Last night I attended a Sundance screening of Douglas McGrath‘s Becoming Mike Nichols (HBO, 2.22), a 72-minute chat between Nichols and Jack O’Brien that was taped late in the summer of ’14, or about three months before Nichols passed at age 83. It’s very good as far as it goes — time well spent with a guy who knew his stuff and how to tell a good story, and who knew from wisdom and smoothitude with a pinch of irony.
Becoming Mike Nichols director Douglas McGrath (r.) and exec producer Frank Rich (l.) following last night’s debut screening at Park City’s Egyptian theatre.
Any conversation with a gifted and loquacious fellow is probably worth your time, but Becoming Mike Nichols is about one of the greatest directors ever talking about the most vital and exciting period in his life, or between the beginning of Nichols’ comedic-improv partnership with Elaine May in the late ’50s through his directorial triumph with The Graduate in ’67.
McGrath’s rationale for keeping the doc short is sound. The “hungry and exploring and trying to make it” chapter in anyone’s life is always the most robust. Things are never quite as exciting once you’ve become a success. Then your story becomes a story about whether to risk or maintain, and because people almost always try for a lopsided mixture of the two (a hint of risk with a lot of maintenance) something always dies or slows down in the narrative.
What’s the best line in the whole piece? An observation about marriages or romantic relationships. At any given moment, Nichols tells O’Brien, a relationship is either about (a) seduction, (b) negotiating or (c) fighting. You’d think that a healthy pairing would be about more than this, but as I thought about it last night as I walked home I began to realize that Nichols was right.
Significant passage from HE obit: “Nichols’ film-directing career (which alternated from time to time with directing and producing hit Broadway plays), was flourishy and satisfying and sometimes connected with the profound, and it lasted from the mid ’60s to the mid aughts. Nichols had a touch and a style that everyone seemed to recognize, a certain mixture of sophisticated urban comedy and general gravitas.
“His first gusher was Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolff in 1966, and his last truly excellent film was HBO’s Angels in America. If you add Nichols’ brilliant late ’50s thru early ’60s stand-up comedy period with Elaine May, he really was Mr. King Shit for the better part of a half-century.
“But his most profound filmic output happened during a nine year period between ’66 through ’75 — a chapter known for a certain stylistic signature mixed with an intense and somewhat tortured psychology that came from his European Jewish roots. Longtime Nichols collaborator Richard Sylbert, whom I knew fairly well from the late ’80s to the early aughts, explained it to me once. Nichols had developed that static, ultra-carefully composed, long-take visual approach that we saw in The Graduate, Catch 22, Carnal Knowledge, Day of the Dolphin and The Fortune, and this signature was, Sylbert believed, what elevated Nichols into the Movie God realm.
“And then Nichols suffered a kind of crisis or collapse of the spirit after the double-flop of Dolphin and Fortune, and he withdrew from feature films for eight years, doing little or nothing for a certain period and then focusing on plays for the most part. He rebounded big-time with Silkwood in ’83, but the way he shot and paced that successful, well-reviewed drama showed that the great stylistic signature of his mid ’60s to mid ’70s films was no more. The ever-gifted Nichols never lost his sensitivity or refinement, but the anguished artist phase had ended.”