Review: Mark Harris, Mike Nichols: A Life. New York: Penguin, 2021.

Mark Harris’ fine biography of Mike Nichols, upon publication, was getting more media attention than the Trump impeachment hearings – almost. Harris comes well prepared to deliver a detailed, precise, well-formed and innovative study. He does not scrimp on the detail, which can be, I confess, rather exhausting. Indeed as exhausting as the indefatigable Nichols was in his tastes, passions, addictions, liaisons and genius. 

Born to a beautiful mother, and physician father, he was the grandson of Gustav Landauer, the radical socialist thinker infamously murdered by an early edition of the Nazi movement, the Freikorps. A severe childhood illness left him hairless and his subsequent array of wigs and make-up became an annoying fixed feature all his life, and the cause of immense embarrassment especially in childhood. Such sensitivities rarely fade away. George C. Scott and Nichols had a long and close work history until Scott sent Nichols a nasty note referring to his wig. They never worked together again.

Nichols and a brother fled Berlin with their parents in the late 1930s for the United States. He survived his parent’s difficult marriage and his father’s early death, which left the family penniless and his mother grimly desperate to keep themselves housed and fed. This entire struggle transpired in the New York he would later come to dominate as a theatrical wunder-worker, and legendary filmmaker, who in the process became a multi-millionaire, that is, a full citizen of Manhattan. The key artistic inspirational moment occurred when he attended Elia Kazan’s productions of A Streetcar Named Desire and Death of a Salesman. Nichols was staggered by Marlon Brando’s performance in the former, and remarked until the end of his life that he had never seen a completely realistic play done with such lyrical force, a searing blend of the real and the poetic. His other, cinematic, inspiration came through repeated views and study of George Stevens’ film A Place in the Sun

Aimless after an indifferent high school career, he applied to the University of Chicago and to his amazement was accepted. There he meets Susan Sontag, immerses himself in the rich Bohemian cum academic culture, and meets the no less legendary (at least within the trade) Paul Sills, who is to inspire him, mentor him, and create a theatrical launch pad for his earliest attempts at performing. His was not an overnight success, however, and he labors long and unsuccessfully as an actor until, following his meeting with Elaine May, who was dating Sills at the time, he begins to form a creative comic-satiric relationship that will change the American theater and make them stars and even moderately wealthy to boot. 

Nichols spends some early years studying with Lee Strasberg in New York and comes to realize that all the observational acumen he picked up as Method protocol would provide him with the directorial tools he would require for what became a remarkable cinematic career. The Nichols and May stage success was not instantaneous but despite their nagging doubts that any of it would last, their successes endure and lead Nichols, who had attempted a solo acting career that foundered, to a directorial job which amazes him: “suddenly I knew exactly what I should do.” Everyone should be so lucky.

All the years of intense conversation around a single cup of cafeteria coffee and endless cigarettes somehow culminated in a directorial career that would make him world-renowned. His first two films, Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf and The Graduate were blockbusters. The latter makes him bankable for decades, and is still the third highest grossing film of all time. He will grow weary in later life of hearing The Graduate spoken of reverently by younger studio execs anxious to duplicate that success.

This is a book about phenomenal success: New York penthouses, Arabian horse farms and multimillion dollar film deals.  An actor’s ego’s harnessed to Nichol’s will, and drugs and alcohol addictions, Nichols included, run through this saga like a raging river of curdled fun. Nichols proves a shrewd cultivator of his own career, but there are some failures. Catch-22, Joseph Heller’s masterful satire of World War Two, proves a dud, despite the millions expended and Orson Welles’ negative critique delivered on set. Not all of the many stage productions click either, but most do and after decades in the Biz he is lionized, loved, fondled, worshipped and an icon.

Nichols acquires a lavish Connecticut estate, builds editing room additions to his homes, stages Arabian horse shows with the skill of a master impresario, and on his vaunted signature projects spiral up and bloom. There are four marriages, the last one to TV presenter Diane Sawyer, a former beauty queen who arguably is better known, with a nightly TV show, than Nichols. She is widely touted as his greatest, and final love.

At some point, midcareer, he becomes neurotically convinced that he has no money, sells a significant painting collection at a loss, and spends nighttime hours calling friends worldwide, asking them to care for the children he will soon be too poor to support. Diagnosed by some drug-savvy friends, he halts the addling medication and within a month returns to sanity. 

Harris is good at tracing the sometimes crazed dance at the center of big-time directorial survival; the film sets fraught with ambition and careerist dreams; the producers bent on extracting every penny from the smallest sources; the tales of alcoholism that sink and then destroy not just careers but those depending on the suddenly unemployable breadwinner, a pariah. There is much fascinating detail here. Nichols himself had a phenomenal eye for the moment-to-moment details that made a performance, a play, a film memorable. It was a role he had perfected with May; she with her endless creative drive which he would edit as they shaped their classic routines. 

He had more than a passing attraction for crack and he could speak long and well of what it had cost him. 

There are a series of high-powered friends: Jackie Onassis Kennedy, Liz Taylor and Richard Burton, Richard Avedon (who he claimed had taught him how to be rich), Meryl Streep, Sontag of course, Jack Nicholson. The list goes on and on and on. 

The wit he had honed at the restaurant tables and bars of the U of C would serve him all his life.  He was never at a loss for an anecdote, a winning bit of self deprecation, a one line summation that would leave the table gasping for air, and he could laugh uncontrollably and cry at will. While at U of C he had worked at WFMT, where he developed a program, The Midnight Special, which is still on the air in the format he devised.

Nichols was as great a performer of his own life as he was at shaping the scripts and even the careers of his companies. He loved and appreciated actors and they loved him, though he wasn’t always Mr. Cuddles and I know of some cruel stories in which he figures that did not make the book. My own wish is that more had been made of his relationship with Paul Sills, who seems to me his polar opposite in career and direction, and yet they remained great friends, and formed an acting school along with a Method director in New York. Nichols could also be a generous friend. He was a life long smoker, did his share of drugs at a time when they were cheap and plentiful, and omnipresent.

There is a short documentary that May directed about Nichols on the Masterpiece Theater series. It’s built around a headshot of Nichols. He is seated. He talks wonderfully about his life. He and May, instantly famous, had a brief falling out, and then worked together on and off for the rest of their lives. Neil Simon, another pal, said he was “the smartest man I ever met.”  My wish was that he had, like Dr. Johnson, found his Boswell and Harris is likely the closest we’ll ever get to that. No Boswell could have caught him

  . . . he was moving too fast.

Warren Leming is a writer/critic and documentary filmmaker who divides his time between Berlin, Chicago, and rural Indiana.


Latest Issue

2024: Vol. 23, No. 1

Latest Issue

2024: Vol. 23, No. 1

By Anthony DiMaggio: The War on Anti-Racism: The Mainstreaming of Social Movements, and the Emerging Backlash

By Joy James: The Algorithm of AntiRacism

By Lawrence Davidson: Israel’s Road to Apartheid and the Fate of International Law

By James Block: The Road Not (Yet) Taken II: From Culture Wars to a New History

By Russell Jacoby: High Court of Literary Correctness

By Benjamin Shepard: From Pandemic to Solidarity, Mutual Aid from Plague Days to Autonomous Zones

By Charles Thorpe: Toward Species Being

By Kurt Jacobsen: Stockholm Syndrome and The Trial of the Chicago 7

By Bill Nevins: Poetry Review Column

By Geoffrey Kurtz: Review Essay: J. Toby Reiner, Michael Walzer (Polity Press, 2020); Michael Walzer and Astrid von Busekist, Justice is Steady Work: A Conversation on Political Theory (Polity Press, 2020)

By Robin Melville: Review Essay: Leo Panitch & Colin Leys, Searching for Socialism: The Project of the Labour New Left from Benn to Corbyn (London: Verso: 2020)

By Benjamin Shepard: Review: Christophe Broqua, Action = Vie: A History of AIDS Activism and Gay Politics in France. (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2020).

By Aidan J. Beatty: Review: Tanya Lavin, Culture Warlords: My Journey into the Dark Web of White Supremacy. New York: Hatchette Books, 2020)

By Jeremy F. Walton: Patricia Morris, Fetishism, Psychoanalysis, Anthropology (London: Author’s Collective Press, 2020).

By Warren Leming: Review: Mark Harris, Mike Nichols: A Life. New York: Penguin, 2021.

By Sarah Kamal: Review: Eben Kirksey, The Mutant Project: Inside the Global Race to Genetically Modify Humans. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2020.