Poetic and Real: A Conversation with Mark Harris

March 20, 2021   •   By Kristin Marguerite Doidge

WHEN 16-YEAR-OLD Mike Nichols first saw Elia Kazan’s Broadway production of A Streetcar Named Desire, he realized he’d fallen in love. “It sounds very dramatic, but I never got over it,” he said of seeing Jessica Tandy and Marlon Brando on stage that night. “It was the only thing I’ve ever seen that was a hundred percent real and a hundred percent poetic, simultaneously.”


Somehow, Nichols — the young Jewish immigrant who escaped Nazi Germany only a decade earlier — was able to translate that night’s transformative experience into what would become a more than five-decade career in theater, film, and television.


He burst onto the scene as a wunderkind: while still in his 20s, he was half of a hit improv duo with Elaine May that was the talk of the country, literally overnight. Next, he directed four consecutive hit plays, won back-to-back Tonys, ushered in a new era of Hollywood filmmaking with Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966), and followed it with The Graduate (1967), which won him an Oscar and became the third-highest-grossing movie ever.


Veteran journalist and New York Times best-selling author Mark Harris spent a number of years (and conducted more than 250 interviews) putting together a substantial new biography of Nichols called Mike Nichols: A Life. The book is a testament to the enduring power of a man who could seemingly always find an audience willing to listen to what he had to say — and to the endurance of a biographer who has adeptly helped us understand and appreciate Nichols for the complicated genius he was.


I met up with Harris recently to discuss his writing process and the Nichols legacy.


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KRISTIN MARGUERITE DOIDGE: How did you go about beginning to conceptualize the life of Mike Nichols?


MARK HARRIS: I got to know Mike around 2001, when he started working with my husband, Tony Kushner, on the HBO adaptation of Angels in America, and then, after that was done, I spent some time talking to Mike about The Graduate, which was a big part of my first book, Pictures at a Revolution: Five Movies and the Birth of the New Hollywood. But I certainly did not have it in mind to write a book about Mike while he was alive. After Mike died in November 2014, however, I did start to think about it, and my publisher started to think about it, and we talked about whether this might be a good subject for me.


I had many reservations. I’m not a biographer, and I was worried about writing again about The Graduate, which I had written about pretty extensively in a book already. And I also worried about writing about Angels in America since I was semi-involved in it. And aside from my own uncertainties, I didn’t want to do the book unless it was okay with Diane Sawyer and with Mike’s three children. Once they all gave their consent — and they did it very graciously, in the spring of 2015, with no conditions attached, no subject off limits, no demand to see the manuscript at any point — it was really just a completely unqualified yes. By then, I had really started to feel that the uniqueness and variety and fascination of his life, which seemed to be kind of an emblematic life of the 20th century, would be boundlessly interesting to me to explore.


I also came to realize that I had known Mike for not a very long period of his life. I had gotten to know him when he was in his 70s and 80s. Having written two books where I followed a group of 10 or 12 characters through a five- or six-year period, following one person over 83 years felt scary and fascinating — which, I think, is a very good combination of feelings to go into a book with.


When you set out to write it, did you have a sense that it would end up being so sturdy? I assume there were still things that were edited out, right?


What an interesting question. There were actually not things that were edited out. I was a magazine editor for years, while also writing books, and I tend to self-edit along the way. Certainly, I self-edit in the writing phase rather than in the research phase. I knew it was going to be a long book, but 600 pages of text felt right to me, not 1,200 pages. There wasn’t a movie or a play that Mike directed where I couldn’t have gone on at greater length, but I just tried to pick the material that was most salient and most compelling to me.


The interesting thing about 600 pages is that you can allow yourself some digression. Mike, who was, among other things, an absolutely champion storyteller, knew how to make digressions really entertaining and interesting, and so I kind of took his conversational style as a steering point for myself.


I wanted to give readers a sense of the details of Mike Nichols’s life, but also his life within the context of the larger worlds he inhabited, whether that was an outsider’s New York City childhood in the 1940s, or the University of Chicago nascent improv scene in the 1950s, or New York nightclub culture in the late 1950s, or Hollywood in the 1970s. I wanted to give myself permission to take a breath once in a while and paint those worlds for readers a little bit.


I can’t imagine how much material you had to go through.


I’m a big outliner. I really believe in carefully structuring. I don’t precisely remember when it was, but I think at some point, fairly early in the research, I realized that there was a natural dividing point for me — a kind of end of Act One. It was not The Graduate, but a few years later. It was his rise with The Graduate and then this abrupt cold streak that resulted in him leaving Hollywood and moviemaking behind for seven or eight years — and it occurred about chronologically halfway through his life.


The more I learned about him, the more it felt like a sensible place to drop the curtain and take a pause, and then raise it again, which is really the only thing you’re doing when you divide a book into parts. But once I understood the book in terms of it having a first half and a second half, that gave me a clearer sense of what its overall size and shape was going to be.


That’s really interesting because I’m working on my very first book, which is a biography of Nora Ephron. The more I learn about Mike, the more I understand why he just adored her so much and likewise why she adored him so much.


What a great subject you picked. They both had that ability to live in several different spheres of influence at once. Nora Ephron wasn’t just a screenwriter or just an essayist or just a journalist. She lived in a lot of worlds and kind of mastered them all. And I think Mike was very much the same but also appreciated that in her.


I also think he appreciated her disposition in terms of material, like when they talk about working together on his 1983 film Silkwood. It seemed as if they both tended to fall in love with things — the word they used is “love” — they would be so passionate and romantic about things.


That’s a great observation. And for me, that’s one of the things that distinguishes Mike’s career. Starting with Silkwood in a way is when he really starts to think of his work less in terms of “I can do something with this,” when he’s trying to decide what to direct, and more in terms of “I love this.” “I love this writer,” or “I love this actor,” and really going with his heart. “This made me laugh, I will do it.” “This made me cry, I will do it.” “I love this script.”


He wasn’t really interested in creating a thematically cohesive body of work so much as he was interested in doing what excited him at the time. And sometimes that instinct led him astray. But a lot of times it did not — a lot of times, his instincts were very, very good.


During the years I was researching this project, the whole question that animated me was: Can I figure out why he did what he did — why he decided what he decided? What is going to be the point at which I come to a place where he’s made a decision about something, or he’s taken an action, and I can’t make sense of it? I thought, the longer I can postpone that, the more content I’ll be with the book. And then, finally, I got to a place where it all made sense to me.


I’ve been thinking about how he really was in love with the process of making things, too, and it seems to me like he loved this idea of revision — the idea that you could get yourself out of trouble if you just kept working at it.


I think Mike thought a lot more like a writer than most directors do. He almost never took a writing credit, and he really believed that it was not the job of directors to rewrite screenwriters or certainly playwrights.


But you’re right, he did absolutely love “process.” There are two places early on in the book, one where he directs his first Broadway play, Barefoot in the Park in 1963, and the next a few years later, when he directs his first movie, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? — after both of which he says some version of “I knew, even before it was done, I knew the first day I walked into it that this was something that I wanted to do for the rest of my life, that it would never get old for me.”


And I think a lot of people would say, “Being a director is an awesome job, who wouldn’t want to do that for the rest of their lives?” But I think, when Mike said it, what he was really talking about was process — the journey of going from a rehearsal room on the first day of a play to opening night on Broadway, and the journey of working on a movie where you start by sitting alone in your house trying to solve problems and think it through before the first day of shooting a foot of film and you end it with the last decision you make in the editing room. That process was so infinitely interesting to him that he knew he would never tire of it. And he was right.


I think that, even when he leaves movies for eight years, it wasn’t because he was sick of the process. It was because he knew that he wasn’t living up to his own standards in a way and he needed to stop and not start again until he really felt reconnected to that original feeling that it was something he wanted to do forever.


Yes, and it’s contagious. I love The Birdcage (1996), it’s one of my favorites of his films, and reading about him working with Elaine May and the way that they were reunited — I was imagining this scene. It must have been a blast.


I think The Birdcage was, in some ways, the synthesis of everything that Mike loved about directing. First of all, yes, he was working with Elaine again, which meant an enormous amount to him. He just loved that. But he was also working with this troupe of really masterful comic actors, one of whom, Robin Williams, was already well-established in movies. Nathan Lane was not. And Mike did at many points in his career love giving someone a leg up into stardom.


And he laughed endlessly. If you could make him laugh, he would love you forever.


You’re talking about a movie fairly late in his career, years after he first started directing, and his passion for directing and his interest in the specificity of the choices that go into making a movie — performance choices, editing choices, costume choices, design choices — I mean, one of the things he said to Elaine at the very beginning of The Birdcage was, “This is who these characters are, and we have to get it right.” After 30 years, he hadn’t lost that. It’s pretty remarkable.


For someone who left behind such a robust set of material, how did you conceptualize what his legacy is?


It’s really interesting to talk about Mike Nichols in terms of legacy because he is really the only director of his stature where you can say that he was as important a theater director as he was a film director. He wasn’t more one than the other — he did both for 50 years.


And a film legacy is so much easier to quantify, in a way, than a theater legacy, because theater (as I was acutely conscious when I was working on this) is ephemeral. There were stage productions of Mike’s that I was lucky enough to see, and there were others that I had not seen, but which were preserved at the Performing Arts Library at Lincoln Center, where I did a lot of my research. There are a number of really important productions like Barefoot in the Park, and The Odd Couple in 1965 — his impact in theater was tremendous.


And so, to try to reconstruct what was special and unique about his direction of these plays from 50 or 55 years ago was really challenging because I think his legacy as a theater director has trickled down into the work of people who don’t know that that’s what they’re drawing on, but it’s absolutely no less a legacy than his film legacy. 


You’ve mentioned how much you miss him now that you don’t get to be with him every day. How does it feel to know the book is going to be out in the world?


It feels immensely strange. I can’t tell you the number of days — almost all of them, really — when I was researching the book and when I was writing the book, where I either felt Mike looking over my shoulder and saying, “Well, not quite.” Or where I was asking him questions in my head that I never got to ask him.


He was great company for the years that I was working on the book. I miss him as a person still tremendously after a little more than six years now, and I missed his imaginary company while I was doing the research. But it was also a very strange thing to get to know somebody much better after they’re gone.


And that was certainly the process of the book for me, especially when I was working on the earlier parts of his life — his childhood, his college years, his work as a performer with Elaine May, when he was first directing. Most of that happened before I was born. So, it really felt like I was writing history as much as biography for some of that.


Do you think that you’ll write another biography? Or do you feel like this is a special case?


I don’t know. I don’t have any immediate sense that I’ll write another biography. But I’ve now learned never to say never. As I said at the beginning, I want to feel scared and fascinated as I go into any project, so if there’s another subject that can make me feel that way, I would absolutely do it.


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Kristin Marguerite Doidge is a writer whose work has appeared in Fortune, Marie Claire, The Atlantic, and on NPR. Her forthcoming book, Nora Ephron: A Life, will be published by Chicago Review Press in 2022. A lecturer at Loyola Marymount University, she holds a master’s degree from the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School of Journalism and was a 2018/2019 LARB/USC Publishing Workshop & Incubator Fellow. Connect with her on Twitter @KMarguerite_USC.