For practitioners of what used to be called the lively arts, Life Isn’t Everything, an oral biography of Mike Nichols, is manna from heaven, its brilliantly orchestrated polyphony bringing him, his work, and his world to vivid life. Its subject is one of the rare individuals who transcend their professions and indeed their output to become archetypal figures of their time, acquiring the resonance of characters from a novel—in Nichols’s case, one perhaps by Balzac: Lucien de Rubempré or Eugène de Rastignac, those young men who set out from positions of great weakness to conquer their worlds. Rubempré, of course, fails and kills himself, which Nichols sometimes contemplated; Rastignac rises to the very top, as Nichols so conspicuously did, first as a dazzling comic performer, then as a masterful director of theater, television, and film, earning what Charles McGrath, writing in The New York Times, called “the grand slam of major American entertainment awards”: a Grammy, an Oscar, four Emmys, and nine Tonys. But he somehow stood apart from the tawdry passing scene, a twinkling grandmaster, above and beyond all the awards—or ratfucks, as he preferred to call them.
To those of us who knew him and worked with him, he was a uniquely alluring figure, radiant and lucid and infectiously amusing, but for almost all of us, he was also essentially unknowable, as Life Isn’t Everything abundantly demonstrates. The book’s title comes from a speech Nichols made when collecting one of those nine Tonys: “My love to those who have not won tonight. I just want to remind you of my motto: ‘Cheer up, life isn’t everything.’ It always stands me in good stead.”
Part of Mike’s allure was his wit, a rare commodity in Anglophone public life: we like our public men and women to be funny, but wit is considered to be just too clever by half. “There’s no comeback to an epigram,” notes John Lahr, one of the contributors to the book and author of a New Yorker profile of Nichols in 2000. “In other words, the wit completely disarms the other, and a lot of what Mike is about is disarming the other.” Or maintaining the mystery, he might have added—deflecting discovery. Life Isn’t Everything, which draws on witnesses from his earliest to his final years, ending with one of the last people he worked with, the young English actor Rafe Spall, exemplifies the mystery by offering radically contrasting glimpses of him across over seven decades. Almost everyone agrees that there was a great deal hidden behind that impeccable exterior. The actor David Hyde Pierce recalls him saying, “The art of being charming is giving away a vital part of yourself which you can absolutely part with.”
The charm was exceptional and very conscious, and was all the more charming for it. My first encounter with him was characteristic: the stage door keeper of the theater I was playing in put through a call to my dressing room. “It’s a Mr. Mike Nichols.” It couldn’t be the Mike Nichols, I thought: these great ones don’t do that. They, or more likely, their people, call the agent, the PA, the manager. But no: “Hello,” the unmistakable voice said:
This is Mike Nichols, and I have a movie I’d like you to be in. And it would help me very much if you were to say yes, because, you see, I’ve just made a personal oath never to make another film without you in it, and I don’t know what I’d do if you were to turn me down.
Immediately we were both laughing at the absurdity of this, and the laughter produced a kind of complicity, which was his essential modus operandi. By the end of the call I felt as if we knew each other very well, but of course we didn’t. The seeming intimacy, which never wavered in the quarter-century we knew each other, was a kind of conjuring trick—by behaving as if we knew each other deeply, we did, in a sense. He was from the beginning wonderfully candid about people he knew or had worked with. “You must never live in Hollywood,” he once said to me. “It’s a dreadful place. One morning you wake up and find you’ve turned into stone, or Streisand.” I appeared in two films for him—Postcards from the Edge and Angels in America—but that didn’t materially alter things. They just seemed like a continuation of the conversation we were having. There was unquestionably a sympathy between us; there were shared interests; there was a delight in language and a curiosity about life. The pleasure of being around him was intense, and he gave the impression that it was mutual. But do I feel that I knew him? Not at all.
Mike left no autobiography. Various people, myself among them, tried to coax one out of him, but his answer was always the same: he couldn’t, he said, endure the idea of a book tour. No amount of assurance that a tour was entirely optional could change his mind. Then Knopf editor Shelley Wanger, we learn from Life Isn’t Everything, tried to commission a book from him about his craft, about the work of theater and film. He was toying, he told her, with writing a book about his early experience of Hollywood; it was to be called Another Fucking Beautiful Day, which tells us all we need to know about how seriously he took it. He might also have felt a book to be redundant. From the moment fame sought him out and made him its own, his every small step was chronicled in the press, and largely in his own words.
It was, I suppose, a sort of oral autobiography. An articulate interlocutor is always a gift to editors, and Mike was for them quotability incarnate. From 1959, when he and his comedy partner, Elaine May, made their thirteenth highly successful network television appearance (and their third on The Dinah Shore Show), just after their sold-out one-night appearance at the unusual venue of New York’s Town Hall, the press was at his door. “For the Love of Mike—and Elaine” joshed the Times headline on that occasion; fifty years later, in the same paper, McGrath wrote, unkindly but accurately:
Mr. Nichols’s greatest improvisation is still himself. He wakes up every morning in his Fifth Avenue apartment, collects himself and, wearing a wig and paste-on eyebrows, plays a character called Mike Nichols.
The string of articles, profiles, and interviews continued unabated until his death in 2014.
His story was a remarkable one. He was born in Berlin in 1931 to a Russian father and a German mother. His maternal grandfather, Gustav Landauer, was the commissioner of enlightenment and public instruction in the short-lived Bavarian Soviet Republic; his maternal grandmother, Hedwig Lachmann, was the librettist of Richard Strauss’s Salome (and also, as it happens, translated Balzac). Then there was, in reaction to a routine inoculation against whooping cough, his dramatic and permanent loss of hair at the age of four, his escape from Germany with his brother in 1939, his unhappy childhood and adolescence, the family’s descent into abject poverty after his father’s death, his sense of isolation at school, followed by liberation on enrolling at the University of Chicago, his encounter with the theater there, and then the astonishing collaboration, rooted in improvisation, with Elaine May, which broke the mold of contemporary comedy.
“Nichols and May would seem to be among those comedians,” said The New York Times in 1959, “who come along once in a decade to register on people at all cultural levels—they have both snob and mob appeal, like Chaplin, Fred Allen, and the Marx Brothers.” When the partnership ended, he discovered his talent for directing with a Neil Simon comedy, Barefoot in the Park, on Broadway, which led to a series of slam-dunk theatrical successes, and then, with Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf (1966), a seamless segue into movies, on his first outing directing the most famous acting couple in the world.
Meanwhile, Mike had been learning how to comport himself in the circles into which his new wealth and fame had propelled him. His mentor was the photographer Richard Avedon, from whom he received a thoroughly Balzacian induction into the beau monde: “Dick was going to start teaching me all about the good life, because, remember, I was a young asshole, I didn’t know anything, I wasn’t from here, I had come from another place,” he told Avedon’s biographer in Something Personal:
Dick was instructing me on the right things to eat, such as caviar, and how to eat, and how to order in a restaurant, and how to travel, and where to travel, and how to dress. And how to get comfortable with other people, which was a big thing—he said to me, “Just ask them about themselves and they don’t stop talking.”
In Venice one night, on the way back from dinner, Mike said to Avedon and his wife, Evie, “Well, you two may like this stuff, but I can’t stand these counts and princesses, it’s too much for me,” to which Evie replied, “You’re so full of shit, Mike—you love it, admit it.” “And of course she was right—I did love it, all of it, I ate it all up.” It transpired, after both he and his tutor in savoir vivre had died, that—in true Balzacian fashion—they had been lovers for over ten years while married to various other people. He packed a great deal into his life.
After his first great explosion of work, he forged ahead with renewed energy: in 1967 he directed The Graduate, which remains a startling piece of work, both cinematically and in its social analysis. Indeed, the two are the same: the camera is as alienated as the action. It is Antonioni à l’américaine. His great avant-garde gamble, Catch-22, which followed three years later, shows a genuine desire to push the boundaries of film; he never went there again, but it was brave to have done such a thing when he had two mainstream hits under his belt. The following year, he directed what is probably his masterpiece, Carnal Knowledge, a remorselessly bleak vision of male sexual bewilderment and the havoc it wreaks in the lives of men and their partners; it is perhaps even more painful to watch now than when it came out in 1971.
Earlier, in 1967, before he shot The Graduate, he directed a play quite unlike any he had hitherto done: a modern American classic, Lillian Hellman’s The Little Foxes. Again the excitement that surrounded his every move was reflected in the press: the mere announcement of the production a full nine months ahead of the opening, at Lincoln Center as part of its repertory theater season, caused a sensation warranting several column inches. A reporter was dispatched to the first day of rehearsals, where he was able to witness nothing more exciting than a semi-mumbled readthrough. The production was greeted with uncontained rapture. Clive Barnes in the Times recalled an old dream: “For the first time at the Vivian Beaumont I have seen something that looks, moves and behaves like a national theater…. This is in total a magnificent performance.”
All this adulation was bound at some point to provoke a backlash. It came between the hard covers of a best-selling book, The Season. The screenwriter and dramatist William Goldman took a year off to see every show on Broadway in 1967–1968 in order to paint a portrait of theaterland at that moment in time. Trenchant, witty, and nakedly biased, Goldman took no hostages, and Nichols was the biggest beast he got in his sights. The Little Foxes, he said,
was another triumph in a string of triumphs for Mike Nichols, and one could leave it at that. Except that Little Foxes was different, for with the reception of this work, Mike Nichols became something rare in American life: a culture hero.
Elia Kazan had received the same accolade a generation before, said Goldman. “Obviously, there were differences…. [Kazan’s] work is passionate, serious, significant. Nichols’ work…—charming, light and titanically inconsequential.” Everyone he had spoken to, he said, shared his view that the production was “atrocious,” encouraging the audience to engage with it rather than the play. “This is self-serving direction, and no one is better at it than Nichols.” But
this doesn’t really matter. What counts is that there is a new culture hero in the land. And we have made him. He reflects us: our time, our taste, our needs, our wants. And what we want is Nichols. And what Nichols is, is brilliant. Brilliant and trivial and self-serving and frigid. And all ours.
It is one thing to be attacked, but to be elevated into the symbolic embodiment of everything that is wrong with the age almost amounts to flattery.
It didn’t trouble Mike in the least. He continued to work in the theater in such a wide range of plays as to seem almost promiscuous: two more Neil Simons (Plaza Suite, The Prisoner of Second Avenue), a brace of Chekhovs (Uncle Vanya, The Seagull), a fierce David Rabe antiwar play (Streamers), Trevor Griffiths’s savage Comedians, a soul-searching Tom Stoppard (The Real Thing), a crude farrago of a comedy (Social Security), and the musical Monty Python’s Spamalot. He did what pleased him, and if it didn’t please the public, well, he closed it. After making six movies in short order, the last two of them financial flops, his pleasure in filmmaking was exhausted, and he abandoned film for nearly a decade. Then, inspired by his discovery of the talent of Meryl Streep, he came back to it in 1983 with the excellent Silkwood.
He made a very great deal of money. That was part of the Balzacian imperative, too. “Money!” cries Père Goriot on his deathbed. “Money is life! Money makes everything happen.” Lahr reports that in the 1970s the producer Lewis Allen overheard Mike tell Hellman that “the butterflies in my stomach won’t stop fluttering until I have thirty million dollars.” His sometime assistant Hannah Roth Sorkin notes that
there was a tension, because making big successful movies that made money, that’s what got you access to the actors you wanted, the scripts you wanted…. It was, I need final cut. I need to have endless rights…the ability to say never, never, never. That ability comes from success.
The price of this Faustian deal became progressively burdensome.
It is much to the credit of Life Isn’t Everything that it has been edited to present a serious debate conducted among some very bright people. It ends up feeling somewhat melancholy. Mike doesn’t always come out of it too terribly well. Eventually, inevitably, he became addicted to the high life he lived. He started breeding Arabian stallions, which became a performance, too. He was aware, he told Arabian Horse World Magazine, that “it is more like my other job, making movies, than I thought.” The public sales of his steeds, which he staged like variety shows, were duly subjected to critical scrutiny. “The reviews of Mr. Nichols’s presentation,” noted the Times, “were raves.” With calculated chutzpah, he held one of these sales the same week his production of Streamers opened. This is Mike playing the role of the ringmaster—elegantly, wittily, of course—for an adoring public.
Unsurprisingly, a great deal of the book hinges on Mike’s creation of himself and his deep concern with identity. It is properly celebratory and deliciously filled with his bons mots, but from its opening pages, it shirks none of the complexity of the man, acknowledging the darkness so close to the shining surface. Here is Avedon as early as page xxi:
I think he goes into every experience expecting to be attacked—armed, ready…. He said his dream was, he’s on an island that belongs to him, manned on the turrets by men with machine guns. People can only get in with a passport, and then only his friends.
Lahr (still on p. xxi) says, “From an early age he was always braced, he was always powerfully defended…you didn’t mess with him. If you did, you did it at your peril.”
David Geffen reports that Mike was reluctant to be celebrated in an American Masters program: “He was sure there were all these people who would have these terrible stories about him, which is not true at all, but that’s one of the things he worried about, because he could not forgive himself for so many things.” And indeed, in the first chapter of the book, we find Mike and Elaine planning to form an improvisation company with two brilliant colleagues from Compass Theatre in Chicago. The four pooled their money and sent Mike and Elaine to New York to look for an agent for the group. Instead, they auditioned on their own behalf and got taken on without any mention of the other two. Life Isn’t Everything is no whitewash job.
Again and again, it returns to the question of identity. Under the infinitely polished surface, complex things seem to be lurking. At college, Nichols seemed to others to be “like a princeling deprived of his rightful fortune.” In Lahr’s New Yorker profile he says:
I couldn’t be a person that many hours a day. I needed—still need—a lot of time lying on the bed absolutely blank, the way I assume a dog is in front of the fire. A persona takes energy. I just needed a rest from it. Not to be anything in relation to anyone else.
This sense of him as a performer of himself was somehow compounded by the alopecia that compelled him to wear false hair—a wig and eyebrows—a fact studiously ignored by everyone who knew him. Later in his life they were superbly crafted; when he was young, they were not. “When I first saw him,” recounts the acting teacher Joyce Piven, “he was in a red fright wig.” The hair, said Susan Sontag, his contemporary at the University of Chicago, “was absolutely unmentionable.” Later, after she had breast cancer, she said to him, “I just cannot accept the mastectomy. Every time I take a bath I’m horrified.” He said to her: “Susan, now you know how I felt all my life.”
The breadth of the witnesses is remarkable, as are their candor and perceptiveness. There are three notable absentees—arguably the three most important people in Mike’s life: his nightmarish mother, Brigitte; his duo partner, Elaine May; and Diane Sawyer, his fourth and final wife. Other witnesses have trenchant things to say about all three: Brigitte, who provided him with so much of the material of the comedy sketches (“Mike, it’s your mother. Do you remember me?”); May, who, in their work together, according to Sam Wasson, “liberated Mike’s unconscious”; and Sawyer, the wife in whom he finally found a safe haven: “He just couldn’t get over her lack of vanity and her intellect,” says Candice Bergen. “He described himself as Pinocchio, who became a real boy. That’s the Diane effect. He just strove to be better, to equal her.”
Over and over, actors testify to the sterling quality of his direction, which he did as much by inference as by instruction. Streep, who revived his interest in filming after it had grown bitter in his mouth, says:
People ask me, “How did he direct you?” And honestly, I can’t remember any piece of direction he ever gave me, except he would often say, “Surprise me.” He’d also say, “Do everything you just did, but faster.”
In my personal experience, what he gave you was extraordinary trust, a sense that you and you alone had the key to the part, that you and he alone in all the world understood the screenplay, and that your performance was a kind of secret achievement between the two of you.
An unnerving section of the book describes his six-month descent into paranoia, which brought him to the very brink of suicide as a result of his use of Halcion, a sleeping pill, which had disastrous side effects. But for the most part he kept a clear head and an even keel. The work varied in quality, but he always had a surprise up his sleeve, with, for example, The Birdcage (1996), a glorious reunion with May, who wrote the screenplay based on the French play La Cage aux Folles, and, on television, the majestic epic spread of Angels in America. He was capable of great humility. Having had a ferociously difficult time directing the first production of David Rabe’s Hurlyburly—the author eventually refused to talk to him—he went to see a revival of it, directed by Scott Elliott: “we shook in our boots and were amazed to see how wonderful it was,” he wrote to me in his characteristic no-capitals mode:
much better than ours and very funny, clear and exciting. so exciting to see that rabid dave was right in our fights. so good to learn something even after many years. a brilliant ethan hawke and hilarious and even more brilliant parker posey, an adorable wally shawn and many more. they tell me they didn’t talk about it at all, just did it. sometimes it takes time to understand something. i guess.
And he ended, with a typical self-puncturing flourish, “off to more jury duty. i am ready now to stop learning and get back to complaining.”
A few years before Mike died, he submitted to the cameras when he was interviewed by Henry Louis Gates Jr. for PBS’s Finding Your Roots. He knew a certain amount about his background, but Gates was able to tell him things that astonished and moved him deeply. His family’s history was a record of persecution alternating with periods of considerable wealth; a sizeable number of his ancestors had been shot. His Jewishness, which he had always worn very lightly, now seemed central to his life: “I pushed it so far away, and once I discovered this, I had a very hard time for a long time.” He admitted to Gates that he was profoundly haunted by guilt—survivors’ guilt:
I never know what’s going to trigger it because it’s gone most of the time, and then suddenly something brings it up. Guilt, they say, is stronger than love. And that’s a horrible but true thing.
He told Natalie Portman, “I’ve been such a bad Jew.” When Gates published a book drawn from the show, under the title Faces of America, he chose a quotation from Gustav Landauer, Mike’s maternal grandfather, as its epigraph:
Our complete ancestry is within us. The individual is a result of a long chain of ancestors who are still present within us and exert power over us. Men must go inside themselves, to be connected with what they originally are.
Or to put it another way, “so we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.” There was more than a touch of Jay Gatsby about Mike.
It is astonishing that a man who had buried his former self so deep in his psyche chose to appear on a television program whose entire raison d’être was to confront the past. It may be that Mike was most able to connect to that buried self in public. As early as 1999, in an interview with Gavin Smith in Film Comment, he remarked of The Graduate, “I kept looking and looking for an actor until I found Dustin…who’s a dark, Jewish, anomalous presence, which is how I experience myself.” It is highly improbable that anyone who knew Mike would have used any of those three adjectives to describe him.
The last words in Life Isn’t Everything are provided by Mike’s muse, Meryl Streep:
He understood the process [of acting] more than any other director I’ve worked with…. He trusted that if he saw the spark of something in you, he knew he just had to entertain it out of you.
But I think more profoundly, he was acting all the time. Right from the beginning he was acting being an American. He was acting being a blond. He was acting being confident. He was acting being the smartest person in the room. That is actually a definition of acting: You have all these things that you want desperately to be real. And you live in them and they become you. Whatever the process is, I really don’t understand. But I know that he understood it.
The final summing-up belongs to John Lahr, who in his New Yorker profile and in his many shafts of insight throughout Life Isn’t Everything seems to have penetrated him to the core: at the end of his interview for the profile, Mike expressed himself pleased. “I do well with the fundamentally inconsolable,” said Lahr. Mike closed his eyes for second and sighed, then said: “We get a lot done, you know.”