Direction and Misdirection: An Appreciation of Mike Nichols, 1931–2014

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Photo: John Lamparski/Getty

If Mike Nichols ever produced anything as banal as a résumé, it would have looked highly suspicious, the humblebrag of a con man. He did too many things, they were too far-flung, and he was too successful at all of them. There was the career in sketch comedy with Elaine May, circa 1958 to 1962; they had three Top 40 albums and a Broadway hit and then broke up. Next came the switch to stage directing, which netted nine Tonys, from 1964 (Barefoot in the Park) to 2012 (Death of a Salesman). When he defected to Hollywood in 1966, it was cover-of-Newsweek news; soon he owned a local subspeciality, the superstar prestige pic, puppeteering everyone from Elizabeth Taylor to Cher to (inevitably) Meryl into Oscar-bait performances. Was he also a classical-radio DJ? Yes. A Broadway producer? Yes. (He made a fortune on Annie.) An amateur wigmaster? Certainly — he lost all his hair in a freak childhood reaction to a whooping-cough vaccine. It goes without saying that he was an escape artist, and not just from the Nazis in 1938. He had two countries, three names, four wives, innumerable lives. Well, not quite innumerable; he died yesterday at 83. Or let’s say he reinvented himself again.

I barely knew him, except to the extent he wanted to be known: from a certain angle at a certain moment. This was for a profile I was writing (“When in Doubt, Seduce”) while he was directing Salesman, about which he spoke with deep knowledge and almost violent passion. “Today’s actors know how to listen,” he said, comparing Linda Emond, Andrew Garfield, and especially Philip Seymour Hoffman, with whom he’d also made Charlie Wilson’s War, to the early film stars he’d studied and the later ones he’d created. “This cast is listening like fucking hawks!” he exclaimed. “Do hawks have good ears? No? Then like fucking bats. They are always playing with others, even if they’re delivering a great aria. They are so well trained and, unless it kills them first, their training means they can do anything.”

About everything else, though, he was more like a roastmaster hondling his own roast. Always lightly, he tore himself down: the neophyte blustering on his first film sets, the madman trapped in a loop of Halcion-induced psychosis. When those tales played out, he turned his charm beam toward the horizon. “Where are you from?” he asked, almost daring me to name a place about which he could not retrieve a useful anecdote. I made it too easy with Philadelphia: “I’m so sorry,” he instantly responded. “What a horrible city for theater tryouts. Worse than New Haven. When we played there I used to tell the local audience, ‘I’d like to thank you for coming all the way to Philadelphia to see us.’” There were hours of this, handed to me, and to everyone intersecting his ecliptic, like tips. And though it was a lovely way to pass an interview, it all seemed to evaporate as soon as he popped into his limo and headed home to Diane Sawyer. He drew himself in disappearing ink.

Perhaps he was practicing — perhaps he had always been practicing — for the big disappearance. He was already 80 then, and seemed casually valedictory. He said that people get happier, saner, as they get older, or at least he had. He pointed to Stephen Sondheim as another example, explaining that “there’s nothing like moving from the fringe to the center to cheer you up.” On the other hand, he did not dismiss my musical-theater counterexample, Irving Berlin. “Ah yes, well, he found a good solution, didn’t he? Living up there on the top floor for ten years doing heroin. That’s what I plan to do.” He said he’d begun, in a way, already; or it had begun despite him. “Being a classical DJ for years, I knew every recording of every piece, and sadly, being an expert took some edge off it for me. Recently I’ve lost music: I mean, I don’t listen. I prefer silence.”

So expertise was an imperfect anesthetic to Nichols: If it dulled the pain of living — he’d had a hideous youth — it eventually dulled itself. Scott Rudin, who produced the revival of Salesman, admired that dichotomy in him. “You could look at that and say this is someone who has a remarkable understanding of the culture or someone who is on the run from himself. Or both. Together they add up to who he is.” It’s certainly how he offered himself, though I’m not sure it wasn’t a willed complication, as if he were afraid that beneath the wig and the wit there was nothing much of interest. The comfort he sought to provide to those around him (he kept feeding me doughnuts) only partly deflected attention from an existential discomfort that even the mellowing of maturity and the happiness of a great autumnal love could not quite extinguish. Beneath his adopted American macho (fuck in all its forms was his favorite word) an undertow of European tragedy kept lapping. Out of these he fashioned a series of contradictions. Has any aesthete ever worn his carnation so invisibly? Has any comic player ever struggled to mask a darker vision? There was thus about Nichols a resignedness to difficulty, but also to pleasantness. They were both unavoidable.

No surprise he shrugged a lot. In his life, as in the works he most memorably directed, he did not attempt to explain, let alone solve, the big mysteries. He just wanted to embody them. (He was fantastic with actors’ bodies.) Or make them into screwy little jokes. When we got talking about faith — by now the dumplings from Vanessa’s Dumpling House had shown up — he gracefully offered koan after koan, as if with chopsticks. “Gandhi said: ‘I used to think that God is love, and now I think that love is God,’” went one of them. “I hope that helps you.” He smiled, as if to acknowledge that it would not.