draw blood. “It was a dance they did together,” writes Mark Harris in his panoramic biography, Mike Nichols: A Life, “based, as much as anything, on their own awareness that they were capable of hurting each other and their desire to see how close to the edge they could get.” Once they found that edge, they would employ their safe word, turning to the audience and announcing with a grin, “This is Pirandello!”

In the mid-1980s, a few decades into his long and varied stage and filmmaking career, Nichols proposed a broad theme that united his directing work: “I think maybe my subject is the relationships between men and women, without much of anything else, centered [on] a bed.” I would narrow it a bit further and say that the unifying trait of a Mike Nichols production is, approximately, “This is Pirandello!”

Which is to say that Nichols’s work is almost always about the dizzying, insular, sometimes brutal acts that men and women perform in intimate relationships—about the lines they deliver to themselves, to each other, and to the people watching them. Consider the twisted parlor games that Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton play on their guests (and, by extension, on the audience) in Nichols’s brilliant, still-crackling 1966 film adaptation of Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, or Meryl Streep and Jack Nicholson putting on the gradually crumbling appearance of a happy couple in 1986’s Heartburn. There’s even a dash of “Pirandello” in Melanie Griffith’s yuppie cosplay in Working Girl or Robin Williams’s fleeting attempt to play it straight in The Birdcage. Nichols’s brilliantly acted penultimate film, 2004’s Closer, oozes with it: Clad in a pink wig in a strip club’s private room, refusing to confirm whether her name is Alice or Jane, Natalie Portman memorably tells Clive Owen with a practiced wink, “Lying’s the most fun a girl can have without taking her clothes off.”

And yet one of the most common knocks you hear about Nichols is that he was too much of a chameleon to be considered a truly great director—or that he never quite lived up to the subversive promise of his first two features, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and The Graduate. I heard these criticisms earlier this year during the Q&A portion of Harris’s virtual reading at the 92nd Street Y in New York City, and they were certainly present in his subject’s recent critical reception. “Unlike virtually every other director associated with the New Hollywood—Robert Altman, Martin Scorsese, Stanley Kubrick—Nichols was not an auteur,” Louis Menand wrote in The New Yorker. “There is no such thing as a Mike Nichols picture.”

What subtly emerges between the lines of Harris’s magnificent biography, though, is a more collaborative view of filmmaking—a refreshing alternative to the auteurist approach that figures the history of American cinema as simply a linear continuum of Important Films made by Great Men. In fact, as Harris points out, the second half of Nichols’s career in particular was enlivened by his egalitarian creative partnerships with a number of female actors and writers, among them Streep, Portman, Nora Ephron, Carrie Fisher, and Emma Thompson. Of course, you could trace it all back to his partner in “Pirandello”: As Harris observes, Nichols “was one of the few directors of his generation whose formative professional years had been spent with a woman who was his creative equal, and he felt at home around them.”

The female-driven films that characterized the second act of Nichols’s career—Silkwood, Heartburn, Working Girl, and Postcards From the Edge—did not enjoy the critical adulation of his earlier work. (Some of the most spirited criticism in Harris’s book comes during his reappraisal of Heartburn: “Almost every male critic who disliked the movie expressed bafflement that Nichols would take on a subject as minor as domestic unhappiness from a woman’s point of view,” he writes, citing examples from the likes of Roger Ebert and Stanley Kauffmann.) But this period of work also revivified Nichols, bringing him back from the brink of depression and professional failure. This was especially true of his collaboration with Streep. “Her effect on Nichols was transformative,” Harris observes of their time together on Silkwood. “They created a way of working—intense conversations about the character and the script, well before shooting started, but very little micro-direction once the cameras rolled—that would remain in place for decades.”

“I think he was a genuine feminist,” Portman tells Harris. “There was nothing, nothing, nothing there except him seeing you as a creative, interesting, talented human. It is the rarest, finest quality, and not many directors of his generation had it.” Ten years ago, that may have seemed like a throwaway comment—a feel-good showbiz cliché. But as we continue to assess the damage of Hollywood’s long history of tyrannical male behavior, that particular virtue of Nichols’s work should not go underappreciated.

Mike Nichols was born Igor Michael Peschkowsky in 1931, the first child of a Jewish couple in Berlin. His family sent him, along with his younger brother, to New York City when he was 7. America was fun—“we’d never had food that made noise like Rice Krispies,” Nichols recalled—and after a bleak early childhood lived under Nazi rule, little Igor made concerted efforts to assimilate. “From the moment he could say it without an accent,” Harris writes, he became “Mike Nichols.”

The future comic was a lonely, serious child. While he was still in Germany, an allergic reaction rendered him permanently unable to grow hair. (Throughout his life he wore hairpieces, and eventually he became famous enough for Taylor to introduce him to her wig guy.) But Nichols’s outsider status allowed him to acquire a skill for noticing and mimicking the minutiae of human behavior, which would come in handy later. “I think there is an immigrant’s ear that is particularly acute for ‘How are they doing it here? What must I do to be unnoticeable, to be like them?’” Nichols said. “You’re forever looking at something as someone who just got here.”

After the premature death of his father, a doctor, in 1944—he’d diagnosed himself with cancer and, accurately, given himself a couple weeks to live—a wayward Nichols arrived at one of the only colleges that didn’t require placement tests: the University of Chicago. He quickly fell in with a lively gang of writers and performers who formed the Compass Players, a precursor to the still-thriving improv institution The Second City. Among them was a caustic, lightning-witted woman he’d met in passing a few times before the fateful day he noticed her sitting alone on a train station bench. “May I zit down?” he asked in an exaggerated German accent. “Eef you veesh,” she played along. “You are Agent X-9?” She was, of course, Elaine May. It was their very first bit.

As they worked out a routine of tart, observational pieces and characters that would more or less invent modern sketch comedy—nervous teenagers unsure of what to do with their cigarettes during an acrobatically awkward make-out session; a mother chiding her rocket scientist son for not calling her often enough—they found that they complemented each other perfectly. At first they gigged around Chicago, but once they relocated to New York in late 1957, their ascent to mainstream fame was so speedy it’s barely an exaggeration to say it happened overnight. By January 1958 they had booked a headline gig at the Blue Angel and a coveted spot on the NBC variety show Omnibus, which was watched by tens of millions of people. That year their comedy album Improvisations to Music charted. By 1960 their show An Evening With Nichols and May was the star-studded, perpetually sold-out toast of Broadway.

May overflowed with so many ideas that she sometimes needed Nichols to tell her when to stop; a refrain Harris heard throughout his reporting was “She would fill, and he would pace.” This was the late 1950s, the era of the Smothers Brothers, Mort Sahl, Lenny Bruce. May was one of the only famous female comics of her time, which meant Nichols was virtually the only famous male comic with an ego sturdy enough to share the stage each night with a blazingly talented woman. But gender parity was not a faddish liberal cause for Nichols and May; it was a practical necessity for the continued success of their act. Each night, they walked a tightrope in tandem. “As soon as we weren’t in balance,” Nichols recalled, “great angers arose. We flew apart.”

That happened more quickly than most people anticipated. In July 1961, less than a year into their wildly successful Broadway run, they reached a creative impasse. Nichols wanted to polish and stick with the material that worked, while May, a true believer in improv, felt deadened by doing the same thing night after night. She would fill; he would pace. In July 1961, after 311 performances, they closed the show long before it had a chance to grow stale. What happened in the ensuing years, Nichols observed, “is that we became two individual people rather than Nichols-and-May.”

Spanning the better part of the 20th century and flitting through plenty of illustrious social circles, Harris’s book is a trove of usable wisdom about the creative process. “Big isn’t true,” Nichols tells his actors, a pithy mantra of naturalism onstage and on-screen. Also: “As soon as you have figured out how to get your laugh, don’t do that.” On pacing and timing onscreen, Nichols’s early mentor, the director Billy Wilder, tells him, indelibly, “Don’t forget to leave some string for the pearls.”

But Mike Nichols is also full of cautionary tales about the pitfalls of precocious success. (As Orson Welles, who would know, warns him on that particular subject: “Better late than early.”) For the entire 1960s, Nichols was a golden boy. As a theater director, his first play, Neil Simon’s Barefoot in the Park, was widely considered a turning point in bringing unfussy naturalism to the stage. His first two films flouted the anachronistic prudishness of the Motion Picture Production Code and so helped usher in the unapologetically frank tone of the coming New Hollywood. When he won the 1968 Best Director Oscar for The Graduate at the precocious age of 36, Nichols appeared to be a voice-of-his-generation talent who could do no wrong. Incurably self-aware, he waited for failure like an expected house guest who was running unbelievably late.

Failure did arrive—behaving politely at first, then monstrously. Nichols’s third and fourth films, the excessively ambitious Catch-22 and the more modest, character-driven Carnal Knowledge, were middling successes, but neither lit the world on fire the way his first two films had. Then he started laying eggs. Perhaps the most inscrutable work in his filmography is 1973’s Day of the Dolphin, which, like The Graduate, was a collaboration between Nichols and his friend and screenwriter Buck Henry. Except this time the pair had not placed a finger on the pulse of a burgeoning generation: They had simply made a sci-fi thriller in which George C. Scott plays a marine biologist who teaches two dolphins how to speak English and who gets embroiled in a plot to train the dolphins to assassinate the president, or something. Reviewers pounced. Nichols followed that in 1975 with The Fortune, a tonally confused buddy picture/period piece starring Warren Beatty and Jack Nicholson that Harris describes as the result of “the high-flying, tunnel-vision, manic cheer of Hollywood sets at the beginning of the cocaine years” and that proved upon its release to be “a very public disaster.”

Nichols’s next film, a Neil Simon–penned, Robert De Niro–starring comedy with the working title Bogart Slept Here, imploded spectacularly and was scrapped several weeks and several million dollars into production. The missteps were cumulative, and Nichols’s depression, which had begun to rear its head just after his creative breakup with May, worsened until he could barely get out of bed. “I really just felt dead mentally,” he recalled. He wasn’t sure he’d ever make a film again. For seven years, he didn’t. Enter Meryl.

“I think it was probably exactly the opposite of something like Catch-22 and a lot of unhappy men,” Streep tells Harris of Silkwood, the shoot that reenergized Nichols’s film career. As Harris writes, “Silkwood was his first major work about a woman—her actions, her consciousness, her goals, her fears—and the first movie on which his brain trust was mostly female.” On Silkwood, that brain trust included a group of women he lovingly called “the coven”: Streep, Cher, screenwriters Ephron and Alice Arlen, and Nichols’s longtime costume designer, Ann Roth. Perhaps his most overtly political work, the film was based on the life of Karen Silkwood, a nuclear industry whistleblower and labor activist who died under mysterious circumstances. Streep describes the Silkwood set as more collaborative and less hierarchical than she was used to. “He would take an idea from anybody,” she told Harris. “He wasn’t threatened by other people, and many, many directors are—when you say something, you can just see them bracing themselves. Mike never did that, and it was glorious.”

In contrast to the narrative that Nichols’s defining achievements were behind him by the time he wrapped The Graduate, Harris reframes this later era of Nichols’s career as one of mutually enriching collaboration—particularly with Streep—that ultimately gave him the spark he needed to continue directing prolifically for the stage and screen right up until he died in 2014, at age 83. (At the time of his death, he was preparing to direct Streep once again in an HBO adaptation of Terrence McNally’s Master Class that never came to fruition.) This collaborative aspect of his sensibility can be sensed in such late-period Nichols works as Angels in America, his deeply felt 2003 adaptation of the epic play by Tony Kushner (who is Harris’s husband), and Wit, the 2001 HBO tearjerker whose screenplay he cowrote with his star, Emma Thompson. Writers and directors don’t always have rosy relationships in Hollywood, so it was quite a compliment that May gave Nichols when, from the stage at his American Film Institute tribute in 2010, she remarked, “If you’re a writer, you really want Mike to direct your screenplay. Because you know that every shot and every costume and every piece of furniture and every shoe and everything you see is going to tell your story and never give it away.”

May’s own Hollywood directing career wasn’t nearly as prolific as Nichols’s. After making three wonderfully uncompromising films that found her increasingly at odds with producers and studio executives—1971’s A New Leaf, 1972’s The Heartbreak Kid, and 1976’s Mikey and Nicky—May became something of a directorial pariah following the release of the notoriously costly (if recently reassessed) 1987 flop Ishtar. She never directed another movie after that. Even though Nichols was uncommonly open to working with female collaborators, his career stands as a testament to how much easier it was for Hollywood producers to trust a man to direct a movie than the woman who at one time had been considered, quite literally, his creative equal.

“If all the people who hate Ishtar had seen it,” May joked in 2006, “I would be a rich woman today.” Nichols, sitting beside her in a red leather chair, chuckled. The pair were onstage at Lincoln Center’s Walter Reade Theater—about 20 blocks uptown from where they’d first performed together on Broadway almost half a century earlier—hosting a Q&A after a retrospective screening of Ishtar that eventually became a jovial, hour-long reminiscence on their respective careers.

After their initial breakup as a comedy duo, Nichols and May eventually came to work together again in the 1990s, after May had given up directing and was working as a mostly uncredited script doctor. (In 2019, she won a Tony for her unforgettable performance in a revival of The Waverly Gallery.) May tried her best to polish the script of one of Nichols’s worst pictures, Wolf. (“Mike,” she told him, “you have a story about a guy who wants to become a wolf, so he becomes a wolf. I think this is going to be a very short movie.”) He wisely chose to get her involved at an earlier stage of the process for his next project, an adaptation of the play La Cage aux Folles that would become The Birdcage, one of Nichols’s most beloved late-period hits. He had, by then, come to learn what a lot of supposed auteurs don’t necessarily want to admit: that you’re only as good as the people around you. “I think the real secret of movies is putting a crew together,” he told May that night onstage. “Nobody will ever tell you; you have to find out. And when you have that many people you can depend on, everything changes.”

Thank you for reading The Nation

We hope you enjoyed the story you just read, just one of the many incisive, deeply-reported articles we publish daily. Now more than ever, we need fearless journalism that shifts the needle on important issues, uncovers malfeasance and corruption, and uplifts voices and perspectives that often go unheard in mainstream media.

Throughout this critical election year and a time of media austerity and renewed campus activism and rising labor organizing, independent journalism that gets to the heart of the matter is more critical than ever before. Donate right now and help us hold the powerful accountable, shine a light on issues that would otherwise be swept under the rug, and build a more just and equitable future.

For nearly 160 years, The Nation has stood for truth, justice, and moral clarity. As a reader-supported publication, we are not beholden to the whims of advertisers or a corporate owner. But it does take financial resources to report on stories that may take weeks or months to properly investigate, thoroughly edit and fact-check articles, and get our stories into the hands of readers.

Donate today and stand with us for a better future. Thank you for being a supporter of independent journalism.

Ad Policy