Charm Defensive

Mike Nichols on the set of Catch-22, Guaymas, Mexico, 1969
Bob Willoughby/MPTV Images
Mike Nichols on the set of Catch-22, Guaymas, Mexico, 1969

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…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account. You may also need to link your website account to your subscription, which you can do here.