Friday, May 14, 2021

Mike Nichols: Postcards from the Edge of a Career

It’s not easy for me to say nice things about film historian Mark Harris. Not that I’ve ever met Harris, and I doubt he knows I exist. But the publication of his first book, Pictures at a Revolution, ended up derailing my own book deal with a major university press, because I had planned to explore some of the same historic material his book had just finished covering. And when my Seduced by Mrs. Robinson: How The Graduate Became the Touchstone of a Generation appeared in late 2017, a reviewer in the New York Times posted a full-page review trashing my work, mainly because (as she herself pointed out) her good buddy Mark Harris had already written about The Graduate in a way she liked better. So it’s hard to be neutral about Harris’s achievements. even though I’ve heard from a professional colleague that he’s a good guy. Grrrr!

 That being said, I read with great interest Harris’s brand-new biography of director Mike Nichols, who evolved from a comic sketch-artist (with partner Elaine May) into a major film director largely on the strength of early films like The Graduate.  Surely this six-hundred-page tome was a book Harris was meant to write. Harris, you see, is married to playwright Tony Kushner. And Kushner’s Angels in America, a strikingly imaginative exploration of American history and the AIDS epidemic, became in Nichols’ skilled hands a landmark 2003 television production. So Harris, by way of Kushner and their circle of friends, knows pretty much everyone who was anyone in Mike Nichols’ long and complicated life.

 As a film director, with a comedy career and a Broadway smash behind him, Nichols hit the ground running with an unexpected invitation to direct Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton in the screen version of Edward Albee’s corrosive Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? That work won him an Oscar nomination, and he went on to nab the golden statuette for his very second film, The Graduate. Then, just as he was beginning to seem invulnerable, he had a series of major artistic and financial flops that began with a misconceived version of Joseph Heller’s famous anti-war novel, Catch-22. Throughout a Hollywood career that ended with his death in 2014, Nichols moved in and out of favor, exploring a wide variety of genres and working with most of the industry’s brightest stars. For a while, in films like Carnal Knowledge (1971), he seemed to specialize in bitter humor from a male perspective. But lately I’ve been interested in a late-career series of movies (1983-1990) in which the female point of view emerges triumphant. This shift was apparently sparked by his teaming with Meryl Streep, the central figure in 1983’s political drama, Silkwood. In 1990, Streep took on the role of Suzanne in Postcards from the Edge, Carrie Fisher’s semi-autobiographical look at the life of an addict who’s also a Hollywood princess, thanks to the role of her superstar mother in her life.

 Gossip columnists, of course, saw Shirley MacLaine’s character in the film as a riff on Fisher’s own mother, Debbie Reynolds, someone well past her prime but still itching for public adulation. (Throwing a surprise party after her daughter’s released from rehab, she belts out a sexy version of Sondheim’s a “I’m Still Here” for the guests). Nichols’ direction gives us the Hollywood environment in spades, filling small roles with classic showbiz personalities like Gary Morton, Rob Reiner, Gene Hackman, and even good old Mary Wickes. But the film is also honest about addiction, a subject Nichols himself clearly—as Harris shows us—understood all too well.  



  1. Picked up a thrift store DVD of "The Fortune", and watched it for the first time since I saw it in a theatre when it came out. Back then I thought it was a stinker; this time I knew why. The only creative on that picture with a clue of what to do was Stockard Channing, and she's the only one to survive.

  2. I was glad to read your comment, Steve. Some film historians really love The Fortune, but I can't figure out why. For what it's worth, Mark Harris agrees with us, and reveals the dynamics behind the filming that suggest this project was being made for all the wrong reasons. Nichols is one director who doesn't repeat himself -- he works in so many genres, and in so many frames of mind. Throughout his long career he's made brilliant films and serious miscalculations.