Mark Harris talks Mike Nichols: A Life

Elaine May and Mike Nichols. Courtesy of American Masters.

Mark Harris spoke with Solzy at the Movies about his new book, Mike Nichols: A Life, ahead of this weekend’s TCM Classic Film Festival.

The TCM premiere of Nichols and May: Take Two will screen on late Saturday morning. The documentary will be followed by Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? in the early afternoon. Both screenings will include a conversation with Mark Harris.

Mark Harris
Mark Harris (Photo by David A. Harris)

When did you first become interested in writing a book about Mike Nichols?

Mark Harris: It wasn’t really something that I had thought about until after he passed away, which was in December of 2014. My first two books were both movie cultural history books but I don’t think of myself really as a biographer. It hadn’t really occurred to me until sometime after he died when my publisher suggested it. It scared me, excited me, and intrigued me. I thought his life was so complicated, so full, so interesting, and I have so many questions about it that I don’t know the answers to, which I think is a great feeling to go into a book with that I know I’ll never get bored. I might get lost and I might get panicked but I’ll never be bored. I got interested in it pretty quickly after my publisher brought it up.

Among the 250 interviews, do you have a favorite anecdote?

Mark Harris: It’s so hard to pick out a first among equals but I have to say that getting to talk to Elaine May, who really has not done a lot of serious interviews about her time with Mike, was just a really unmatched privilege. Some of the stories in the book, I think, maybe if I had to pick a favorite anecdote, it might be the story that she told me about the very first time that she and Mike went on stage together in with something they had come up with themselves in a club, basically a restaurant/bar in Chicago in the 1950s. They completely bombed. It was just a complete disaster. They knew it was going to be a disaster from the first minute they got on stage because there was something they hadn’t worked out about the sketch but they didn’t realize what it was until it was too late. And the way she told that story, the emotions were so vivid. It was as if the humiliation, embarrassment, and panic had happened yesterday, not more than 50 years ago. The story is in the book and it’s one of my favorite stories.

What was the most surprising thing you learned through the interview and research process?

Mark Harris: I tried not to be surprised by a lot of things because I really wanted to be open to anything that I found out about Mike Nichols, his life or career. I think one thing that did surprise me a lot was—I knew Mike for the last dozen or so years of his life and that was—except for some physical challenges—a very happy, contented, productive, successful time of his life. I think one thing I didn’t realize until I started working on the book was how persistent a role depression had played in his life. That was something that he really struggled with over many decades. I never thought of Mike as a depressed person and so it was really fascinating to learn that that was something that he had wrestled with, and it was a good reminder for me that for people who struggle with depression, so much of it is trying to put a brave face on for the outside world. That was a big surprise.

Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton in WHO’S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF?

Audiences have a chance to watch not only Nichols and May: Take Two but also Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Do you have a better appreciation of the film after doing research for the book?

Mark Harris: Oh, absolutely. I have a better appreciation for all his films after doing research. Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is a great place to start if you’re curious about Mike Nichols because it’s his first movie. He himself said that because they shot the movie not entirely in sequence but largely in sequence that he feels that if you watch it, you can see him learning how to direct, learning how to use the camera, learning how to shape performances. You can see his abilities grow as the movie progresses, and I’m not sure that’s entirely true.. I think you see a lot of assurance from the very start but it’s fascinating. It’s not necessarily always the best thing if you’re introducing yourself as a director to start with their first movie but in the case of Mike Nichols, it really works. If you’re interested in exploring his career, why not start right where the movie side of it began?

Anne Bancroft and Dustin Hoffman in The Graduate.
Anne Bancroft and Dustin Hoffman in The Graduate. Courtesy of MGM/Embassy Pictures.

I would say of his films, The Graduate is probably my favorite.

Mark Harris: Well, that’s number two. It’s one of the great sort of avoidances of sophomore slump in the history of movie directing. To come out of the gate with Virginia Woolf for The Graduate as a one-two punch is really kind of an astonishing thing and the two movies couldn’t possibly be more different.

What film would you say is the most under appreciated?

Mark Harris: I would say it’s Heartburn. That was a movie that I had liked when it came out and seeing it again while I was doing research for the book, I liked it even more. I think a lot of Mike’s greatest strengths as a director—his acute eye for small details and performance, his sense of humor, his sense of the rules and etiquette of the particular class of people that he’s making a movie about—whatever that class is—all of those things are in place. His collaborative ability to work with women in Heartburn is a really great example of that, not only in Meryl Streep’s performance, which is fantastic, but in the fact that Nora Ephron wrote the script based on her novel and was very, very present for the whole thing. It startled me to read reviews at the time, which were really dismissive and sort of said, What is this director doing—the sort of almost lowering himself to domestic comedy, a woman’s story. Is that going to be is that what he’s going to do from now on? Is just going to make women’s pictures about infidelity? And also, why don’t we get the man’s perspective on this? Why is it only the woman who was left that that gets to tell the story? It was really not a very great moment in the history of film criticism and sexism. I think if you see the movie now—there was so much noise about Nora Ephron and Carl Bernstein and their divorce, which was just huge headline news in the 80s. To see it out from under the shadow of that. I think it’s really a very, very nice rediscovery.

It’s always interesting to watch these films are like 20 years old—

Mark Harris: Yeah. Sometimes, movies are really hostage to the moment they come out and whatever’s going on in the world at that time. Some movies more than others, it takes us a really long time to get clear of that moment.

I’ve been reading a number of biographies about filmmakers and it’s always interesting to see how those films are received upon release. And then, I’m reading and I’m like, Wait, what?

Mark Harris: It can really surprise you, right? That something gets mixed reviews, shaky reviews, contemptuous, or dismissive reviews. It’s amazing. It often seems to make sense at the time and it’s a good reminder that that the reputation of a movie is not something that gets crystallized in one moment. It’s a narrative. It unfolds over time and sometimes, it really changes over time in this very dramatic way. I was just rewatching the Kazan movie, A Face in the Crowd, from 1957, which I think is one of the great movies of that era. I read The New York Times review and it dismissed the ending as inane. Any of us who write about movies risk missing the forest for the trees sometimes and it certainly happened there.

I’ll have times where I’ll initially either pan a film or even be overgenerous and when I see the review embargo lift, it’s like, Wait, did I watch the same film that everyone else did?

-Mark Harris: Yeah. It’s a good thing for all of us who write about movies to keep an eye on within ourselves, like, why are we reacting to something the way we’re reacting to it? Is anything going on in our lives, in the news, or in the discourse that that is shaping how we how we react?

Have you started working on another book?

Mark Harris: I haven’t yet. I have a couple of ideas that I’m exploring and I’m hoping that one or both of them pans out into a book. I’m pretty quick to come up with ideas and pretty slow to figure out whether those ideas are interesting enough to sustain a whole book and all the time it takes to work on it. I can’t wait until I get there and I’ll definitely share it as soon as I do.

Nichols and May: Take Two and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf screen during the 2021 TCM Classic Film Festival on May 8 at 11:45 AM ET and 1 PM ET, respectively. Mike Nichols: A Life is now available in bookstores. 

Danielle Solzman

Danielle Solzman is native of Louisville, KY, and holds a BA in Public Relations from Northern Kentucky University and a MA in Media Communications from Webster University. She roots for her beloved Kentucky Wildcats, St. Louis Cardinals, Indianapolis Colts, and Boston Celtics. Living less than a mile away from Wrigley Field in Chicago, she is an active reader (sports/entertainment/history/biographies/select fiction) and involved with the Chicago improv scene. She also sees many movies and reviews them. She has previously written for Redbird Rants, Wildcat Blue Nation, and Hidden Remote/Flicksided. From April 2016 through May 2017, her film reviews can be found on Creators.