As much a portrait of a lost era as a biography of a major artist, Mark Harris’s 2021 book Mike Nichols: A Life will summon in Baby Boom and Gen X readers a distant nostalgia for a sophistication and glamour they may never have personally experienced but which, for many years, was held as the glittery gold standard of attainment in the creative industry during the 1960s, 70s, and 80s. His subject lived in – and by some measures presided over – a pre-internet monoculture administered from New York City and Los Angeles, to which no more than a hundred other smart and talented people contributed, while enjoying its fabulous perks and unparalleled privileges. Without intending to, perhaps, A Life describes how such a world as Nichols’s was made, and how it had to collapse.
Mike Nichols’s career credentials alone tell the history of a zeitgeist: a vulnerable Jewish boy who emigrated from Nazi Germany to New York in 1939, his star rose with the groundbreaking improv comedy he did with Elaine May in the early 1960s, then he directed Broadway hits like Barefoot In the Park (1963) and The Odd Couple (1965) before filming the classic movies Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf (1966) and The Graduate (1967), and later, the less popular but enduring Catch-22 (1970), Carnal Knowledge (1971), Silkwood (1983), Working Girl (1988), and numerous others. Even some of Nichols’s flop films (e.g. The Day of the Dolphin, 1973), were countered by a steady run of theatrical credits, including his lucrative producer’s investment in the smash Annie (1977) and everything from Streamers (1976) to Spamalot (2005). Names of colleagues, partners, and acquaintances blow out of Harris’s bio like a confetti cannon of Twentieth Century glitterati: Jackie. Liz. Cher. Whoopi. Sontag. Steinem. Sondheim. Feiffer. Hoffman (Dustin and Philip Seymour). Beatty. Nicholson. Arkin. Simon (Neil and Paul). Stoppard. Pinter. Avedon. Matthau. Redford. Close. Pacino. Streep. Put them all on a plane with Nichols and crash it, and several decades of global public consciousness would look a lot different.
In contrast to the arresting visuals of Stanley Kubrick, the operatic scales of Francis Ford Coppola, or the ensemble dynamics of Robert Altman, Nichols’s directorial specialty was as a kind of prima donna whisperer, coaxing sensitive performances from temperamental and self-involved actors: there are many quotes in A Life from well- and lesser-known thespians gushing how they “adored” him for helping them in “their journey” to find “the truth” of their character or scene, blah blah blah. Younger filmmakers like Scorcese, Spielberg and DePalma were inspired by his success but pursued their visions beyond the intimate settings where Nichols made his mark. Perhaps the auteur of the Upper East Side, Woody Allen, was his closest comparison, although Allen is the rare New York celebrity who is barely mentioned here. Yet Mike Nichols’s larger legacy may not have lain in his body of stage or screen work at all.
As a near-personification of the postwar bicoastal American entertainment elite, Nichols was not quite the epitome of radical chic caricatured by Tom Wolfe in his 1970 report, “That Party at Lenny’s” (although the director was, unsurprisingly, a friend of the eponymous composer Bernstein), but he still stood at the center of a community that has since been criticized for its combination of rarified social insularity and outsized cultural influence. Parts of A Life read like a field guide to the chattering classes. When not making movies and plays seen by millions, Nichols collected fine art and a stable of horses, while casually jetting from New York to London or Hollywood to sign or back out of further million-dollar showbiz deals with his A-list friends and developing a drug habit that, Harris reveals, even spiraled into an addiction to crack cocaine. Reformed, Nichols married his fourth wife, newscaster Diane Sawyer, in 1988, an early pairing of what would become a familiar and not always complimentary image: the media power couple. His and his peers’ wealth and fame were earned through genuine taste, wit, and devotion to their craft, to be sure, but they were commanding attention and envy disproportionate to their real value over time, as the globalization of money and information gradually rendered the stylish Manhattan-bred sensibilities of Carnal Knowledge or Angels In America less relevant, and less palatable, than they originally seemed. Still, though other individuals’ stories might also encompass the personalities, times, and places charted in Mark Harris’s fascinating book – charted in all their ego, extravagance, and exclusivity – Mike Nichols’s probably encompasses the most.