'Becoming Mike Nichols': Sundance Review

Becoming Mike Nichols Still- H 2016
Courtesy of Sundance Film Festival

Becoming Mike Nichols Still- H 2016

Short and sweet.

A short, funny and illuminating interview-based documentary that will leave theater and film mavens satisfied and hungry for more.

One of the oldest adages in show business is to leave 'em wanting more, and Mike Nichols does just that even from the grave in Becoming Mike Nichols, a short, funny and illuminating interview-based documentary that will leave theater and film mavens both satisfied and hungry for many additional courses.

Always the smartest man in the room and both a witty and deeply thoughtful talent, Nichols, in interviews with his theater director friend Jack O'Brien, proves constantly fascinating as he discourses about his early years in improv and teaming with Elaine May, quickly followed by his meteoric ascent as Broadway's, and then Hollywood's, hottest director of the 1960s. And, reflecting the title, that's as far as the discussion goes. World premiered at the Sundance Film Festival, the 72-minute film will premiere Feb. 22 on HBO, on the heels of May's hourlong American Masters documentary airing Jan. 29.

Douglas McGrath, another Nichols pal, filmed the interviews in July 2014, just four months before the subject died at 83. After having remained quite youthful-looking even into his 70s, the veteran director appears notably older here and his voice has a rasp it never did before. But the energy and enthusiasm are ever-present as Nichols sits opposite O'Brien on the stage of the Golden Theater, where he opened in An Evening With Nichols and May in 1960, and speaks of his unusual youth and shimmering early work. At one of the sessions there was an audience present, at the other not.

Nichols quickly covers his precarious early life, when he and his family members got out of Nazi Germany in the nick of time on different ships (the boy was 7 and spoke no English) and settled in New York, only to have his father die in 1945. Although one longs for more (about his mother, who is briefly described as sickly, and education, which included attending the Dalton School with future The Graduate screenwriter Buck Henry), he does vividly describe the galvanic experience of seeing what he believed was the second performance of A Streetcar Named Desire in 1947 and the enduring impact it had on him.

Nichols quickly jumps to the good stuff, beginning with his initial theater work at the University of Chicago and his fateful (and hilariously recounted) early encounters with May. Numerous clips serve as a reminder of (or introduction to) how brilliantly they worked together, and Nichols offers effusive praise for his partner's exceptional talent.

Then he gets to the heart of the matter, directing. This was what he was born to do, he immediately realized, and even though his first big jobs were on the mainstream Neil Simon comedies Barefoot in the Park and The Odd Couple, for both of which he won Tony Awards, the issues he had with actors as well as with dramaturgy taught him important lessons. Among them: As a director, it's important to “go in empty,” in other words, to be open to the unconscious and accidents, to things you can't analyze or plan, and that there are only three kinds of scenes — seductions, negotiations and fights (also applicable to relationships/marriages).

About 40 minutes are then dedicated to Nichols' accounts of the making of his first two films, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and The Graduate. On the former, a job he got because Elizabeth Taylor wanted him, Nichols recalls the studio politics involved in his getting to make the film in black-and-white, which he insisted upon because it does not pretend to be real life but “a version of life”; the behind-the-scenes guidance he got from Billy Wilder; his judgment about how much Richard Burton could drink and still deliver his performance; and how Taylor was delighted when Nichols said she should put on weight for the role of Martha, for which she was fundamentally too young. All his comments are astute and illustrative of what it took to get Edward Albee's play onscreen.

Even more involved is his discussion of The Graduate, for which Nichols won his directing Oscar (to go along with his nine Tonys and four Emmys) and which he regarded, in the end, as his best film. As long clips play out, he addresses in depth the difficulty of the adaptation, his decision to cast the unknown Dustin Hoffman, the origin of Hoffman's little yelp, the way he interpolated Simon and Garfunkel's songs and how they came upon the hauntingly ambiguous ending.

At the Q&A after the Sundance premiere, McGrath, executive producer Frank Rich and editor Camilla Toniolo explained that, after the first two Golden discussion sessions, a third one going further into the career yielded fewer gems and more perfunctory responses from Nichols, who famously returned his advance to Knopf when he decided he didn't feel like writing an autobiography after all.

It seems that discussing much of his later work didn't interest him much, hence the title of this lively short documentary, which is quite literally, and limitedly, about his rocket-like artistic ascent, not his gradual fall into more human-scaled proficiency, a condition nonetheless marked by occasional returns to brilliance (Carnal Knowledge, Angels in America and more estimable stage work).

So Becoming Mike Nichols is a trade-off, a sacrifice of breadth for depth. Under the unusual circumstances, it was a good bargain to have made.

Venue: Sundance Film Festival (Documentary Premieres)
Production: HBO Documentary Films
With: Mike Nichols, Jack O'Brien
Director: Douglas McGrath
Executive producers: Frank Rich, Jack O'Brien, Douglas McGrath
HBO producer: Ellin Baumel
HBO supervising producer: Lisa Heller
HBO executive producer: Sheila Nevins
Director of photography: Tim Orr
Editor: Camilla Toniolo
Music: David Lawrence

Premiere date: Monday, Feb. 22, 9 p.m. ET/PT (HBO)
Not rated, 72 minutes