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Theater Talk: 'That was funny. Now do it as you' - Mark Harris on 'Mike Nichols: A Life'


You might think journalist and film critic Mark Harris's new best selling biography Mike Nichols: A Life could be either pedantic or Hollywood tell-all fluff. You'll find it is neither as you get pulled along reading about a director who, while you were laughing, was changing the shape of stand-up, theater, and movies. Isolated and walled-off from bad experiences as an immigrant, ultimately comedienne Elaine May's style synched so perfectly (see links below) with Nichols' that many of his rougher edges would now become comedic gold.

Anthony highly recommends watching Nichols and May in "Mother and Son" (she telephones her son the rocket scientist) and "Teenagers" (all about a first date in his dad's car). As Mark Harris says during the conversation, with the internet it's possible to watch hours and hours of Mike Nichols material, whether it's sketches, movies, or even some plays.

Speaking of which, there's a delicious story which reveals a lot about Nichols when he was directing Walter Matthau in Neil Simon's THE ODD COUPLE. Nichols was always about believability, constantly trying to ground his actors by encouraging them to relate personally to the material ("That was funny. Now do it as you.") and to be doing recognizable activities on stage, so that the audience would relate to the actors. He hated "breaking the fourth wall" in which an actor tries to appeal directly to the audience and called that behavior "an expensive laugh" in that it tosses the audience out of the world that the actors have created and basically ruins the next ten minutes of the play while the audience waits to see if it will happen again. Nichols could not break Matthau of that bad habit.

Stage actors are often advised, in advance of their first movie role, that movies are nothing like the theater. There are usually no table reads, there's no workshop time, there won't be rehearsals, there is no effort to build the cast into a cohesive unit. Basically, you show up, come out of makeup, hit your mark, say your line, and get off the movie set. But that was not the Nichols way. He strongly believed in rehearsal, and, as a matter of fact, when he directed Liz Taylor in "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf" she said it was the first time she'd ever rehearsed and she loved it!

Want to know a little more? Read the blurb from the publisher, Penguin Press, New York, 2021:

"Mike Nichols burst onto the scene as a wunderkind: while still in his twenties, he was half of a hit improv duo with Elaine May that was the talk of the country.

Next he directed four consecutive hit plays, won back-to-back Tonys, ushered in a new era of Hollywood moviemaking with Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, and followed it with The Graduate, which won him an Oscar and became the third-highest-grossing movie ever. At thirty-five, he lived in a three-story Central Park West penthouse, drove a Rolls-Royce, collected Arabian horses, and counted Jacqueline Kennedy, Elizabeth Taylor, Leonard Bernstein, and Richard Avedon as friends.

Where he arrived is even more astonishing given where he had begun: born Igor Peschkowsky to a Jewish couple in Berlin in 1931, he was sent along with his younger brother to America on a ship in 1939. The young immigrant boy caught very few breaks. He was bullied and ostracized--an allergic reaction had rendered him permanently hairless--and his father died when he was just twelve, leaving his mother alone and overwhelmed.

The gulf between these two sets of facts explains a great deal about Nichols's transformation from lonely outsider to the center of more than one cultural universe--the acute powers of observation that first made him famous; the nourishment he drew from his creative partnerships, most enduringly with May; his unquenchable drive; his hunger for security and status; and the depressions and self-medications that brought him to terrible lows. It would take decades for him to come to grips with his demons. In an incomparable portrait that follows Nichols from Berlin to New York to Chicago to Hollywood, Mark Harris explores, with brilliantly vivid detail and insight, the life, work, struggle, and passion of an artist and man in constant motion. Among the 250 people Harris interviewed: Elaine May, Meryl Streep, Stephen Sondheim, Robert Redford, Glenn Close, Tom Hanks, Candice Bergen, Emma Thompson, Annette Bening, Natalie Portman, Julia Roberts, Lorne Michaels, and Gloria Steinem.

Mark Harris gives an intimate and evenhanded accounting of success and failure alike; the portrait is not always flattering, but its ultimate impact is to present the full story of one of the most richly interesting, complicated, and consequential figures the worlds of theater and motion pictures have ever seen. It is a triumph of the biographer's art." -Penguin Press dust jacket blurb for Mike Nichols: A Life.

Listen for Theater Talk, Friday morning at 6:45 and 8:45 during Morning Edition.
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