February 1, 2004
BY ROB FELD
The selection this year of Mike Nichols to be the recipient of the DGA's Lifetime Achievement Award highlights the career of one of the most successful and influential directors, be it on stage or screen, in the performing arts. "The tricky thing about Mike," says Emma Thompson, "is, when you think Lifetime Achievement Award, you think, 'Well, which lifetime?' "
"There is hardly an entertainment medium that Mike Nichols hasn't pioneered and mastered," DGA President Michael Apted said. "You can put any of these in front of his name with the word winner: Oscar, Emmy, Tony, Grammy. But it's the absolute brilliance that he brought to feature film directing from day one — with his debut of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? followed a year later by his DGA and Oscar award-winning direction of The Graduate — that propels us to honor his legacy to motion pictures. In his 37 years of directing films, Mike Nichols has brought millions of movie-goers into the theater. He has done it with class, intelligence and always good humor."
As a film director, Nichols made movies of his times — like Carnal Knowledge and the ultimate zeitgeist film responsible for the creation of many a film student, The Graduate. Those, and films like Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Silkwood, Biloxi Blues , Primary Colors, Working Girl, Wit, and his latest, a movie for television for which he is a DGA Award winner, Angels in America, brought to the fore some of the most indelible performances of an era's greatest actors, such as Jack Nicholson, Meryl Streep, Dustin Hoffman, Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton, Emma Thompson, Cher, Matthew Broderick, Harrison Ford and Christopher Walken.
Nichols' theater career has seen him directing the quintessential works of Neil Simon, Tom Stoppard and Jules Feiffer, as well as being a founding member of Chicago's Compass Players (later renamed Second City). Ever in his moment, Nichols' comedy work with Elaine May, which led to the 1960 Broadway run of An Evening With Mike Nichols and Elaine May, joined the canon of social satire of his generation.
Whether it be on film, TV or live theater, Nichols' focus has always been on ensuring that the audience is confronted with events both relevant and "really happening."
"I guess I see it as bringing something to life and making sure that what is on the screen are events really taking place, rather than just being described or indicated," Nichols says of directing. "If the rough, overall aim is for the viewer to say, 'My God, I know that man, I am that man,' then one has to sort of work backward. In other words, the script is crucial, and what people say in a script is the tip of an iceberg, just like what we say in life is the tip of an iceberg. The mass of the iceberg are the things that happened long ago, things that happened out of sight, things that happened that are private; and all these things, in a kind of concatenation of events, lead to something during which the characters speak certain things, or the lines. There's the line in Shakespeare where Polonius says, 'Take this from this if this be otherwise.' Well, it's gibberish. If you don't know that on the first 'this' you have to point to the head, and on the second 'this' you have to point the shoulder, the line is complete gibberish. What does it mean? But, as soon as you point to your head and then to your body, it's perfectly clear to anybody in the audience that you're saying, 'Cut my head off if I'm wrong.' Well, my theory is that there is a head and a body for every line. There is a gesture like that, as it were, for every moment that you're talking about something as concrete as that. Directing is a process of sifting through things and exploring the action, the things that happen, the things that people do that are not in the words — to discover what the words are really about, that isn't clear yet. So that when you see the well-directed scene, or the scene that has come to life, the words that you've read suddenly mean many more things and are clearer."
Nichols' uncanny ability to identify and crystallize a moment into an identifiable truth has won him the awe and admiration of countless colleagues and disciples but, as Thompson describes it, "If you say to Mike, 'Well, what do you think?' he'll be brilliant and fabulous, and you'll sit there and think, 'Well, why didn't I think of that?' but there's room for everyone, which is what I think is so extraordinary. He still asks the questions. He'll turn around and say to a young 20-year-old actor, 'Well, I don't know, what do you think?' That's what I want, more than someone who knows everything all the time, because then you're collaborating. He's still alive, which is extraordinary to me, because people do tend to fossilize! And they tend to fossilize in their work and they won't reinvent, and he really has."
"What I learned in Second City — when you're improvising for an audience, you learn it pretty good," Nichols notes, "is that the audience is really saying, 'Why are you telling me this?' And you better have a good answer. 'Because it's funny,' is a good answer, but the best answer is 'Because it's your life.' If you're really lucky, and get it right, the audience, in its silent way, will say, 'Well, that's right. Yes it is.' And that's all about telling the simple story in a way that people can respond to."
Nichols' rapport with actors has made him a favored director with the very best of generations. His legendary humor and willingness to collaborate while maintaining a firm grasp on the crux of the material has led the likes of Nicholson and Streep to work with him again and again. "It's not so much a question of getting things from them as putting them in a structure in which it's clear to them what they're meant to be doing," Nichols says. "The whole job is to make sure that the right things happen; that people are doing the things that will make the next thing happen. It's really back to the line from Shakespeare. If you point out to an actor that he's really just saying, 'Cut my head off if I'm wrong,' he's in pretty good shape. He knows why he's there and what he's doing. That seems to me the whole job: to tell the story and to help yourself and the actors, together, search for what these people are doing and why. What do they want and when? If you get that right, you don't have to get anything out of the actors. If they're properly cast, you set them free to do their job."
Nichols' sensitivity to his surrounds has made his observations, whether put on screen or in simple conversation, worthy of buying tickets to for years. He is wickedly astute when it comes to identifying what really motivates a situation in drama and in life, and knows how to build a moment to where its end makes sense, and the audience doesn't feel cheated for having arrived there. "I think some of the time I discover afterward that things I've done have been about what's been going on around us all, in the most recent period. It always turns out to be more a part of our present lives than I think it's going to. And then I think I'm drawn to things that are funny, but also not, like life. Something funny is about recognition — you laugh because you recognize something. And Robert Frost said that tragedy is something awful happening when everyone did their best and it's nobody's fault. That's what it feels like so much of the time, both in life and theater and movies. That's what I'm drawn to."
Sharing the experience of the work has always been of the greatest importance to Nichols, as his students at the New Actors Workshop, founded in 1988 by George Morrison, Paul Sills and Nichols, will tell you.
"Teaching is very important," he says, "not only as a way to plead for your way of doing things, but also finding out what you think and how you do it. I learn as much as the students do."
"I think that's evidence of a very touching belief that he will always be able to learn something new," says Thompson, "and often from the young. In a man that's something of a genius, that's something to be respected and appreciated, and it means that he'll never die."
His colleagues, however, also have provided an inseparable aspect of Nichols' career. "In terms of the DGA, my director friends have meant so much to me. The conversation, the collegial feelings toward the younger generation especially, but also the generation before you. I've talked about [past Lifetime Achievement Award recipient] Billy Wilder and his incredible generosity when I got to Hollywood. How much he gave me, how much he told me, how much he taught me. He told me I had to get a succession of windbreakers for shooting on set. A lot of them were so welcoming, these guys that I had worshipped in various ways, all the time I was growing up and loving movies. [past recipients] George Stevens, Willy Wyler, Fred Zinnemann! There was the time at the DGA Awards when I accepted Best Director and I hadn't won it! Walter Matthau wasn't quite clear when he was announcing it, and it turned out he was just announcing the nominees. I didn't know. I got up and spoke very movingly for three or four minutes, and then he said, 'Fred Zinnemann,' and went on with the rest of the nominees. As soon as Fred Zinnemann won, and made his actual acceptance speech, he walked straight to where I was sitting and said, 'Lunch tomorrow? I'll come to your studio.' I mean, those were some guys! Indeed, I did have lunch with him and he was remarkably generous, open and welcoming. And that's meant so much at every point, and I've tried to pass on that kind of friendship, both with individual directors and overall with the DGA; the idea that there's a bunch of you and you're together, means a lot."
In 1967 the DGA held a series of meetings on the question of the possessory credit, an experience Nichols, new to Hollywood at the time, has carried with him for years. "I certainly remember almost everything about those meetings. They were very emotional for Norman [Jewison] and me, because they were all there. Credit, man, that brought everybody out! John Ford was there! Alfred Hitchcock. Josef von Sternberg, if you please! Every one of them was there. We were inordinately moved just to listen to them talking to each other — Norman and I and the rest of the kids — because there was such grace in the way they addressed each other. Such courtliness. Directors tend to be very charming people because they deal with people all the time, and they're good at it. They were immensely respectful of one another and graceful with one another."
Nichols has managed to keep contemporary in a highly uncharacteristic way, for a director of his career longevity. Things have changed and The Big Soap Opera, as he calls it, dominates our cultural dialogue, while Reality TV demands audience attention. "Well, the world changes and we're in it," Nichols says. "Some of the changes we're unaware of because we're changing as the world changes. So much of what we do comes from the unconscious. This is a big thing for me in work. A lot of the job is to free my unconscious, and that of the writer and actors, so that some of what our deepest concerns are can get into what we're doing. What one hopes, ultimately, is that your unconscious is connecting with the audience's unconscious, and that they'll say, 'Yeah, me too! That's how I feel, although I couldn't have found the words.'
"So, as the world changes, what we make changes along with it, or in opposition to it, or both. It is indeed a strange time, although all times feel strange, in a way, as they're evolving. Part of the strangeness now is that so little of drama deals with people's actual lives, but almost entirely with fantasy. Metaphors that are fantasies, metaphors that are very often video games, literally or figuratively. So, I don't know what that means. I think we have to follow that through and see what's waiting, with all these extreme metaphors, both galactically and metaphorically, that they're practically not metaphors anymore, that they're practically only video games. We're all drawn to them. I can't follow the action at all, but I'm perfectly happy watching the battles and the trees lumbering around in The Lord of the Rings. I think that's all very exciting and wonderful. The whole idea is to be able to be held and increased by such an experience, as well as something as small as Lost in Translation. So, here are two of the most interesting and engaging films of this year, and they're as far in opposite directions as they possibly can be, and that's what we want and what we hope for. That's the way to move forward. In those ways, we're doing just fine. It's just a question of waiting to see what comes next, if the world continues."
Something of a philosopher king with a sense of humor to match, in person Nichols is everything you want in a great American director. Brilliant and insightful, self-deprecating and generous, Nichols inspires one to be better than one is. In the words of Thompson's 4-year-old daughter, Gaia, "He's a daft-head, but he has very soft hands." Equally astute, Nichols' frequent collaborator, Meryl Streep, says, "The most endearing thing about Mike is the way he weeps when he laughs. For an actor, it's the reaction you most ache to be able to pull from the director you adore. Nobody's funnier, tougher or more forgiving, more scathing or easily moved to tears, lazier or inexhaustibly alert, and nobody, nobody's smarter than Mike Nichols."