Rajendra Roy, MoMA’s Celeste Bartos Chief Curator of Film, spoke with author Mark Harris about Harris’s recent biography Mike Nichols: A Life. You can watch the interview above, or read a transcript of their conversation below. Their discussion takes place on the occasion of MoMA’s film series Mike Nichols: Bookends, streaming February 25 to March 7 on Virtual Cinema, and available exclusively to MoMA members. Not a member? Join today to start watching.
Rajendra Roy: I thought we could start with improvisation. [Mike Nichols] would say, “Well, it’s just making it up as you go along.” But as you point out in the book, it really is also about forging a path when none exists. Maybe you could just talk a little bit about that. You really make it clear how formative his ability to navigate improvised situations and literal improvisation on stage, and how you blended that with crafting your story. How much did you have in mind as you set out and how much did you make up as you went along?
Mark Harris: I think improvisation is an incredibly important part of Mike’s story. There is this chain that goes from Mike, as a young immigrant kid who has no hair, who doesn’t look or sound like other kids, doing his first observation/improvisation just trying to see how other kids behave and pick up things from them and create a persona as a means of surviving in the world, to Mike improvising on stage and becoming part of this famous comedy team with Elaine May, and specifically creating a kind of comedy that was rooted in very particular observation and specificity.
Within that improvisation, there’s a lot of pre-planning and a lot of realizing how important it is that performances have touch points in it for the audience that, as Mike used to say, “Make you and the audience feel, ‘Oh, I know that person. I am that person.’” And then that connects to his whole approach to actors as a director, helping them find those moments. And the relationship that Mike develops to improvisation, once he’s directing, I think is really interesting. He wasn’t the kind of director who said, Well, let’s just roll film and see what happens.” He did that on very specific occasions, including the last shot of The Graduate with Benjamin and Elaine in the back of the bus. But even for something like The Birdcage, for instance, where he’s working with Robin Williams, Hank Azaria, and Nathan Lane, his attitude was, “Let’s do it all in rehearsal. Go wherever you want. I will probably not be able to control my laughter, but do anything you want. Then let’s pick the best of it, talk about what works and what doesn’t, and put it in the script. Because, when we film—I don’t want you improvising.” He was very aware of when it was a good thing to be freewheeling and when it could actually get in the way.
I want to flip it back to your process in writing the book and how much you had laid out for you until you got to that scripted phase that you described in The Birdcage. How did you go from gathering all this to laying out an outline of how you thought the narrative would roll out?
I spent about three-and-a-half years on research before I started writing. The writing itself was about a year. And I would say that, by the time I started to write, I knew pretty well what shape I wanted it to take. That shape was very different than what I might’ve imagined it would’ve been when I started the research. I knew that I wanted to do a straightforward chronological biography, because the only way I could make sense of Mike Nichols’s life and career and choices was to understand the order that they happened in. You know, I don’t think that everything is determined by the thing that’s just before it, but I think a lot is determined by, let’s say, you pick project B because you’re coming off project A, or you’re distracted by project C, so you don’t think about what’s going wrong with project D. I think you have to tell someone’s story, or, at least, I had to tell Mike’s story in order for it to be legible to people and for me to understand it.
Another true Mikeism is this idea of versions of the story. Every chapter I’m reading, I like to sit with it and try and remember the version of the story that Mike told me about that. I am so curious how you, in all your interviews, all your research, began to filter the versions of the stories. What was the most adapted story that you came across, the story that you heard the most versions of?
Well, you’re so right. There are eight or 10 different versions of some of his most famous stories. On the first page of the book, I deliberately tell a story that Mike liked to tell about himself, and then immediately say, “This was a story, and he told different versions of it. And here’s another version he told.” I wanted readers to know from the beginning that this was a thing he did. In terms of strategies for sort of sorting them through, you have to admit that you don’t know. That’s a legitimate thing to do. It’s certainly more legitimate than just flatly deciding that you found the true one because usually it happens to be the one you like the best.
There are certain rules that I found useful. One is that the version of the story that was told closest to the time the story happened is usually truer than the version that was told on a talk show 40 years later. A version of the story that he told a close friend is probably truer than a version of the story that he told a journalist. I also looked for versions that can be corroborated by someone else who was in the room.
In terms of the story that’s most impossible to find the truest version of, I think it has to be the way he met Elaine May, which was so shrouded in myth and mystery that even Mike, at one point, said, “I met Elaine several different ways.” I had the good fortune to talk to Elaine May, and she gave me her clearest memory of how it unfolded. I tried to present an amalgam of things that felt to me like they added up to the most credible and most honest version of any story involving Mike.
My favorite story that there are versions of is when Marilyn [Monroe] sang “Happy birthday, Mr. President.” Mike told me he was standing directly behind her as she went on stage to sing, and that her dress had split down the back and he could see her ass through the crack in her dress.
The split dress is something I did not put in the book just because I’m always really wary of the things that feel too perfect, but the standing right behind her is very credible. Mike and Elaine were definitely there for the big birthday celebration at Madison Square Garden.
My next topic is humiliation, which I think was so formative to Mike, especially in his early years, when he felt so different because of his hair loss and because he was an immigrant. Can you talk a little bit about how formative that was and how you ground his narrative in that?
Mike’s brother said that Mike’s hair loss, which happened at four, was the defining event of his childhood. Especially when you consider that his father, when he was a little boy, didn’t allow him to wear any kind of hairpiece, he became the target of immense cruelty and became quite isolated at times. Although, once he got to high school, you know, and was allowed to wear a toupee, he had friends and he had a much more normal existence. In Mike’s childhood, we see all the possible ways that you can handle something like that. He becomes depressed, he spends a lot of time by himself, including escaping into his neighborhood movie theater, where he also goes to escape his fighting parents. He becomes defensive. He becomes really expert, even as a teenager, at crafting a persona that will allow him to present a kind of picture of invulnerability and impermeability to the world. How you cope with failure as a public failure is a fascinating question for any artist and a defining thing about them.
When I was working on this book, I found myself really obsessed with his third movie, Catch-22. I realized that the reason I was becoming obsessed with it is it was Mike’s first failure, a big, expensive, noisy studio failure that was not critically well received and lost a lot of money. At the time, this movie was just completely mowed over by MASH, and that was seen as Mike Nichols getting his comeuppance at last. How he reacted to that is so interesting to me. He’s very dejected when he sees MASH, a few months before Catch-22 opens, but he’s not dejected because he thinks, “Oh, MASH is going to ruin the reception of my movie.” He’s dejected because MASH is the movie he wishes he had made. It’s a very non-defensive, non-paranoid experience of failure.
I don’t want to make you talk out of turn, but I know that you had an experience that I really wish I had had. Because of that 2009 retrospective, you got to talk to Mike very late in his career sort of straight through his filmography. You know probably better than anyone which were the very few movies that, even at that late point in his life, he wanted nothing to do with. I know, from my own conversations with Mike, that The Day of the Dolphin was a movie that he could never get anything more out of him about than an eye roll. He thought it was a complete miss.
I got to watch every single one of Mike Nichols’s movies alone in our big theater with Mike Nichols. That’s what he wanted to do because he had never had the experience of even being invited to consider something like this, so, he wanted to, as he put it, “Watch my old movies again.” He was such a cinephile—not in an elitist way, but he just really loved movies and was acknowledging, in a way, that his movies were now old movies and he wanted to watch them. But, you know, he was also Mike Nichols, so he wasn’t gonna do it with 400 people.
There were a few that he couldn’t even bring himself to watch again. The Day of the Dolphin was one. I remember when we watched Working Girl, which he hadn’t watched in a long time, and he just said of Melanie [Griffith], “My god she was fucking fantastic.” Some of his greatest collaborators were women at a time when, certainly amongst film directors, that was not only seen not as a priority, but maybe even a weakness.
In the ’80s, there’s this slight critical tone, not of disdain, but almost of disappointment, like, “Well, these movies are good. I guess he’s sort of given up on being, like, the serious director that he started out as being.” Of course, that period is when he works with Meryl Streep in Silkwood and Heartburn and Postcards from the Edge. That’s when he works with Melanie Griffith and Sigourney Weaver and Joan Cusack in Working Girl.
He was not just comfortable working with women, but interested in them. He liked them as collaborators. Meryl Streep lit this fuse in him when they worked together on Silkwood that made him feel that he wanted to direct her for the rest of his career. Starting with that incredibly fruitful eight or 10 years of performance collaboration with Elaine May, there’s no one else of Mike’s generation whose formative collaborative experience as an artist was with a woman, a woman who was not setting him up to be the star, who was at least his equal in terms of comedic genius and performance genius. Mike was very open to input from anyone, but I would say especially from women. It really is something that marks him as a unique director of his era, and it’s fascinating to me.
I did not realize until I started researching the book that that went with a certain kind of marginalization or downgrading of his reputation for the time, particularly around Heartburn. The male critical consensus was overwhelmingly, “Why is he bothering with this? What is this nonsense? When is he going to get back to making important movies?”
One of the really fascinating things that’s been pulled out of your book is Natalie Portman’s comment that he was the only male mentor she ever had who wasn’t creepy. I would have loved to have experienced Mike in this post–#MeToo revolution. I also miss all the political discussions. We all know how he felt about the Clintons, and I’m glad he didn’t have to live through Trump, but it also would’ve been interesting to have him with us in this era to analyze what we’ve been going through.
I think Mike would have really understood Trump and he would’ve said something surprising about him. I think he would’ve really understood the degree to which Trump was a self-manufactured exterior. But Mike was also widely interested in the world, not just movies, not just theater, but publishing, fashion, photography, politics, style. His take on anything was interesting.
We’re so grateful to you for giving him back to us now and for joining us here for this conversation. I can’t wait to dive into the next chapters and really encourage everybody to do so, and hopefully in tandem with revisiting his films.
Absolutely. I hope the book is a good viewing companion. Just dive in. I prefer that you start the book from the beginning, but a lot of people are just going straight to the movie that they care about, or the projects that they care about, and that’s fine too. You can dive in anywhere in his filmography too—you don’t have to start from the beginning. This lineup that you’ve created is a collection of great entry points.