He was the one everyone wanted to sit next to at dinner. Though Joseph Epstein didn’t mention him in his excellent book Charm: The Elusive Enchantment, it’s not unreasonable to speculate that Epstein would view the late Mike Nichols as a certain embodiment of charming.
One of the world’s most accomplished directors on both stage and screen, Nichols was also a polymath. He could speak knowledgeably about most everything, and could tell stories that had those lucky enough to dine next to him, or be directed by him, spellbound. No less than Richard Burton wrote in his diaries that of all the remarkable men he met (we’re talking about someone who knew Churchill and Picasso, among many others), Noel Coward and Mike Nichols uniquely had “the capacity to change the world when they walk into a room.”
Epstein wrote at length about Coward’s charm in his aforementioned book, but the speculation here is that if he were to read Mark Harris’s endlessly interesting new biography of Nichols, titled Mike Nichols: A Life, that he would add a new chapter about this most amazing of individuals.
Indeed, on November 8, 2015, a year after Nichols died, a party was held in his memory at the IAC Building (Barry Diller) in Manhattan’s Chelsea. As Harris described the event, it was a night “so packed with celebrities that even the famous dropped their guard and gazed at one another in fascination.” What a sendoff! What a charmed life? Not so fast.
Epstein made plain in Charm that what appears grand on the surface often obscures the truth. This was certainly true when it came to Nichols. His life is a reminder that even the most intelligent, smooth, and sought after people frequently overcome substantial odds on their way to surface perfection. In Nichols’s case, Harris writes that the party honoring him in posthumous fashion was “not much more than a mile from where the SS Bremen had deposited a seven-year old boy ashore in his new country in 1939.” Nichols was Igor Michael Peschkowsky then. He’d traveled alone with his younger brother Robert after his father had sent for them. He knew two lines of English. The family was escaping extermination at the hands of the Nazis in Berlin. How did your life begin?
In reviewing Harris’s wildly enjoyable book, I’ll do so as always through an economic prism. Economics is life, and Nichols’s life explains a great deal about economics.
First up is that Nichols made it to the United States. Imagine what the U.S. and world would have lost if he hadn’t secured passage. Harris writes that “In later years, Nichols would talk of his ‘unbelievable, undeserved, life-shaming luck’ in being able to emigrate.” How lucky for all of us that he was able to! More broadly, Nichols’s remarkable story is a reminder of how ridiculous the economics profession has become. With its practitioners hiding behind charts, equations and scarily dense measures of well-being like GDP, they’ve reduced themselves to making the horrifyingly obtuse assertion that World War II pulled a dormant U.S. economy out of the Great Depression. Economists should hang their heads in shame. People matched with capital drive economic growth, so for economists to say that which kills and maims people, and that erases wealth, somehow powers growth is for economists to sink to unimaginable lows.
“But wait,” some will say. “What we mean is that the U.S. emerged from the war largely intact, while the rest of the world was destroyed. This is what we mean by growth. The U.S. was unchallenged.” Such a view, one that is widely bruited by economists, is impossibly wrong. Economic growth is a consequence of productivity whereby individuals divide up work according to specialty, and without regard to country. Precisely because war kills off people, an expanded global division of labor that enables growth is suffocated a little or a lot. WWII snuffed specialization out a lot.
Most of all, war kills off brain power that enables economic advance. Nichols thankfully survived, but so many didn’t, including six million Jewish people. How many possessing talent similar to Nichols never got to showcase it in culture, healthcare and commerce? The murder of tens of millions couldn’t possibly have lifted the U.S. economy. In reality, mass death logically slowed economic progress, including in the United States. The seen is what the great Mike Nichols achieved as a consequence of surviving needless slaughter, whereas the unseen is the global progress that never happened, or that was needlessly delayed, as a consequence of war. Thank goodness that Nichols made it, but let’s never forget how his genius raises endless questions about those not so lucky, and what they could have contributed.
Nichols once asked “Aren’t all childhoods bad?” Some will read the previous line and respond, “compared to what?” How could someone possessing Nichols’s talent complain? Plus he got to live. True enough, but still. Kids necessarily lack perspective.
Beyond that, Nichols’s childhood was most certainly bad. He didn’t just escape near certain death as a seven-year old. Life was hardly a piece of cake upon reaching his father’s adopted city of New York. Harris reports that Nichols’s parents were always fighting, that both were having affairs, plus Nichols’s father’s death when he was twelve brought the family to poverty. An errant vaccine administered to him when he was young meant that his whole body was hairless, at which point readers can imagine what this was like for him as a schoolboy in New York. Adults can laugh off their physical and mental demerits, but it’s not so easy for young people. It’s made worse because other young people don’t yet know that they shouldn’t laugh and tease. Nichols’s brother recalls that kids who didn’t know better used to yell “Hey Baldy” to Nichols on playgrounds that were nightmarish for him.
Nichols’s early life was much less than charmed. At school Nichols was “a zero.” “In every way that mattered, I was powerless.” Imagine that. The most popular person in the room as an adult was at best “the most popular of the unpopular kids” growing up. There’s a lesson in this. Life is a marathon. Nichols’s early life didn’t define him, or he didn’t allow it to. As Nichols put it, “I was motivated then, and for a long time, by revenge.” The cruelty was fuel it seems. By playground standards Nichols was less than equal, presumably longing to be forgotten so that he could avoid being teased, but a desire to overcome or prove the unequal wrong is quite the motivator. It’s a long or short way of saying that politicians aim to stamp out economic inequality at their peril. The latter doesn’t just boost our living standards (imagine life today without the achievements of Bezos, Gates and Jobs), it also motivates. It certainly did Nichols.
Nichols observed about high school the perception that “things are frozen forever in a certain pattern.” Except that nothing about life is static. Certainly not in a free country like the U.S. where people are constantly stretching, constantly evolving. Nichols realized life wasn’t going to be frozen by going away to college, to the University of Chicago. His “great discovery” there was that “nothing was fixed and the world was wide open.” Translated, Nichols developed confidence. Where he was wouldn’t define where he ended.
Harris notes that Nichols’s first New York City apartment as a 22-year old adult was “an eight-dollar-a-week, one-room third-floor walk-up with a communal toilet at the end of the hall” on West 87th Street in Manhattan. How things changed. His brilliant improvisational skits with Elaine May soon enough had him in a three-story apartment at the Beresford, not to mention that when he died he shared a 5th Avenue apartment with fourth wife Diane Sawyer. Nichols’s office was a two-bedroom suite at the Carlyle.
Where wealth is being created, where economic inequality is greatest, is also where the opportunity to change one’s economic circumstances for the better is greatest. That’s why the U.S. ambitious generally choose New York, San Francisco or Los Angeles to seek their fortune over Buffalo, Flint, and San Bernardino. Nichols chose New York.
Though Nichols started out doing improv in very lucrative fashion with May, he eventually found an even truer calling in directing. Interesting there among countless interesting anecdotes from Harris is that with The Graduate Nichols developed “what became a lifelong practice” of “sacrificing an actor early on when something felt wrong.” Gene Hackman was the one sacrificed during The Graduate, and while Nichols claimed he was simply miscast, there was something bigger at work. The firing of a major player was a way of communicating to everyone on the set that no one was secure; that in Harris’s words “the business at hand was serious.”
Bill Gates has always said that success is a lousy teacher, and it seems Nichols understood the previous truth long before Gates started Microsoft. Fear of failure brings out the best in us. So does failure itself. And Nichols knew he would eventually experience a slump after years of being the “Golden Boy.” Remember, the past is a lousy predictor of the future as Nichols’s misery in high school attests. In his words, “You’re going to see such failures, you wouldn’t believe it.” In his case, classics such as Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, The Graduate (at risk of alienating readers, I thought the film and the novel irritating, and vastly overrated) and Carnal Knowledge were followed by less highly regarded efforts like Catch-22, The Fortune, and The Day of the Dolphin.
From the films mentioned in the previous paragraph, it would seem that Nichols had a pretty good eye for good scripts, but with Dolphin he chose to make a movie about a marine biologist who trains the mammals to communicate in English….Success is hard. Understanding what the moviegoing public wants is incredibly difficult, as is understanding consumers more broadly. Jeff Bezos acknowledges having lost many billions on ideas that Amazon customers turned their noses up to, and so did Nichols have a few errors. When politicians pretend success is easy, or that the present of commerce will define the future (think antitrust), they’re revealing how little they understand about the business world they vainly hope to corral. Success is again so very difficult. The future is opaque.
Indeed, it’s not just that Nichols chose to direct The Day of the Dolphin. Where it becomes fascinating is that he passed on The Exorcist to direct Dolphin. About this decision, legendary film executive and Nichols confidant John Calley told Nichols that “You personally lost $30 million by not making” it. On paper, Calley’s assertion made sense, but Elaine May was likely the source of much more useful wisdom in telling Nichols “Don’t regret anything. If you directed The Exorcist, it wouldn’t have made money at all!”
May’s response was crucial, and pregnant with economic insight. Think China. Former President Trump made China the U.S.’s economic enemy, and convinced many in his flock that the Chinese were “stealing” intellectual property from U.S. innovators. Trump’s successor in Joe Biden seems intent on continuing the China bashing. Both miss that brilliance can’t so easily be stolen, or mimicked, or manufactured. Lest we forget, Nichols was brilliant, yet he chose Dolphin over The Exorcist. His error reveals how difficult it is to know what to “steal” in the first place. The future is yet again opaque.
William Friedkin seemingly knew how to make The Exorcist in a way that Nichols (per May) quite simply would not have. Translated, he was the wrong person for a film that wouldn’t have worked if he’d been behind the camera in much the same way that Friedkin likely wouldn’t have understood another Nichols classic: Working Girl. In short, even if it were true that the Chinese only steal the ideas of others, doing so is no easy feat. It implies that genius is easy to duplicate. No it isn’t. May was right.
After that, Nichols noted that “The first screening of any picture is awful,” and it brings to mind Pixar founder Ed Catmull’s line that all Pixar films “suck” at first. Even the greats at filmmaking make what they create great through constant re-working. Catmull said Pixar’s films turned out good because they had the best people in their employ. Again, genius isn’t easily stolen. Every USC film school student could follow Steven Spielberg, Michael Winterbottom and Whit Stillman around for a year, but they couldn’t on their own recreate a Spielberg, Winterbottom or Stillman film. Let’s stop worrying about stolen IP. It’s a waste of time that misunderstands yet again just how rare is achievement in the marketplace.
Harris plainly loves the industry that he writes about, so there’s lots of analysis and inside scoop about how movies were made. Speaking of, the “first cut” of Working Girl “didn’t work.” Why didn’t it? At two hours the movie’s scenes were too long and their length made the plot less believable. It would be so interesting to see the original cut, but it speaks to how difficult the making of movies is, and also why directors spend so much time editing after filming is wrapped. Similarly notable from a recent oral history of Nichols (Life isn’t everything.) is that Let the River Run, the iconic song that is so very much associated with the film, was initially turned down by Nichols! Again, success is so difficult. Reading audiences is so difficult.
More on Working Girl, it was made during the Ronald Reagan years. And while Harris’s book thankfully doesn’t dig too deeply into politics other than indicating Nichols’s clear preference for Democrats (no surprise there….this is Hollywood), he reports to readers that Nichols’s “politics were far from Reagan’s.” This read as a needless jab at Reagan, and excessive? OK, maybe Nichols’s politics were far from Reagan’s, but were they really? If we ignore Harris’s tidbit about Reagan initially being considered as Benjamin Braddock’s father in The Graduate, to those of us who’ve read a lot about Reagan we’re aware that he would have loved Nichols’s immigrant story given his view of the U.S. as the “Shining City On a Hill.” Reagan would have also loved Nichols’s humor, and his up-from-challenging-circumstances story.
Some say Reagan was late on AIDS, but that’s just not fair. Everyone was late on AIDS, and wrong about it. Goodness, no less than Anthony Fauci confidently asserted it could be passed on by casual contact in 1983. Per Harris, Tony Perkins went to great lengths to hide his AIDS diagnosis in Hollywood for fear that he would never work again. No less than Rock Hudson worried endlessly that he gave Linda Evans AIDS when he kissed her on Dynasty. Reagan believed, correctly in this writer’s estimation, that a centralized, federal approach to illnesses was the worst approach. Was he wrong? It says here no, but even if he was, to be against federalizing everything is not the same as being against a cure. It’s time to end the silly narrative, one that in fairness Harris doesn’t make, that Reagan was the barrier to a muscular AIDS response in the 1980s. A lack of knowledge was arguably the biggest barrier, and it’s not the job of presidents to be medical experts.
Notable is that Reagan felt that wealth creators should keep more of what they had created. It seems Nichols did too? He surely loved living well, or in Harris’s description, in “princely” fashion. Nichols’s love of high living is made apparent throughout the book. This truth is something for Harris to keep in mind in assessing Nichols’s politics, but it’s also something Republicans should keep in mind. Just as they lament Democrats making thin, surface assumptions about them and how they think, Republicans more often than not pretend that Democrats are mostly socialists. No, not at all. That’s just silly, and baseless. A read of Harris’s book would in a sense help both sides understand each other better. Nichols loved life’s finer things.
Successful as Nichols was on the screen and stage (7 Tony Awards as director), failure is a constant in this remarkable book. While it’s easy as a film fan to think of Nichols (and other Hollywood greats) as having helmed hit after hit, the errors kept coming up. After Working Girl, (arguably more popular after its theater run) for instance, there were forgettable films like Regarding Henry and Wolf. The mistakes got to Nichols. Beloved as he was, he needed reinforcement that he didn’t always get. This led to periods of heavy drug use, crippling depression, and suicidal thoughts. Even the greats need to hear they’re great. After a screening of Heartburn that had his closest friends quiet, and not talking to him about it, he told a friend “people think that because I’m Mike Nichols, I don’t need praise. I need a lot. Nobody gets that.” Probably it was for the best.
Indeed, when Nichols was down he always had a response. After a rough stretch in the early ‘90s he came back with The Birdcage. His reaction was “Fuck you bastards! You thought I couldn’t do this anymore? Well, look at this.” Absolutely. Nichols’s failures made him. So did life’s crueler aspects. Were the kids from the playground aware of how Nichols was honored in 2015? He surely got them with “The Last Ratfuck.” Life is again a marathon. Nichols’s life was long and amazing. Mark Harris makes 594 pages a total blast. You want to know his subject, while also learning from him. His story of the brilliant Mike Nichols reminds us how much we must risk failure in order to succeed. What a great, enriching read. Go get it.