'Becoming Mike Nichols' Director Shares Stories About 'The Graduate,' 'Virginia Woolf'

Bob Willoughby/mptvimages.com/Courtesy of HBO

Ahead of its Feb. 22 HBO premiere, Doug McGrath talks about his documentary on the beloved director.

The first time Mike Nichols ever saw Elaine May, he was starring in Strindberg’s Miss Julie and she was sitting in the front row with a look on her face that suggested a mouth full of vinegar.

By Nichols’ own account, the production was so bad it constituted a strong argument for restrictions on free speech. But the critics, in all their wisdom, gave it a good review. Actually only one of them did, the venerable Sydney J. Harris of the Chicago Daily News. That was enough for Nichols, who caught up with director Paul Sills only to find him with the same girl from the front row. She glanced at the review and uttered one simple syllable: “Ha!”

The second time he saw her, she pretended to be scoping out unwitting citizens and sizing them up, and Nichols played right along. This episode marks the beginning of the legendary duo, as well as the beginning of Doug McGrath’s entertaining new documentary, Becoming Mike Nichols, debuting on HBO on Monday.

A filmed interview between Nichols and theater director Jack O’Brien at New York’s Golden Theatre, where Nichols and May debuted in 1962, the new movie uses vintage footage and photos to tell the story of Nichols’ early career, from Broadway acclaim to classic films including Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf and The Graduate.

The documentary exists only because Nichols had backed out of a commitment to write his memoirs, and O’Brien feared all those great anecdotes he heard through the years would be lost. So O'Brien contacted his friend, Veep producer Frank Rich, who introduced him to HBO chief Richard Plepler. Nichols had directed Wit and Angels in America for the network, with the two projects winning a total of 14 Emmy Awards. “It was a conversation of two minutes,” laughs McGrath, who had directed His Way about Jerry Weintraub for the network. “Documentary about Mike? Sign me up. That’s how it came to be.”

A relatively untested filmmaker, Nichols got the job directing two of the hottest stars of the period, Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf after becoming an acquaintance of Burton’s during intermission at the Golden Theatre, which was next door to the Majestic where Burton was starring in Camelot.

When Nichols and May closed and it was time to move on, Burton and Taylor were shipping off to Rome to shoot Cleopatra for 20th Century Fox. Burton implored Nichols to come visit, and on a down day, when Taylor wasn’t shooting, Nichols took her shopping and the two became fast friends. When Warner Bros. announced it had signed Taylor to play the part of besotted mid-life housewife Martha in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, Nichols half-jokingly suggested himself to direct. Although he had a pair of Broadway hits to his credit — Barefoot in the Park and The Odd Couple — he never had directed a film. But to his surprise, he got the job.

Virginia Woolf, being his first picture and being such a prestigious property and having two such high-profile stars in the lead — that’s a lot of pressure,” says McGrath, adding that Nichols consulted his friend, actor Anthony Perkins, for a three-day crash course on lenses. Jack Warner insisted the movie be shot in color, causing a rift with Nichols, who preferred black-and-white. The freshman director overruled Warner as well as veteran d.p. Harry Stradling and replaced him with Haskell Wexler, who went on to win an Oscar for his work on the film.

“Thank God they made that movie in black-and-white, because it seems essential to what the movie is,” observes McGrath, who shares Nichols’ ideas on the inherent metaphoric quality of monochrome. “It doesn’t look like life, so you experience it as it is, which is to say the same way you experience a story around the campfire or the dinner table. It’s just a level removed.”

Although nominated for the best director Oscar, Nichols didn’t win for Virginia Woolf, which earned five statuettes that year. It was his next film, The Graduate, that won him the award, as well as launched the career of Dustin Hoffman, an unknown whom Nichols had seen playing a transvestite Russian fishwife in an off-Broadway play. The Graduate also made a hit out of Simon and Garfunkel’s album, Sounds of Silence, which Nichols had been listening to throughout postproduction. Deciding the character of Mrs. Robinson would need a song written specifically for her, he contacted the duo, which, after a few weeks, delivered a song that Nichols hated.

The musicians huddled in the corner for a moment, and then hatched a new song, fully formed. Nichols loved it but was mystified at how they arrived at the catchy tune in a matter of seconds. It already had been composed, not for Mrs. Robinson, but for Eleanor Roosevelt.

“I don’t exactly understand what these lyrics have to do with that woman, or what they have to do with the plot, but I just assumed it was my fault,” McGrath says of the song's references to candidates debating and Joe DiMaggio. “Whether it was originally about Mrs. Roosevelt or not, [the lyrics] have a bittersweet quality to them. There’s something in the song that is in touch with the mood of the film, not the comic mood so much but the darker mood.”

Like Nichols, McGrath stays busy in film and theater. The stage musical, Bullets Over Broadway, which he co-wrote with Woody Allen, is touring, and he’s busy adapting his Carole King musical, Beautiful, to the big screen for Tom Hanks’ Playtone films. He never worked with Nichols, but was lucky enough to meet him at an awards show where they shared a dais. Afterwards, Nichols’ publicist, Leslee Dart, approached and told him the director would like to meet him.

“Yeah, that’d be fine. Bring him over,” McGrath responded. “He couldn’t have been more charming or more Mike Nichols-like. I was thrilled.”