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BY THE TIME that Mike Nichols directed Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? in 1966, he was already an accomplished improviser, satirist, and critically acclaimed theater director. When he followed that Oscar-winning film with The Graduate in 1967 — which won him the Academy Award for Best Director — he established himself as a fresh new voice in American cinema. The career that followed, which included blockbuster comedies Working Girl and The Birdcage, stage-to-screen adaptations Wit and Angels in America, all-out flops Catch-22 and The Day of the Dolphin, as well as three collaborations with Meryl Streep, proved him a hard director to pin down. Indeed, Nichols’s aesthetic (or lack thereof) denied him access to the most enduring of film studies labels, that of auteur. If there was a signature to be found in his films, it was perhaps that he had none. That’s precisely what Bruce Weber wrote in his New York Times obituary of the director (“He did not create a recognizable visual style or a distinct artistic signature”) and explains why other papers referred to him as “workmanlike” (The Guardian) and an “actor’s director” (Los Angeles Times), two euphemistic compliments that nevertheless needle in their backhandedness.
Perhaps film critic Stanley Kauffmann put it best when he reviewed Nichols’s 1966 Edward Albee adaptation: “This is [Nichols’s] debut as a film director,” he wrote, “and it is a successful Houdini feat.” By that he meant that the director had managed to swim his way out of a near-death situation, even if there was little grace there to be found: “The form is not Olympic, but he lives,” which, after all, was commendable in itself. Kauffmann’s analogy is particularly curious, though, not only because it praises and denigrates in equal measure, but also because it conjures up a running trope in talking about Nichols’s film work: the illusion or transparency of his direction. Nichols’s “lack of artistic signature” has often been read as a hands-off approach to directing that encourages viewers to focus on issues of theme or character, two subjects that rank low in contemporary discussions of film criticism.
That is to say, Nichols’s direction is often seen as one that merely gets out of the actors’ ways. Lack of obvious visual flourishes (no dolly zooms, no distracting jump cuts) suggests a transparent style that attempts to mimic the mere observation of reality. The director’s filmography is rife with a seemingly endless supply of “realist performances.” What has been missing is a more attuned understanding of what’s been at stake in Nichols’s films — what are the secrets to the success of this cinematic prestidigitator?
Becoming Mike Nichols (dir. Douglas McGrath), which screened at Sundance and premiered on HBO in late February, didn’t start out as a career reappraisal. Producer Frank Rich envisioned the project as a filmic memoir of sorts. Since Nichols had never set himself the task of writing down what was undeniably an extraordinary life, Rich and fellow Nichols friend Jack O’Brien had come up with the idea of getting the affable Nichols to sit down for several conversations where he’d trace his life story on camera. I was in the audience for the talk that O’Brien and Nichols staged in 2014, four months before the director’s death, at the Golden Theatre — the same theater where An Evening With Mike Nichols and Elaine May had played back in 1960. As the edited clips in McGrath’s film suggest, both men had the audience in stitches throughout, whether talking about the young Nichols’s emigration from Hitler’s Germany to New York (and his inability to speak anything in English other than to say “Don’t kiss me” to girls in his class) or, in one of my favorite exchanges that sadly didn’t make the cut, when Nichols explained his obsession with Meryl Streep’s giggle in The French Lieutenant’s Woman. Becoming Mike Nichols, as Rich explained upon the director’s death, was meant as a way to learn more about the towering American cultural figure. But, alongside the PBS Elaine May–directed Mike Nichols: American Masters documentary that aired on January 29, it cannot help but become part of a posthumous retrospective that has attempted to return to Nichols the critical accolade that greeted his early career as a theater director and an improv wiz. The title to Douglas McGrath’s film frames the documentary as a looking back, but its purpose is rooted squarely in the present.
The first half of Becoming Mike Nichols is a conversational autobiography, with Nichols piecing together childhood memories and early professional anecdotes, while the latter half features a rather surprising but welcome argument on behalf of the director’s inconspicuous style. Aided by extended ruminations on specific scenes and moments from Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and The Graduate, the documentary stages the type of video essay that’s become all too common in contemporary film criticism, but which rarely turns its lens toward directors that don’t meet certain criteria. The overabundance of videos addressing a decidedly narrow selection of film auteurs has shortchanged the potential of this new form of cinematic analysis. Matt Zoller Seitz’s The Substance of Style series, Tony Zhou’s David Fincher — And the Other Way is Wrong, kogonada’s Eyes of Hitchcock, and Kevin B. Lee’s The Career of Paul Thomas Anderson in Five Shots — to name some of the most celebrated examples of the burgeoning form — all privilege a self-consciously deployed vision of film direction. The list of directors alone should give one a sense of the type of director that lends itself to the video essay treatment. Zoller Seitz himself addressed this very issue recently. He tweeted, “I am subtweeting myself as well as everyone else on this, but I think we’ve had enough video essays on the same seven or eight directors.” The plea should be taken not only at face value (there really is no need for more video essays on Quentin Tarantino or Martin Scorsese … how about some on Jane Campion or Mira Nair?), but it should also force us to recognize other aspects of film direction that often present themselves as curiously transparent. Inadvertently, perhaps, McGrath’s Becoming Mike Nichols offers one such example.
Focusing on his first two films, O’Brien and Nichols’s candid conversation helps to reframe his work with actors as integral to his aesthetic. While we might say that Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is successful because of the strength of the quartet of performances on display, and ascribe to that assessment a veiled directorial shortcoming, we do so only at the expense of admitting the critical role a director can play in working with actors. The various anecdotes that Nichols shares about working with Richard Burton suggest a keen understanding of the value of collaboration. While Nichols didn’t see eye to eye with his director of photography (he calls Haskell Wexler his “nemesis”), it’s clear that the staging of the film was built around highlighting the performances, allowing them room to breathe (and laugh, in the case of Burton’s singular take on his character’s despair). This “transparent” style is revealed to be not incidental, but cannily intentional. That is, what we see in his films is not an absence of style, but a mobilization of style that we have been taught to see as invisible. Even the various clips presented in Becoming Mike Nichols train you to appreciate his use of close-ups — a recurring motif in Nichols’s filmography that, as Nichols’s most comprehensive critic Kyle Stevens has explained, is totally transformed in the director’s hands, prying it away from its “promise of interiority” and offering us instead sustained meditations on the power of expression and duration. In other words, it’s the type of aesthetic choice that gets subsumed into discussions of performance but is rarely attributed to direction.
These issues of Nichols’s style are intimated throughout Becoming Mike Nichols. Later, O’Brien prods him to talk about the now-iconic montage in The Graduate. Nichols responded, “I wanted to express that zombie [existence]: his regular life at home with his family and everything in a new way.” The sequence, scored to Simon & Garfunkel’s “The Sound of Silence,” has become so familiar that it’s hard to understand the impact it had upon release. Hearing Nichols recall how it was a “happy accident” that he even thought to use that song at all — he’d been listening to that LP while shooting and editing the film — McGrath’s film offers us the sequence in its entirety, understanding that its full effect requires viewing it as a self-contained and self-sustaining entity where the rhythms of the song bleed into and embolden the airy but empty images of Benjamin Braddock’s sunglasses-tinted lifestyle.
Reminiscing about his fight with Jack Warner over shooting Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? in black and white, the director tells O’Brien that he misses black-and-white cinematography. The alienating effect of not shooting in color “made movies feel like they were about life, rather than life itself.” The line that followed, cut unfortunately from McGrath’s film, explained it further: “[I]t exalted the metaphor.” It’s the type of quip that feels self-evident — a truism that flattens its own insight with its aphoristic sensibility. But then you see Elizabeth Taylor in an oversized wig, her face pushed up against a screen door, her dulcet tones hitting Martha’s melancholy words, and you see Albee’s dialogue leaping off the screen. It’s obviously not real, or even realist. As Nichols explains, “It’s like an oil painting. It doesn’t move; it’s something else. A version of life.” Becoming Mike Nichols punctuates its biographical impetus with insights like these that should encourage further and more engaged critical reevaluations of an underrated (if, paradoxically, amply celebrated) film director. It’s a tall order for it requires us to dispel many widely held assumptions of what one values in film directors. Nichols’s language — he talks of “gifts” on set, and of the film itself “coming alive” — while clichéd, is shown to be here not shorthand we should dismiss but a helpful tool with which to dismantle the illusionist’s mystique, a way to reveal Houdini’s secrets.
Manuel Betancourt is a freelance writer based out of New York. He earned his PhD delving into the history and cultural significance of queer fandom. You can follow his musings @bmanuel and his work over at mbetancourt.com.