That’s a name that should be familiar to anyone who claims to be a student of film or a lover of Broadway. Originally born Mikhail Igor Peschkowsky in Berlin, Germany, the rise of the Hitler led to Nichols and his family immigrating to the United States in 1939. By that time, the seven year-old Nichols had already been completely bald for three years, the result of a bout of whooping cough. Like many who have had first-hand experience with trauma, Nichols developed an appreciation for the absurdity of life and a rather dark sense of humor. After studying to be an actor, Nichols found fame as a satirist and a comedian, performing with Elaine May. He would later go on to become not only an important theatrical director but also an important film director. With his directorial debut, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, he helped to destroy what was left of the production code. With The Graduate, he helped to define the generation gap. With Carnal Knowledge, he explored sexual frustration and ennui. With Catch-22, he proved that even a great director can struggle to adapt an unfilmable book.
Mike Nicholas was an important director but, because his work was never quite as flashy as some of his contemporaries and because he spent as much time directing for the stage as for the movies, it always seems as if he runs the risk of being overlooked by film lovers. Luckily, Mark Harris’s biography, Mike Nichols: A Life, not only presents the details of his life and career but it also makes a convincing case that Nichols is a director who, despite all of his awards and the admiration of those who worked with him, has been a bit underrated. Harris convincingly argues that, while Nichols’s films dealt with timeless issues, they also often defined the era in which they were made. Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and The Graduate are both definitive films of the 60s. Carnal Knowledge is a film that captures the disillusionment of the early 70s, with Jack Nicholson and Art Garfunkel playing men destined to never escape their self-imposed mental prisons. Working Girl captured the greedy atmosphere of the 80s while Primary Colors epitomized America in the 90s and Closer captured the confused morality of the aughts.
To his credit, Harris doesn’t make the mistake of idealizing Nichols. Harris is just honest about the Nichols films that don’t work as he is about the ones that do. The failure of Catch-22 was as due to Nichols’s new-found cockiness as a director as it was to the unwieldy source material. On What Planet Are You From?, Nichols develops an almost instant and somewhat irrational dislike of comedian Garry Shandling, which is a bit unfortunate as Shandling was not only the star of the film but also in need of a director who would work with him to conquer his insecurities. This biography is honest about both Nichols’s strengths and his weaknesses and, as such, it becomes a fascinating look at one artist’s creative process.
It also become a look at how American culture changed from the 1960s to the first decade of the 21st Century. Nichols made his directorial debut in 1965 and directed his final film in 2007. For 42 years, Nichols recorded the cultural transformation of America, from scandalizing America by having Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton curse at each other to making a film about the policy decisions that would eventually contribute to 9-11 and the new America that was formed as a result of that tragedy. Mike Nichols: A Life isn’t just about Mike Nichols. It’s about how American culture, for better and worse, has developed and changed over the last century.
If you’re looking for a good and in-depth biography about a director who deserves to be rediscovered, Mike Nichols: A Life is the one to go with.