Mark Harris: ‘Mike Nichols: A Life’

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Author, Mike Harris. Photo by David A. Harris

This week on The Treatment, Elvis welcomes writer Mark Harris back to the program. Harris’ newest book is “Mike Nichols: A Life” about the Academy Award winning director. Harris’ other books include “Pictures at a Revolution: Five Movies and the Birth of the New Hollywood” and “Five Came Back.” Harris tells The Treatment that Nichols’ dual outsider status, both as an immigrant and because of a condition that meant he would never grow hair, deeply informed who he became. Harris discusses the hostility that ran throughout Nichols’ work, and he talks about how Nichols’ early career as part of the comedy duo with Elaine May had a tremendous influence on his directing.

The following interview has been abbreviated and edited for clarity.

KCRW: Welcome to The Treatment, the home edition. One of the pleasures of doing this show for as long as I have, and it's 25 years now, is that we get to revisit with certain guests who have become among my favorites. One of them is Mark Harris, author of “Pictures at a Revolution” and “Five Came Back,” and his newest book is "Mike Nichols: A Life." The previous two books gave you a chance to write about all the events that conflated into a moment, be it the documentaries filmmakers made about World War II, or that year, 1967, that changed Hollywood. In this case, you’re actually writing about a man who became a moment. 

Mark Harris: I don't think I anticipated quite how different working on this book would be from my first two. On the first two, I really felt a little bit like an orchestra conductor, in a way. I had six or eight major characters to play with in each book and a bunch of different plot lines to interweave so that when one petered out for the moment, another could come in. That was a structural challenge, but it was also really a luxury. And with a biography, I felt more like a medium in a way, like the events of Mike Nichols' life for the 83 years it lasted, were going to be what determined the shape of this book, and the rhythm of it would be mine to create. 

KCRW: Something you get at that I think no one who's ever written about him has is that he was this fascinating combination of neediness and arrogance, and often in this kind of numbing alternation. 

Harris: I don't think that those two things are unrelated at all. One of the things that I write about is that, as people now know, Mike had a vaccination when he was four that made him lose his ability to grow hair for the rest of his life, and he was an immigrant. He came from Berlin as a child. So when you start out that way, a kind of double outsider, an immigrant, someone who doesn't speak the language, someone who looks different than other kids, in an era when bullying was even more pervasive than it is now, of course, you are going to be needy. The first thing you're going to need is human companionship and a feeling of being normal, both of which seem really hard to get. And in some ways, you're going to be arrogant, because you have to create some kind of tough, invulnerable persona in order to survive. So the Mike that Mike had to put on every day from childhood, in order to get through a day, cannot be completely disconnected from either his need, or the Mike that Mike was as an adult.

KCRW: Yes, I can't think of any other case in modern culture where somebody literally had to get into costume to leave the house to become the person we knew him as.

Harris: I really tried to resist what I've been calling rosebud, the single childhood psychological thing that explains everything. But it's really, really hard not to think about that with Mike Nichols who himself told George Segal, it takes me three hours every day to become Mike Nichols. 

There's this episode early in the book where he goes to college and he becomes both very exhilarated and then very depressed, which is not necessarily an uncommon experience for kids who go off to college. But he starts sleeping 16 or 18 hours a day, and he talks about how exhausting what he called the sheer effort to be a person for that many hours of the day was, and with Mike, you really understand him because he had to compose himself into a person, this quote-unquote, Mike Nichols person every day, and what does that mean? Also, what does it mean that you think you're not a person unless you take the time to compose yourself like that? It's a pretty extraordinary way to begin your life.

KCRW: You have a real interest in American reinvention that comes through in all these biographies and histories. 

Harris: I do. I think Mike's story is really a classic American 20th century life, including the fact that it doesn't begin in America and it doesn't begin with a boy named Mike Nichols. It begins with a boy named Igor Peschkowsky. What is more American than that story? The journey from Berlin to New York to Chicago to Hollywood and the journey from Igor Peschkowsky to Mike Nichols.

KCRW: You're also interested in that outsider's perspective. I think about Norman Jewison, "In The Heat of the Night," or John Ford, in "Five Came Back:" this idea of somebody who's not an American, whose point of view becomes thought of as being very American.

Harris: Oh, yeah. I think that we, in so many ways, get at least our cultural view of what America is, or we've gotten our view of what America is over the decades from people who are either outsiders or pariahs, people who have been treated as marginal. The view of America that they're going to come up with is much more interesting than the view of America from whatever the purported center of America is. I mean, I would rather understand New York City through the eyes of James Baldwin, than through the eyes of the white advertising guy that James Baldwin walked by on the sidewalk.

KCRW: You and me both. Did you have a clear picture in the front of your mind of what you wanted the book to be as you started to work on it?

Harris: I don't think I had a clear picture of what I wanted the book to be, but I had a picture of what I thought the book would be, which turned out to be about, I would say, one-third correct, which, for me, is not bad.  I thought that what I was doing, was picking a fairly unique American artist, unique because he not only had this 50-year directing career in movies and a 50-year directing career in theater simultaneously, which in itself is unusual, but had preceded both of those careers with a really important shorter career as a performing artist and a comedian. I knew that, and I knew also that he had had a rough start in life, although I didn't quite know how rough. 

One of the things that I knew I was really interested in was the strange rhythm of his directing career because Mike Nichols was someone who came out of the gate with not just a success, but about six successes in a row. Four straight hits on stage that then led to "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" followed immediately by "The Graduate." But then, for the rest of his career, the rhythm of his career took on a much more typical up and down: success followed by big failure followed by small success, followed by rebuilding followed by another success followed by another failure. How do you go from being a kind of Midas touch wunderkind, to having a more normal career and facing failure and sustaining yourself through 50 more years of work?

"Mike Nichols: A Life" by Mark Harris. Cover courtesy of Penguin Press.

KCRW: I keep flashing back on that anecdote that you relate in both this book and in "Pictures at a Revolution," the exchange that Robert Surtees has with one of his cameramen, when they're working together: basically this will be over soon. And Nichols being so disconnected to the kind of turmoil that he caused, that he had no idea anybody, especially somebody, as he put it, he revered, felt that way about him.

Harris: That's really true. I think if Mike were to tell his own story, which is something that he did anecdotally, but resisted doing in the form of a book, for him, his life was really a journey from being a prick, which is what he called himself over and over again, to being a better person. He was not unaware of his darker side and his rougher side.

 Pretty much the worst stories that I heard about Mike came from Mike. He knew that when he felt like his back was against the wall, or when he was frustrated, he could be nasty. And there were certain things that he didn't tolerate. He was very, very tolerant of human frailty, and he was tolerant of an actor who was failing, and he was tolerant of actors who struggled with alcoholism or substance abuse. He was not tolerant of nastiness, or laziness or incompetence, as he interpreted those things. When he was encountered with any of that, that's when the dark Mike, the scary Mike, some people called it, could have come out.

KCRW: One of the things I was thinking about, and it really is reflected in this book is that almost all of his work, and specifically his best work, is about hostility.

Harris: That is interesting. It's certainly a theme that you can find in a lot of his work and honestly, in a lot of his stage work, too. I mean, when Mike was asked what he thought the connective thread of his work was, he said, I don't think there really is one much more than a lot of it is about a man or a woman and a lot of it is centered on a bed. But that is not unconnected to hostility. If you look at the theme of sexual competitiveness, for instance, which certainly has a big element of hostility to it, you can find that in "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf" and in "Carnal Knowledge" and in "Closer" and in "The Real Thing," which he directed on Broadway. 

Mike liked exploring this kind of dark, nasty, rough and tumble particularly among men, and he could direct warmer, funnier, or more gentle or exploratory work too, but even in something as seemingly benign as a play like "The Gin Game,” for instance, that is about two old people who are playing gin rummy in a retirement home as if their lives depended on it. He loved to explore how something small: a dinner party or a night out or a card game could turn into something very high stakes and contentious and sharp edged.

KCRW: One of the reasons I always thought he never wanted to write a book is that he couldn't really shape it the way he wanted to, but he could shape his experience with telling you about what he was doing. 

Harris: Yeah, Mike did not see himself as a writer at all and didn't want to be a writer. I think it's one reason that he really, really respected writers. He had great relationships with writers from Stoppard to Pinter to Neil Simon to Nora Ephron. He really liked working with writers because they could do something that he couldn't. Even in his partnership with Elaine May, where they were creating sketches together, in some ways, he saw her as the writer. He said she had this endless ability to invent. He saw himself as the shaper, the guy who would know when it was time to move from one beat of a scene to the next, and who had a really good sense of when he was losing the audience and when the audience was with them. That, in a way, is part of the skill of directing. 

When I started the book, I didn't realize at all when I started researching it, or when I went into it, how deeply connected to his directing career all of the work he did with Elaine May was. I kind of viewed it as: how interesting that he did something completely different before he started directing. The more I learned, especially from Elaine May, about what those sketches were and how they were developed, the more I realized that everything that Mike understood about directing, and everything that he came to understand about acting happened in those years when he was working with Elaine May.

KCRW: We really get to see him reflected in his relationships with women. As you mentioned, there's Elaine May, but there's also Meryl Streep. Meryl Streep watchers can see her doing almost a letter perfect impersonation of Mike Nichols in "The Devil Wears Prada," right down to the hairpiece and the way she uses pauses as a judgement.

Harris: Right, and Mike was not a yeller. Even at his most brutal, it was delivered at a completely level sort of room temperature, tone, which, of course, is infinitely more frightening and more effective than blowing your top and screaming at someone.

David Hyde Pierce told a really funny story that I put in the book about the Chicago tryout for "Spamalot,"  where someone screwed up the placement of a microphone, and Mike called them out on stage and said, "What is your name?" And that's all he said. David Hyde Pierce said, you know, at that moment, we knew not only would he not be seen in the theater again, but that he might not be seen again. 

KCRW: Whenever he was doing something trying to chase money, he was always at his worst. I mean, be it working with Garry Shandling or "Day of The Dolphin," you could really see that he couldn't actually fake it. Even though he faked himself to some extent, he couldn't fake it when it came to the work, could he?

Harris: Well, I will say I do not believe that he faked himself. I think inventing yourself is not the same thing as putting out a false front. He became who he had to become to survive, which I think is different than just creating an artificial self that's at odds with your real self. But yeah, Mike had plenty of failures. And I write about them pretty extensively.

One thing that strikes me about him is he is amazingly undefensive about his failures. To the end of his career, if Mike either did something that flopped or did something for the wrong reasons that flopped, he was not timid about examining his own motives and saying, Okay, why did I do that? What was my mistake here? Why did I make such a bad call? And how can I avoid doing that? Again, he did that into his late 70s, when, after a Broadway play that had gone really badly and after heart surgery, he recovered by sitting down with a legal pad and saying to himself, OK, let me list the things that I did wrong on this last production. And to me, that's incredibly moving: that that deep into your career, you would want to continue teaching yourself what your mistakes were so that you wouldn't make them again.

KCRW: One of my favorite sections of the book was "The Designated Mourner," which you write so well about, and also because it's one of the rare instances of a Mike Nichols performance that is still, if you search for it, not readily available, but available. When I met him, I told him, what I was so impressed by the performance was that every gesture was scaled to the camera. He had the kind of precision that old school comedians like Oliver Hardy had, where everything was worked out. He knew exactly what he wanted. 

Harris: Yeah, Mike was a very, very good actor. He didn't act very much, but people who saw his George in "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" on stage in 1979 or 1980, said it was fantastic and frightening, which I can certainly believe. People who saw "The Designated Mourner" on stage in London, which is where he did it, say that he had this almost unnerving ability to make you feel that he was making it up as he went along. And of course, that is how he started: as an actor, he started as someone who was making it up as he went along. 

I think when you're that successful, when you've had that long a career, everything you do, in some ways publicly to strangers, is performative. Mike knew in certainly the last years of his life, that he was going to be viewed as a legend and that people were going to hang on his every word and that when a young writer or a young director met him, it was going to be a very big deal. And he knew every possible way to use that, to put people at ease, to put people on their toes, to put people where he wanted them to be in relation to him. Usually, when I saw him use it, it was very generous.

I went to dinner parties at Mike's house when he first was working with Tony [Kushner], and we were just getting to know him. I was absolutely the least famous person at the table. And he knew exactly what I was feeling and knew exactly how to make me exhale a little bit and relax. I don't want to understate that he could be really extraordinarily generous on a human to human level about stuff like that. He read people really carefully. He knew where their vulnerabilities were, and he knew how to help them.



Rebecca Mooney