In partnership with the Virginia Film Festival, the 2021 Virginia Festival of the Book presented author Mark Harris for a discussion of his new book, Mike Nichols: A Life. The acclaimed biography explores the life, work, struggle, and passion of the celebrated film and stage director. The conversation was moderated by VAFF associate programmer Joe Fab.
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Thanks to our bookseller for this event, UVA Bookstore.
“The book is as smart and well-paced as if Mike had directed it. It’s Virginia Woolf brutal and Birdcage funny. I devoured the details of Mike’s fascinating life, but I also marveled at Mark Harris’s ability to lead us through it. The shaky wooden rollercoaster of collaboration, the serpent-tongued antihero’s path to love, an artist’s guide to not being trash, ten pounds of movie stars in a five pound bag—this book has it all!” —Tina Fey
“Gleaming… fortified with a wealth of interviews that make the acknowledgments a red carpet roll call (Candice Bergen, Robert Redford, Meryl Streep…), Mike Nichols: A Life is a midcentury fairy tale of right place-right time-right crowd… the rare large-scale biography without boring bits.” —James Wolcott, The New York Times Book Review
“Anyone with an abiding love for film or theater will be fascinated by Mike Nichols, but even those with only a passing familiarity with his work are likely to find themselves taken in by this engrossing biography. Harris’ book is a masterwork, endlessly engaging, and one of the best biographies of an American artist to be published in recent years.” —NPR.org
CHANDLER FERREBE: Hi, everyone. I’m Chandler Ferrebe, the program manager for the Virginia Film Festival. I’m thrilled to welcome you to this edition of “Beyond the Screen,” the Virginia Film Festival’s year-round virtual conversation series. Thank you for joining us for today’s conversation with Mark Harris on his book Mike Nichols: A Life, presented in partnership with the Virginia Festival of the Book.
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If you haven’t read Mike Nichols: A Life, I hope you will. For details about how to buy it from our bookseller for this event, UVA Bookstore, visit VaBook.org, where you can also explore the Virginia Book Festival full schedule and past events.
Now, I’m pleased to introduce our speakers:
Mark Harris is the author of Pictures at a Revolution: Five Movies and the Birth of the New Hollywood, which is a New York Times notable book of the year, and Five Came Back: A Story of Hollywood and the Second World War. He is currently a writer for New York magazine, where he often covers the intersection of culture and politics. A graduate of Yale University, Harris lives in New York City with his husband, Tony Kushner.
Our moderator, Joe Fab, is an award-winning and Emmy-nominated producer, director, and writer with forty years experience in documentary film production, media, communications, event production and the live presentation of plays and music. Best known for the theatrical/HBO documentary Paper Clips, Fab’s most recent documentary about medical aid in dying entitled When My Time Comes, hosted by NPR’s Diane Rehm, premieres on PBS in April 2021. Joe was also an associate programmer for the Virginia Film Festival.
Don’t forget to submit your questions for Mark Harris through the Q&A tab at the bottom of your screen. Now I’m happy to throw it over to Joe.
JOE FAB: Thank you, Chandler. And Mark, I just have to begin by saying how incredibly pleased I am to get to speak with you. The book is truly phenomenal. I read a lot of biographies. I’m a film and theater fan as well as a practitioner. And rarely do I read something—I think maybe never do I read something where I feel like I understand the subject so well because of the way the writer brings them to me. So I’m just very grateful for the book and delighted we can chat today.
MARK HARRIS: Thank you so much for those extraordinarily generous words. It’s great to get to talk to you. And thanks also to everyone who has Zoomed in for this. I really appreciate it.
JOE FAB: I think it might be helpful as we get started to let folks know: you knew Mike Nichols for I think a little more than the last decade of his life. How did you come to meet him, and how did that affect what you were doing as you took on this book?
MARK HARRIS: Sure. I got to know Mike—probably I met him in the year 2000, I would say, when he and my husband Tony started working together on the HBO adaptation of Angels in America. And Angels was a very long process. It took a long time to get the script together and cast. It took almost a year to get through pre-production and production. Then there was another year before it aired. So it was really like a three- or four-year period of getting to know him and getting to watch him direct. Because we would occasionally go to the set before Angels was released at the end of 2003. And then in 2004, I got to know Mike another way, which is that my first book, Pictures at a Revolution, had in part to do with the history of The Graduate. And so that was the first time that I interviewed Mike and spent a lot of time talking to him about that and just realized very quickly that, besides being an extraordinary director, he is an amazing interview subject. Because he really was willing to revisit his choices and his state of mind and his decision from a fresh perspective.
For all of that, I didn’t—you know, Pictures was published in 2008, and I didn’t have in mind that I would write about Mike again. Doing a biography of him was not something I thought about until my publisher suggested it shortly after he died, which was in December of 2014.
JOE FAB: I see. I don’t want to leave Angels in America quite yet. As I assume people know, it was the extraordinary—I would venture to say masterpiece—of Tony Kushner’s. And it won the Tony. It won the Pulitzer. It won the Drama Desk Award for best play. I think that was in the early nineties. And then of course, when the HBO miniseries happened, then it went on to win a slew of Emmys, including Emmys for Mike Nichols and for Tony. So a huge, huge piece of work. And I wish you would talk a little bit about—if I’m correct, I think that it was kind of a perfect match between the talents that Mike Nichols had and this masterpiece of a script that Tony created. I mean, Mike Nichols was—he was great at drawing things out of actors, and he had a sensational group of actors. But the script really required that we look at some complex characters with relationships where sometimes we would be told what was going on outright, but there was a lot of subtlety in the script as well. If you agree—I’ve sort of set you up—but if you agree that it was such a perfect match, could you talk about that connection, please?
MARK HARRIS: Sure. I think it really did turn out to be a perfect match. Angels had a long history in terms of attempts to adapt it for the movies before Mike came along. There had been interest in it from Hollywood ever since probably around 1992 when it first came to the US. And Robert Altman, in particular, was going to direct it for a long time. And there are, somewhere in Tony’s archives, a pair of scripts that he wrote for the Altman version of Angels, which are very different from the play or from the version that Mike did. They’re much more like—I think they’re very heavily influenced by Nashville, which was one of Tony’s favorite movies. And they’re more overlapping and more sort of—more of an attempt at hiding maybe the theatrical origins of the play.
And I think one reason that Mike was such a perfect director for the piece was that he’s one of the very few major movie directors who was ambidextrous. I mean, he was a theater director for the same fifty years that he was a movie director. And he was the first director Tony had spoken to—or the producer Cary Brokaw had spoken to—who was not interested in concealing the theatricality of Angels. One of the first things he said to Tony was that he wanted to keep the doubling. In the play, except for a couple of actors, the ensemble of eight usually plays more than one character. And Mike—one of his first instincts was that that should carry over to the movie. So that, for instance, Meryl Streep would play Hannah Pitt, the Mormon mother, and Ethel Rosenberg, and a rabbi.
And I think that made a really strong impression on Tony, that Mike was the first director who seemed to understand that visible magic was kind of a good asset, that it was okay and even interesting if people who watched it knew that the same actor was playing different parts. And Mike just seemed to—he seemed to take to all of the different aspects of the play. There was nothing he really shied away from. And Tony had never written a produced film script before, and he credits Mike with really teaching him how to write one. He liberated Tony not to think about shots and angles and things like that and said to him, “Why don’t you just write it the way that you want it to be seen, and let me worry about the rest?” He said this after an early draft. He said, “I think you’re trying really hard to write a movie script, and it’s sort of clear that you haven’t done that, and the good news is you don’t need to. You figure out how to tell the story, and I’ll figure out how to film it.”
So Tony has said that that was the thing that—the first thing really that made him feel it was possible for him to write the movie script, and that led to him writing more of them.
JOE FAB: Lifting that worry off of him must have been incredibly liberating.
MARK HARRIS: I think it was. And beyond that, he really adored Mike almost from their first meeting. They had very similar senses of humor, and they both loved to read, and they both cared about the same things. It was just a very quick, strong, positive personal connection. Which is true, as I discovered when I was researching the book, of many people, including many writers, throughout Mike’s life. He had that with Nora Ephron, who he had known since the late 1960s and with whom he stayed friends for the rest of her life. He had it with Buck Henry, who wrote several of his movies. He had it with Neil Simon. They eventually ruptured, but they had a really good working relationship for a long time. He had it with Tom Stoppard. So I think, of all the major directors out there, Mike was probably one of the most, if not the most, writer-friendly of his generation.
JOE FAB: I thought it was something of a revelation (to me, anyway) in the book with respect to Neil Simon. Because, given that Neil Simon had been so successful writing for Your Show of Shows, I just assumed that when he wrote a play, there it was. But you write about that first collaboration between them, and Neil Simon didn’t even have a third act yet.
MARK HARRIS: Right.
JOE FAB: And Mike helped him figure out how to do that I think maybe more than once. Is that correct?
MARK HARRIS: Yeah. I think that was true on Barefoot in the Park, which was the first Broadway play that Mike directed and really was Neil Simon’s breakthrough hit. And it was also true on The Odd Couple, which was the second Neil Simon play that Mike directed in 1965. And it’s interesting because, in both cases, there was a point at which—several points at which Mike would say to Neil Simon, “We’re not there yet. You have to go home and write a new third act. You haven’t found it yet.”
And Mike always said that he felt that, if the writer was talented, Mike could tell him, “This isn’t working,” and he could guess at why something might not be working, but he would never do the rewriting himself. He said there’s no one more qualified than the writer to understand what his characters should say and why and when his characters should say those things. So sometimes I can say, “You still need to figure it out,” but it’s not my place to tell a writer what they should say or what they should do. And of course, that was a really different time in theater. I think both Barefoot in the Park and The Odd Couple tried out on the road, which is something that really doesn’t happen with Broadway anymore. But basically, each of those plays had three stops outside of New York, with pauses in between them, where they could test the plan in front of an audience and see how it worked and what the audience reacted to and what didn’t and what was playable and what wasn’t. And so you had basically a bunch of beta test opportunities with room afterwards to do rewriting, although sometimes the writing would happen between performances, and the actors would get new pages on almost no notice. So that by the time the play got to New York, they really knew what worked and what didn’t.
Today, plays are more likely to have workshops that end with maybe one or two performances in front of a small, invited audience. But they don’t get tested, I think partly because the internet and social media has made everything kind of national and public. The feeling that you could go try out a New York play in Wilmington or in New Haven or even Boston and still be away from the glare of the New York spotlight has kind of gone away. But it was a very important thing to Mike for the first probably twenty years that he directed theater.
JOE FAB: You referred a few minutes ago to Mike’s fifty-year career, which in itself is something to sort of pause and just ponder for a moment. But at the end of your book, you list I think about twenty-one TV and movie productions that he either directed or produced or maybe both, and forty-one Broadway and off-Broadway plays that he directed or produced. And that doesn’t even count things that were—he did some summer stock. He did some regional things. He did a play in London.
MARK HARRIS: And he came close to doing a lot of things and then didn’t. So there were things that he worked on, including some very, very famous movies, that aren’t on that list because they ultimately were directed by someone else.
JOE FAB: So that is truly phenomenal. I mean, that’s not an abuse of the word phenomenal to apply it there. And again, one of the things that I just relish so much about your book is that you made me understand him. You made me understand that he was driven, yet he was perceptive. He was a genius in his way, but he had a very troubled life sometimes. For folks who may not have read the book yet, can you kind of—I know it took six hundred pages in the book—but can you characterize who he was and kind of what made him do this? And why was he so perfectly suited to this work?
MARK HARRIS: Yeah, I hope I can do that in fewer than six hundred pages.
JOE FAB: Six hundred great pages.
MARK HARRIS: Thank you. I think it’s a book for everyone, and I think it’s a book for people who want to know who Mike Nichols was and what he did. But also I hope it’s a book for people who want to know what direction is. Like all of the different things that directing can mean. All of the ways that directing is collaborative. All of the ways that you—and I hope it’s also a book about how to have a very, very long career, which means in part figuring out how to deal with your own failures. Your failures as a person and your creative failures. The things that don’t work. The things that flop quietly and the things that flop publicly. That was a really important part of Mike’s life too. And I think that there are a couple of things that made Mike uniquely suited to be a director. One is, briefly, he had a very rough childhood. He came over from Berlin to New York in 1939, just before the outbreak of World War II. He was about seven then, and he had lost all of his hair a few years earlier and the ability to grow hair as the result of a bad reaction to a vaccination.
And so he starts out life as a kid who doesn’t look like other kids, who doesn’t sound like other kids, who is ostracized. And he really learns to survive by being watchful, by looking at other kids and thinking: how do they do it? What does a popular American boy look like? What does a shy American boy look like? What do you look like when you’re confident? What do you look like when you want people to like you?
I think Mike was exceptionally good at picking up really small visual and behavioral cues. And he had to be, really, to survive. But that served him well both in the career he had before directing, which was as a performer with Elaine May—the Nichols and May comedy partnership really did change comedy. And one of the ways it changed comedy was by being observant about those small, recognizable details of human behavior that you in the audience wouldn’t realize that anyone else had ever noticed until you saw Nichols and May acting them out.
And then that, in turn, carried over to his directing, where one of his real hallmarks was his ability to work with actors and his ability to kind of find exactly the right story or analogy either from his own past history or by drawing out the actor about their own history to unlock an emotional moment or an observational movement or to give that actor something that he or she could do that was physical, that either enhanced the line that they were saying or undercut the line that they were saying or contradicted it or added a new dimension to it. Like that really acute work with actors was something that was a Mike signature. And I think that, in a weird way, you can trace what made him so suited for that kind of career back to that early childhood trauma, at least in part. That gift of observation.
And I think another thing that suited him for career longevity was that, of all the directors I’ve ever interviewed or written about or talked to, I don’t think I’ve ever met one who was less defensive about his failures than Mike Nichols was. When he had a flop, he would say that he thought the way to react to it was to do something small and personal that you do purely because you love it and that you do without regard to its possible commercial success or to the glory it can bring you. And there are several points in his career when he did that to his own great benefit.
But even beyond that, when he had a failure, he was genuinely interested in figuring out why it was a failure. What he had done wrong. Had he picked the wrong project from the beginning? Had he picked the right project but executed it wrong? Had he miscast it? If he had miscast it, why had he miscast it? Those questions, I think for anybody who wants to pursue a creative career especially—the ability to just ask yourself in a really nonjudgmental, non-defensive way what did I do wrong and what could I have done better is probably the professional asset that we talk about least. And Mike did it all the way up to his late seventies. He had on Broadway a really unsuccessful revival of this old Clifford Odets play, The Country Girl, which he directed with Morgan Freeman and Francis McDormand. And it didn’t work. It didn’t work as a revival of the play. The casting felt off to him. He hadn’t met either actor beforehand. And Mike was also very sick at that time and ended up having heart surgery soon after the play opened.
And as he was recovering from heart surgery, he took out a legal pad and started making a list of the things he felt he had done wrong on The Country Girl so that he wouldn’t do that next time. I found that one of the most inspiring stories from his career. If I’m lucky enough to still be working at seventy-six or seventy-seven, which I think is what Mike was when he directed that, I hope I’m still looking at my work and thinking what could I have done better, why didn’t I do that better, and how will I make sure that I don’t make that mistake again?
JOE FAB: I’m so glad you talked about the way he dealt with failure. When you were talking about the way he works with actors, what was going through my head and went through my head as I read it in the book was just that, of the directors I’ve known—and that’s a limited group, so I’m going to be now typing the whole crowd with what I say—but the way you describe Mike working with actors is the way I think most directors—well, they may think that’s what they do. They certainly want to do that. But I think those who are successful at it are probably fewer than those who wish to do it and think that they’re doing it. That, plus this way of looking at failure, dealing with failure, and wanting to understand failure—those are two of the things that come through so clearly, and I think it’s just a great contribution to those of us who want to understand how film and theater directing work. He was truly remarkable.
And I think when I talk to somebody who’s written such a wonderful book or made a great film, words like spectacular are tossed around too freely. But he was really spectacular at what he did, and I’m glad to get to understand it.
One of the things that I think we have to make sure we shed light on today is you referred to Elaine May. You referred to the way the two of them changed comedy. But that relationship is exceptional. Could you talk about that? How long-lived it was, even with interruptions, and how important it was to him.
MARK HARRIS: Yeah. It really was an exceptional relationship. I mean, they met when they were twenty at the University of Chicago. And I think that’s a tender age and also an age when friendships can form with exceptional intensity. If the two right people meet, they can really feel that they’re soulmates very quickly. And that’s definitely something that Mike and Elaine at that age had.
What’s so extraordinary to me is that they go from stealing food from grocery stores in order to have something to eat at night when they’re twenty to this very, very brief romance. But really it’s not a romantic relationship. It’s love, but it’s a different kind of love. And then it becomes this professional, performing relationship. And it’s just about over by the time Mike is thirty or thirty-one, but by then—I mean, the performing part of their career is over—but by then they have risen to the very top. They’ve gone from Chicago to New York, and they’ve become a kind of sensation within the nightclub and cabaret culture of New York, and that has led to appearances on TV talk shows and variety shows, and that in turn has led to national appearances at much, much bigger clubs and theaters, and then finally to an eight- or nine-month run on Broadway in a two-person show of their own material that was the must-see show of that season. It was like Hamilton. If you were a celebrity, not just in New York but a celebrity visiting from Los Angeles or flying in from London, you had to go see An Evening with Mike Nichols and Elaine May.
And one thing that I think is really unusual about that part of Mike’s career is that you don’t often find men in the performing arts who were born in 1931 whose primary, formative creative relationship was with a woman. And not only with a woman but with a woman who he absolutely saw as his equal and in many ways as his better. When you read the press about Nichols and May, especially when they split up—which they had a rough breakup in about 1962, when she wrote a play that he was meant to star in, and he didn’t like the play, and she didn’t like his performance, and they really stopped speaking for a couple of years—and then were back in each other’s lives literally for the rest of Mike’s life, for the next fifty-five or sixty years. But when they broke up, the press basically said, well, she is no doubt going to go on to spectacular things. It’s not entirely clear what he’s going to do. And that was an assessment that he agreed with. He really did feel that she was the sort of creative sparkplug of their partnership. That she could infinitely come up with lines for any character that they created and that his job was more to move the sketches along and to give them shape, which was in a way good training to be a director.
But I think for the rest of Mike’s career, when you see how much it’s marked by his exceptional relationships with women, whether that’s Nora Ephron or Meryl Streep or Emma Thompson, I think what you’re seeing is the early influence of Elaine May having been taken in by him almost as a personality trait. He was very at ease with women, and he genuinely liked women.
JOE FAB: And interesting too how, after the breakup and after they got back together and were working together again, I detected so much of a protection of what they had had as performers together. That now it was a different relationship. Occasionally, they would give in, and they would do some performance together like the old days. But talk about what she came to mean to him later.
MARK HARRIS: Well, I think after they stopped—I mean, they never fully stopped performing, but they did stop generating new material. They would occasionally do a benefit or something as performers. But really the way they were in each other’s lives were that she wouldn’t do a project without showing him the script first. He wouldn’t do a project without showing her the script. He went to her for advice. He trusted her taste. He trusted her judgment. She would occasionally sit in and act for him in the reading of a play.
They had one very famous reunion where they acted on stage together in 1980 in a revival of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, where they played the two lead parts.
And then in the nineties, they really started working together again for the first time, this time with Elaine as screenwriter and Mike as director. Elaine came into the movie Wolf, which was a very troubled film—she came in very late in the game to do some last-minute rewrites to sharpen up the comedy and sharpen up Michelle Pfeiffer’s part—and then she went from there to write The Birdcage, which is one of Nichols’s most successful films, and then wrote Primary Colors. So thirty-five years after the heyday of their success as performers, there they were collaborating again. And it was tremendously meaningful and joyful to Mike. Whatever tensions they had experienced decades earlier were just gone. And she was on the set of those movies the whole time. She was a real creative partner. And they just enjoyed each other very much.
JOE FAB: We’re going to go to questions from our viewers in a minute. Before we do, there are so many plays and films and projects of Mike’s we could be talking about. I’m just wondering if there is one that, for you, holds a special place that is either a success or maybe something that was more of a challenge to him that you particularly found interesting and fascinating and somehow reveals who he was.
MARK HARRIS: Well, I’ll always love The Graduate, which I think doesn’t make me particularly unique, because I’ve been writing about that movie now and researching it for more than fifteen years.
But if you’re going through Mike Nichols’s filmography and you want a sort of less typical place to start, one movie that I’ve been very happy that people are rediscovering is Heartburn, which he made in 1986 with Meryl Streep and Jack Nicholson. That was a movie that got very rough reviews when it opened. It’s the barely fictionalized account of the breakup of the marriage of Nora Ephron, who wrote the novel and then adapted it for the movie, and Carl Bernstein. And in the mid-eighties, this made huge headlines. I mean, it was a very big deal.
I discovered, to my surprise, there was a really sexist cast to the way that movie was received critically. It was really shocking to see the number of reviews by male critics that essentially said something like, “Well, this is one-sided. Surely this woman must have done something to make her husband cheat on her or leave her. Why would he just do that if she hadn’t given him a reason to?” That’s a kind of review you never would see now.
And that movie was a really good reminder that all movies are in some ways hostage to their release date, to what’s going on in the news and in people’s minds at the moment they come out. And some movies, you can see very clearly it seems the moment they open, and some movies take a few years.
I think Heartburn, now, when you look at it and all those headlines aren’t in your mind, what you can see is so many of the virtues of Mike Nichols as a director. The incredible detail and specificity of Meryl Streep’s performance, his really acute understanding of this upper-middle-class social level of the people he was making a movie about, his way of finding just the right physical action to underscore or complexify a particular scene, his sense of how the story should move along, his sharpness about the way to use music—it’s all there in Heartburn. And I’ve been happy that people are taking a look at that movie and saying, “Oh, I always heard it was terrible, but it’s actually really good.”
JOE FAB: Well, here’s a question from Josh Katz that might somehow dovetail into what you were just saying. He says, with your understanding of Nichols’s career, does it all feel of a piece to you, or are there curlicues or digressions that seem to exist at cross purposes from his larger body of work? And if so, what would those be?
MARK HARRIS: That’s a really interesting question. In terms of it all feeling of a piece, I would say that there are certain threads, particularly the way Mike worked with actors and the way actors tended to shine under him, that are common to just about all of his movie work and just about all of his stage work.
But the interesting thing is, when we look at the careers of directors now who we really admire, so often they tend to be people who write their own movies. So when you look at a Coen Brothers movie, or a Paul Thomas Anderson movie or a Wes Anderson movie, it’s easier to find a through line because you’re seeing one person’s creative interests and obsessions. And in some ways, the through line of Mike Nichols’s work is collaboration. He often took on something, for better and sometimes for worse, just because he either loved the material or the writer or the actors that he would get a chance to work with, or both. And especially after—there was a period in the 1970s and 80s when he’d had a bunch of flops and he took a seven-year break from films. He didn’t direct anything. And especially after he came back, which was with one of his most successful movies, Silkwood, you get the sense that he has rethought his priorities. And that he’s no longer trying to assemble a set of movies that will make the kind of perfect Criterion Collection boxed set of the future. He’s just henceforth going to pick the things that he’s really interested in. And that ranged all over the place because he was a man of many interests.
So I could certainly give you like three Mike Nichols movies, which if you put them together, you would feel were absolutely coherent about his interests and his obsessions. If I were to say to you give yourself a triple feature of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Carnal Knowledge, and Closer, you would find a lot in those movies about adult relationships and sexual competitiveness and working with theatrical material and working with a small cast and long scenes in enclosed spaces that really marks him out as a director.
But then I could throw you three other movies. I could give you Postcards from the Edge, which was by Carrie Fisher, and Heartburn from Nora Ephron, and Primary Colors from Elaine May and say, okay, so those are three times when Mike worked with women as screenwriters, and in each case he was making a movie that had some connection to real life and some ability to make you look at the characters on screen and say, “Okay, so are these fictional characters, or are these really stand-ins for Hilary Clinton or Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds or Nora Ephron and Carl Bernstein?” And that would create a completely different version of who Mike Nichols was as a director.
So I hope that answers that. I do think that his technique and his craft and his collaboration with actors do constitute a through line, but that’s a very collaborative through line. And the great virtues of Mike Nichols as a director are sometimes virtues that don’t announce themselves in his own work so much as in the work of others. Screenwriters and actors tend to come off really well in Mike Nichols movies, and that should tell you something about what kind of a director he was.
JOE FAB: Here’s a question from Charles Chaseman. I don’t know if you’ll have anything to add here that the photo itself doesn’t give us, but his question is: Do you have any comments on this photo of Mike on the front of the book?
MARK HARRIS: Yeah, I love this photo because it’s imperfect. First of all, I should say that it’s by Richard Avedon, who was one of Mike’s closest friends and photographed him a lot, including for the Playbill cover of his show with Elaine May. But also, I love the fact that he’s looking up. You can’t really tell whether he’s irritated or trying to think of something or remember something or solve a problem. And there’s a big rip in his shirt sleeve that is very visible on the cover.
JOE FAB: I didn’t notice that.
MARK HARRIS: Right—I’m pointing, like you can see it—but it’s right there. And I love it. It’s a look at a Mike Nichols that seems to ask a question, or more than one question, that I hope the book answers. I’d rather have a cover image I think that raises questions than that answers them.
JOE FAB: I realize I was just pointing at the cover as if people could see me doing it. And I’m not on the screen, so no you didn’t. You’ll just have to go buy the book, and you’ll be glad you did.
I’d like to take the moderator’s prerogative for a minute and ask you—I’ve seen a number of—certainly a lot of Mike’s films but some of his plays as well. And two of them I think would probably fall under the heading of maybe complicated. Not failures, but complicated. And those would be Hurlyburly and Uncle Vanya. He really had some challenges there actor-wise in both and with David Rabe as the writer for Hurlyburly. Can you delve into that a little bit? Talk about how he dealt with that. He was moderately successful; he was completely successful—how do you see it?
MARK HARRIS: Yeah, there were certainly times—as well as Mike worked with actors, there were many times in his career when it was a problem, probably starting with Walter Matthau, who was famously intractable. And Walter Matthau played Oscar Madison in The Odd Couple, and it was the first time that Mike had ever directed an actor who just wouldn’t listen to him. Who would listen to his notes and suggestions and then just ignore them. And Mike worked a number of times with actors with alcohol problems—Richard Burton on Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, George C. Scott on several plays, including Uncle Vanya in the 1970s, and movies, Art Carney in The Odd Couple, who played opposite Matthau.
So Mike was very sympathetic to the frailties and struggles of any actor, but there were definitely times when he couldn’t fully connect with them or they with him. And Hurlyburly, which had this really extraordinary all-star cast in the eighties that included William Hurt and Christopher Walken and Harvey Keitel and Sigourney Weaver and Cynthia Nixon—you know, this great cast. But I think that was the point where William Hurt, who was starring in the play, and David Rabe, who wrote it, really were not in sync with Mike at all. The play was very, very long—as long as four hours at one point, when it was trying out in Chicago. And Mike really wanted it to move. He had a very, very strong sense in all of his work of pacing and was definitely worried often about letting something drag on forever. And on that play, David Rabe was really dug in about making major cuts, and it just was not—the play was reasonably well received, and it came from Chicago to New York, where it played off-Broadway and then moved very quickly to Broadway and was nominated for a couple of Tonys. So it wasn’t a failure by any means. It ran long enough to be recast. But I don’t think that Mike—and certainly David Rabe would not characterize it as a happy experience.
JOE FAB: And yet Mike was kind and generous in sort of repairing the break with David Rabe years later.
MARK HARRIS: Right. It became very important to Mike late in life that he made even small gestures to heal wounds that he felt he had had a hand in causing. And sometimes it really meant just getting out of people’s way. There was a point, you know, he fired Mandy Patinkin from Heartburn after a week of shooting and replaced him with Jack Nicholson. And twenty-five years later, Mandy Patinkin came to see Mike’s production on Broadway of Death of a Salesman, which was his last huge success. With Philip Seymour Hoffman and Linda Emond and Andrew Garfield, and it won him his final Tony. And Patinkin went backstage to congratulate the cast, and Mike excused himself so that Patinkin would not run into him and have his evening ruined by seeing someone who would possibly trigger an unhappy memory.
JOE FAB: Let’s take another question. Let’s see. I had one here. Julie Campbell asks if there’s anything more that you could say about why so many actors loved working with him.
MARK HARRIS: Well, he directed eighteen of them to Oscar nominations, and I think the list of actors he directed to Tony nominations or wins is even longer. I mean, everyone from Matthau, who won best actor for The Odd Couple, to Jeremy Irons and Glenn Close and Christine Baranski, who all won Tonys for their work in Tom Stoppard’s play The Real Thing. I think actors certainly like directors who can make them look good.
But more than that, they love directors who seem to understand them. Mike was someone to whom actors felt they could open their hearts. He was interested in them. He wanted to know what made them tick and what they worried about and what they fretted about. He genuinely saw a central part of his job as helping actors give their best performance. And who wouldn’t love a director who prioritizes you in that way?
JOE FAB: And he opened himself up to them as well, right?
MARK HARRIS: Yes, absolutely. Sometimes strategically. Sometimes he felt that he needed to open himself up in order to help them relax and unlock themselves. Sometimes it was to create a sense that the cast was a family. That was really important to him on Death of a Salesman and on the movie Closer. He really wanted these people to connect with each other.
But, it’s funny to think about, but there are movie directors out there and stage directors—very successful ones—who don’t particularly enjoy actors. They like them well enough, but they see them more as a necessity to have their vision realized than an end in themselves. Mike was not like that. The idea of not enjoying actors—I mean, Woody Allen, for one—and this was amazing when you consider all of the people who have been cast in his movies—Woody Allen has said publicly in his memoir that he could not get out of audition rooms fast enough and never had anything to say to actors and just wanted as little contact with them, including while making the movie, as possible. Nothing could be more alien to Mike Nichols than that way of thinking.
JOE FAB: I think we’ve got time for one more question from someone who’s tuned in. Fred Levy says, “Given all that he endured, what approach to his life grounded him?”
MARK HARRIS: Well, I think that what ultimately grounded him was his fourth marriage to Diane Sawyer, which lasted for about the last twenty-seven or twenty-eight years of his life. That relationship meant a great deal to him, and I think that by the time they married, he had conquered a lot of the demons of depression, among other things, that had bedeviled him earlier in his career. And by then, also his children were beginning to grow up. And I think Mike absolutely would have said that—even though he was not always around when they were growing up, which he felt great remorse about—his fourth marriage and his children and particularly his grandchildren, to whom he was absolutely devoted, grounded him. It took him a while, but he truly did become a family man.
JOE FAB: As we wrap up, I think you were there, were you not, for the memorial service?
MARK HARRIS: Yes, I was.
JOE FAB: Take us into that room for a minute, would you?
MARK HARRIS: Yeah, it was in a lobby of a major office building in downtown Manhattan. And there were probably about I would say 250 people there, and it was—there were people from every aspect of Mike’s life: actors, playwrights, screenwriters, publishing people, fashion people, style people, food people, entertainment moguls. A collection of people that really had nothing in common, who had no business all being in the same room, except for this one person that they had in common. The only way I can describe it to you is it was the kind of thing where celebrities spent all their time staring because there were so many—like everybody in that room was kind of dazzled by everybody in that room. It was a year after Mike died, and it was this really joyous kind of celebration of his life. And I do remember a number of people, as it was breaking up and people were leaving, saying, “I don’t think there will ever be again this collection of people in this room.” Because the kind of celebrity and the kind of reach that Mike Nichols had doesn’t really exist anymore. People are more siloed. You can be a celebrity in a particular area, but Mike was a celebrity who seemed to transcend many different categories of fame and also lasted more than fifty years in the spotlight. So he really was unique.
JOE FAB: And the way you write about it, it seems like they were all there because they really loved him.
MARK HARRIS: I think it’s really true. I mean, there were a lot of tears shed at that memorial. This wasn’t because the grief was fresh. I mean, this was a year later. But he really did have a very special place in the lives of so many people. I mean, to see sort of Tom Stoppard and Paul Simon and Julia Roberts and Whoopi Goldberg all get up and express how personal their connection had been was truly extraordinary.
JOE FAB: Well, on that note, I want to say first to the Virginia Film Festival and the Virginia Festival of the Book how grateful I am to have been given this chance to talk with you, Mark. And now thanks to you as well for being here today. If we haven’t made you folks who were tuned in want to read this book, then I apologize. Go read it anyway, even if I failed to help that happen. And Mark, I’m going to start reading this one now. Pictures at a Revolution. I’ve heard so much about it.
MARK HARRIS: Well, I hope you enjoy it. And thanks again to everyone for listening and for your good questions, and I hope you enjoy the rest of the festivals.
JOE FAB: Mark and everybody, please stay well.