When writer and director Mike Nichols was young, he was allergic to a whooping cough vaccine. The result was a complete and lifelong inability to grow hair. One way to read Mark Harris’s crisp new biography, “Mike Nichols: A Life”, is as a tender comedy about a man and his wigs.
He got his first set (hair, eyebrows) before going to college. It was disappointing. Nicholas attended the University of Chicago, where Susan Sontague was also a student. One reason Harris did not, he writes, is that “he was thrown off his wig.”
Nichols moved to Manhattan to make it as a comedian. A friend said she would enter her small apartment and the “smell of acetone” – the wig-glue remover – “just hit you in the face.”
Nicholas found fame in his mid-20s. His improvisational comedy routine with Ellen May, which he met in Chicago, was fresh and irresistible. He moved his work to Broadway in 1960, where Nicholas met Richard Burton. Through Burton, he would get to know Elizabeth Taylor.
On the set of “Cleopatra”, Taylor asked the production’s hairstyle designer, “Do you do personal wigs? Because I have a dear friend, who is a comic in New York, and she has worn one of the worst wigs ever.” I’ve only ever seen one. “Before long, Nicholas’s taupeas were unmatched.
“It takes me three hours to become Mike Nichols every morning,” he told actor George Segal. He understood all this. He would explain how his son, Max, crawled onto the bed next to him, and looking at the back of his head, yelled, “Where is Daddy’s face?”
I have gone about hair for a very long time and it is lacking. But Bald grew up, Nicholas’ brother said, “the defining aspect of his childhood.”
Nicholas’ gift as a director was his ability to explore and lightly delve into the details that make up a character. If he had made a film of his life, the spectacular scenes would have been spectacular – satirical and melodious. He may have set a bathroom-mirror montage for the Beatles’ opening cover “Land Me Your Comb”.
His awkwardness made him attentive. He became a student of human behavior. When he finally got a chance to direct, it felt as if he was preparing to do so all his life.
Nicholas’s first two films were “Who Were Virginia Woolf Afraid?” And “Graduate” – the first avid, adventurous and adult, the second Zagatist-defining. He directed four hit plays at about the same moment. Oscar, Tony Awards and a landslide followed the money.
He acted as vengeance for his time with an outsider. He collected Arabian horses and Picasso and began a friendship with Jacqueline Kennedy, Leonard Bernstein and Richard Avedon. He was an arrogant farce, who Kenneth Clarke liked to call “Swamklog”, a way of moving through elite society, such as a barge made of silver and silk.
Michael Igor Peskowski (or Igor Michael, it is unclear) was born in Berlin in 1931. His father, a doctor, was a Russian Jew who changed the family’s name to Nicholas after the family moved to the United States in the late 1930s. The family had some money, and Nicholas’s father’s patients in New York included pianist Vladimir Horowitz. Nichols attended good schools in Manhattan, including Dalton.
He became a ubiquitous reader and film watcher at the University of Chicago. His intellect was withering away; People were terrified of him. May’s intelligence was even more devastating. They were made for each other. They were never really a romantic couple, Harris writes, although soon they would have slept together once or twice.
Harris is the author of the last two books, “Pictures on a Revolution: Five Films and the Birth of New Hollywood” And “Five Come Back: A Story of Hollywood and the Second World War.” He is also a longtime entertainment reporter with a gift for scene-setting.
When he takes you inside production, he is the best in “Mike Nichols: A Life”. His chapters on the making of three films in particular – “Graduate,” Silkwood “and” Angels in America “- are miraculous, nimble, intimate and funny. You think he can turn each one into a book.
Nicholas was an actor director. He was a charming man, distraught in his human sympathy. He tried to find what an actor needed and he provided. He could put a well buffered fingernail on a tick that wanted to be a talk. But he had a steely side.
He fired Gene Hackman over the course of a week on “The Graduate”. Hackman was playing the role of Mr. Robinson and it was not working, because at the age of 37 he seemed too young for the role.
Sacrificing someone early can be motivating for the rest of the cast, they learned. He fired Mandy Patinkin early in the filming of “Heartburn” and brought in Jack Nicholson to play the role of Meryl Streep’s loyal husband.
One of the reasons Nicholas’s film on Tony Cushner’s play “Angels in America” is so rich is that Harris, who is married to Cushner, had access to the playwright’s diary.
Nicholas gave his serious favor to projects like “Angels in America”. But he found it funny in everything he did. He knew instinctively that tragedy appeals mainly to emotions while comedy is pleasing to the mind.
Nicholas gave George C. Too many Macs, such as “The Day of the Day, Day of the Dolphin” with Scott, presided over expensive flops; “The Fortune” with Nicholson and Warren Beatty; And “Which planet are you from?” With Gary Shandling. Reading Harris’s writings about making these films is like watching Cook’s tension as a salvation.
Nichols’ Broadway flop included a production of “Waiting for Godot” with Steve Martin and Robin Williams. His failures shook him. He made a suicidal urge after battling depression (one of his vanity license plates read “ANOMIE”) and a benzodiazepine placed on the helicon. He had, Harris writes, “an almost punitive need to prove his convicts wrong.”
He had a frantic side. He snatched his share of cocaine and, for some time in the 1980s, used the crack. You imagine him on the latter, running back and forth from the film set to Broadway as if through a constantly swinging cat door set.
Harris details several of his subject’s collaborations with Streep and with Nora Efron. Nicholas was married four times. He was married to Diane Sawyer, the last.
Nicholas was a tough guy to find out, and I’m not sure we’ll understand him much better at the end of “Mike Nichols: The Life”. He was a man of perpetual motion, and Harris followed him with patience, clarity, and care.