Mike Nichols, the beloved director of stage and screen—from Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and The Graduate, to Barefoot in the Park and Working Girl— died Nov. 19, 2014 at the age of 83. Here are four pieces on the life of the artist.
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“Along with a cadre of uprooted smart alecks like Elaine May, Paul Sills, and Shelley Berman, he discovered that audiences could be even more unresponsive than cadavers. A quick tongue (he’d been sent to boarding school at 9 ‘for being fresh’) wasn’t enough. You needed to be someone; you needed something to do.
“We were terrible for a long time. Painful. We would literally run out the back door and jump in Lake Michigan after some shows to rid ourselves of the horror of what we’d just perpetrated. I still think of the night that some of the actors ran into the bar where the other actors were, and one of them said, ‘Come quick: Mike has a character!’ But we were, all the while, without knowing it, creating for ourselves a series of answers to what is a scene. And actually, only a few weeks ago in rehearsal, I remembered one of my rules from back then, which is that there are only three kinds of scenes: fights, seductions, and negotiations. Oh, and contradictions. As Elaine used to say, ‘When in doubt, seduce.’”
It’s in the story—it’s as simple as that. The story either contains it or it doesn’t. In between there are gradations. There are stories that seem to convey them but can’t stand the pressure of the process or confrontation by the audience, and certain metaphors crack under that pressure. I said to [Anthony] Minghella, when I’d seen The English Patient, that I’d never seen a New York audience so still, so absolutely silent, during a movie. It was a very strong experience to be in that audience. And he said, “Yes, well—they sense purpose.” That’s a wonderful thing to say. And we do, as an audience, sense purpose. If there’s a purpose inherent in a story, in the metaphor that is a given story, we do sense it and we can be tamed by it. An audience is a ruthless, Heartless, and unruly monster, and if it doesn’t sense purpose then get out of its way, because it’s going to be difficult—difficult to get the attention of, difficult to make laugh, difficult to carry along on the journey that is any particular story.
“We were fools to give it up,” Mike said of their partnership.
“We were,” Elaine answered.
Mike leaned in to tell her, “Very slowly life gets better and you learn that there is another way to respond to people. You’ve changed more than anybody I’ve known in my entire life. You changed from a dangerous person to someone who is only benign.”
“What a vicious thing to say!”
Once, in the early seventies, Mike Nichols was sitting in a commercial jet as it took off from JFK. Moments after it was airborne, the plane went into what Nichols recalls as “an unnervingly steep bank. Everybody looked at each other. Nobody knew what it meant.” The pilot came on the intercom. “We are experiencing—” he began in his best “Right Stuff” drawl. Then, suddenly, he said, “Just a minute!” The mike went dead. In the long silence that followed, the people on the airplane started to panic. A woman a few rows in front of Nichols turned around and looked squarely at him. “What do we do now, Mr. Success?”
Nichols, who has a sharp American wit but courtly European manners, bit his tongue. “All those ‘Mr. Success’ years would have been too hard to explain to anybody if I tried,” Nichols, now sixty-eight, says. “What I really wanted to say to that envious woman was ‘Don’t worry. There’s still nothing happening inside me. I’m not experiencing success or anything much.’”