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A DAY IN THE COUNTRY WITH MIKE NICHOLS

IIn 1976, when I interviewed Mike Nichols for People Magazine, he was already a movie veteran, having made his debut 10 years earlier with "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?," starring Elizabeth Taylor (pictured with him below) and Richard Burton. But some of his best work was yet to come. --GUY FLATLEY

 

It’s been nearly 20 years since a pale, perspiring young man had Broadway audiences cackling as he pleaded with his uptight date, promising he’d respect her "like crazy" if she’d go "all the way" in the backseat of his car. The sketch – both funny and touching, like all the others that made up "An Evening with Mike Nichols and Elaine May" – propelled an endearingly neurotic pair of nightclub comics to stardom.

These evenings the male half of that act has theatergoers laughing again at Broadway’s newest hit, "Comedians," set in a British school for aspiring funnymen. Meanwhile, uptown at Lincoln Center, Mike Nichols has another audience in the aisles. But they’re not amused. Rather, they are staggering towards the nearest exit in shock over the bloody end of "Streamers," David Rabe’s melodrama of a Virginia barracks during the Vietnam war.

Former actor Mike Nichols is not among the corpses in "Streamers," nor is he delivering witty lines in "Comedians." Fifteen years ago Nichols gave up performing for directing. He made his mark as a glossy technician in such Neil Simon plays as "Barefoot in the Park" and "The Odd Couple"; in sexy, pace-setting movies like "Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?," "The Graduate" and "Carnal Knowledge," and fresh stage revivals of "The Little Foxes" and "Uncle Vanya."

For the past five years Nichols has been in an apparent slump. His last two films – "Day of the Dolphins" and "The Fortune" – were bona fide flops. Though the triumph of "Streamers" and "Comedians" is popularly viewed as his comeback, Nichols’ decline was really little more than an awkward stumble. In any case, he is at the summit of his profession once again.

Mike Nichols’ Connecticut farmhouse is a spacious white frame dwelling with abundant fireplaces, French doors and pastoral paintings. It fronts on a private lake and tree-clustered hills. Out back are 60 acres of farmland and stables for Nichols’ Arabian horses, some of which he sold at auction last summer.

In the big country kitchen, Annabel, Nichols’ third wife – blonde, pretty and Irish – putters about. At her side is Max, their 3-year old. Their infant daughter, Jenny, born last September, is asleep in the nursery. Due to visit soon is Nichols’ 12-year old daughter, Daisy, by his second marriage. In the library, the 45-year old master of the house sits in an overstuffed chair nursing a Bloody Mary and chatting about his latest theatrical achievements.

In "Comedians," a veteran comic-turned-teacher, subtly played by Milo O’Shea, advocates a compassionate approach to comedy, one that contains truth but does not cause genuine discomfort. His one brilliant pupil insists upon unmitigated truth. Where does Nichols stand on the issue?

"I wouldn’t say that I have a point of view about comedy. The balance of the argument between the teacher and the student – the tension between those points of view – is what the playwright and I want to present."

The politicized student in "Comedians" preaches that performers have an obligation to remedy social ills. "That’s a little bit like fidelity in marriage," Nichols says. "It’s something you can offer, but not necessarily expect from someone else."

And the murderous barracks brawl at the end of "Streamers"?

"Why should we demand a happy ending in the theater?" asks Nichols, taking a tiny puff of his cigarette. "We are all going to die in real life, aren’t we? And there’s nothing particularly happy about that ending. The quality of our life is what counts, and each of us bears the responsibility for his own actions."

Nichols has not always been so rational in his approach to the facts of life and death. Deeply anguished in his youth, he spent more time in the analyst’s office than he did in his pre-med classes at the University of Chicago. Later, emotionally capsized by fame, he returned to analysis. He smilingly recalls a particularly severe bout with depression during which he bitterly lashed out at his analyst. "What’s the use?" Nichols said. "Life is not rotten. It’s just terrible, and you know it! I’ve been listening to your intelligent silence all these months, and I know that you know life is terrible."

"My analyst thought a bit, hesitated, and then said, 'You’re absolutely right, life is terrible…but interesting.’ "

It is as good a description as any, particularly of Nichols’ early years. He was born Michael Igor Peschkowsky in Berlin in 1931, the son of a Russian-Jewish doctor. In 1939 the family fled to the U.S. to escape the Nazis. Nichols’ father died a few years afterward, and Mike and his younger brother, despite their semi-impoverished state, bounced among a series of private schools in New York City and Darien, Conn. It was a difficult time for both.

"Through hard work and luck and the kindness of others," Nichols says now, "I’ve transformed myself from a weird and not very happy alien who couldn’t get up in the morning and drag his ass to school into a weird and quite happy American who some people have branded as facile and slick. For some reason, I’m thought of as a person to whom things come easily."

This was hardly the case when Nichols returned to New York in 1951 after dropping out of the University of Chicago because he wanted to be an actor. Attempting to mix his madness with some Method, he enrolled in Lee Strasberg’s acting class and supported himself as a busboy at Howard Johnson’s in Greenwich Village. "I was fired when somebody asked me the ice cream flavor of the week and I said chicken."

Former acting classmate Carroll Baker remembers Nichols: "The rest of us were all very serious about the theatuh, doing all the Russian playwrights. Mike was always hysterically funny. I never did a scene in class with him, though, because you somehow knew when you acted a scene with Mike, he’d end up directing you."

After two years Nichols returned to Chicago, eventually joining a band of improvising performers known as the Second City. Another member of the troupe was an unpredictable kook named Elaine May. Nichols had first seen her while he was in a University of Chicago production of Strindberg’s "Miss Julie," playing a sexually vicious servant. During one of his steamier scenes he couldn’t help noticing a cool, dark-haired girl in the audience – with a smirk on her face. Months later he caught sight of her again, in the Chicago Loop, and he crept over to her, German-spy-style, and whispered, "I beg your pardon, vould you have a light?"

"Of course," Elaine May murmured. "You are…Agent X-9?"

Second City was the start of something big and funny for Nichols and May. They lasted eight years and produced three records, did TV shows and toured nightclubs, in addition to the New York show. In 1961 they decided to split up, she to write, he to direct. From time to time since then, they have toyed with the notion of joining up again.

"We thought of acting in 'Virginia Woolf' together last season, but we dropped the idea when Edward Albee announced his plans to revive the play. In truth, we get apprehensive about going back together. There’s something rather sad about a crone and a geezer doddering out onstage to give us their well-loved routines for the millionth time."

It is often forgotten that Nichols and May both played parts other than comic. "Once we were cast in highly dramatic roles in a terribly, terribly searching Playhouse 90 drama about group therapy. Elaine quit when the director asked her to assume a fetal position under a table, but I stayed and cried and got very good reviews. I’m actually a very good actor, but it’s difficult to find a part I’m exactly right for.

"Besides, one of the many pleasures of directing is that I don’t have to experience that baby feeling that comes with acting. You know…‘I don’t like my dressing room’ and ‘Who stole my mascara?’ I feel more adult as a director. It’s like being a father in real life."

Before he returns to directing movies again, Nichols intends to weigh cautiously several properties now under discussion, including "Blood Money," Thomas Thompson’s sizzling best-seller about malice and murder in Houston. "In 1972 I turned down a chance to direct 'The Exorcist' because I didn’t like it. What the hell was it about? And why spend four months doing that to a little girl? Afterwards I asked Elaine to help me not feel guilty for turning it down and thereby losing out on millions of dollars. ‘Darling,’ she said, ‘don’t worry. If you had directed it, it would never have made that much money.’ "

Of all his films to date, Nichols seems to take particular pride in "Carnal Knowledge," a relentless look at two skirt- chasing American men starring Jack Nicholson and Art Garfunkel. It aroused some feminist protest, Nichols acknowledges, and adds: "Some people seem to have difficulty with implicit content. Certain men, like those in the film, treat women as sex objects, making the women unhappy and cheating themselves. There were a few dedicated women’s libbers who accused the movie of advocating what it portrayed, perhaps missing the point because it was not explicitly stated in words. It’s so dumb. It’s like my grandmother saying, ‘I don’t like Bette Davis because she’s so mean.’"

Nichols, who once enjoyed a discreet liaison with Gloria Steinem, appears to be making a go of his third marriage. His first wife was Pat Scot, a singer, and his second Margo Callas, an Elaine May look-alike. Annabel is a script-girl-turned-screenwriter who divides her time between old-fashioned domesticity and her career. At the moment she is dishing up superb cheese souffle, mushroom salad and pecan pie. After ushering Max into the dining room for his father’s naptime kiss, she turns the boy over to a Guatemalan nanny and zips off to keep a backgammon date with friends.

What is the secret of Nichols’ new-found marital bliss?

"I’ve got no rules about it," he says. "The only thing I can say is that we choose one another each day. Neither of us has the feeling of being suffocated by the other’s need. We know we can live on our own. These things are always a delicate balance, of course. There is no guarantee that something else is not around the corner. I don’t need Annabel; I choose Annabel happily every day."