Revisiting The Craft And Vision Of 'Graduate' Director Mike Nichols

Jan 29, 2016
Originally published on January 29, 2016 8:02 pm
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This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, sitting in for Terry Gross. Mike Nichols, the influential film and stage director, is the subject of an American Masters documentary on PBS, which kicks off its 30th season tonight. Another documentary about Nichols will be shown on HBO next month. His films include "The Graduate," "Catch-22," "Working Girl" and "The Birdcage." His first film, "Who's Afraid Of Virginia Woolf?" starred Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor. Mike Nichols was one of the very select show business talents to collect all the major awards for stage and screen, including an Oscar for "The Graduate," Tonys for "Spam-A-Lot," "Annie" and seven other Broadway productions, and Emmys for "Angels in America" and "Wit." He died in 2014 at the age of 83. Terry interviewed him in 2001. Nichols first became known in the late '50s doing improvisational comedy with his partner, Elaine May. Here's a taste from their 1960 Broadway show "An Evening With Nichols And May." The bit includes a reference to Vanguard - that's an experimental NASA satellite which was in the news at the time.


MIKE NICHOLS: (As Arthur) Hello.

ELAINE MAY: (As Phyllis) Hello, Arthur? This is your mother. Do you remember me?


NICHOLS: (As Arthur) Mom, hi, I was just going to call you. Isn't that a funny thing?

MAY: (As Phyllis) Arthur.

NICHOLS: (As Arthur) You know that I had my hand on the phone...

MAY: (As Phyllis) Arthur, you were supposed to call me last Friday.

NICHOLS: (As Arthur) Mother darling, I just didn't have a second and I could...

MAY: (As Phyllis) You didn't have a second?

NICHOLS: (As Arthur) Cut my throat. I was so busy.

MAY: (As Phyllis) Arthur, I sat by that phone all day Friday...

NICHOLS: (As Arthur) I know, I know, it was just work, work, work.

MAY: (As Phyllis) ...All day Friday night...

NICHOLS: (As Arthur) I kept thinking, I've got to call mom.

MAY: (As Phyllis) ...All day Saturday...

NICHOLS: (As Arthur) Mom, listen, believe me...

MAY: (As Phyllis) ...And all day Sunday. And your father said to me, Phyllis, eat something, you'll faint. I said, no, Harry, no, I don't want my mouth to be full when my son calls.

NICHOLS: (As Arthur) Mom.

MAY: (As Phyllis) He'll never call.

NICHOLS: (As Arthur) Mother, I was sending up Vanguard. I didn't have a second.

MAY: (As Phyllis) Well, it's always something, isn't it?

NICHOLS: (As Arthur) OK, honey look...

MAY: (As Phyllis) You know, Arthur, I'm sure that all the other scientists there have mothers, you know? And I'm sure that they all find time after their breakfast or before their count-off...

NICHOLS: (As Arthur) Down.

MAY: (As Phyllis) ...To pick up a phone and call their mother.

NICHOLS: (As Arthur) Honey, listen, now you have my on the phone...

MAY: (As Phyllis) And you know how I worry.

NICHOLS: (As Arthur) Well, I do, that's the point...

MAY: (As Phyllis) I read in the paper how you keep losing them.

NICHOLS: (As Arthur) Mother, I don't lose them.

MAY: (As Phyllis) Well, I nearly went out of my mind.

NICHOLS: (As Arthur) OK, honey...

MAY: (As Phyllis) I thought, what if they're taking it out of his pay?


MAY: (As Phyllis) Write me a letter. Is that so hard? I'm your mother.

DAVIES: Mike Nichols and Elaine May from their 1960 Broadway show. This evening, a documentary directed by Elaine debuts on the PBS American Masters series. Terry interviewed Mike Nichols in 2001.


TERRY GROSS, BYLINE: Why did you get into directing? You started off as a performer, you know, doing comedy. Why did you want to go behind the camera?

NICHOLS: Well, I didn't - and I didn't want to stay a performer. I mean, it's not that it came up that much. I think that as a performer, I was something of a director. You know, there were two of us performing, and I was, you know, always bossing her around a little bit. But also, I never really was crazy about what performing brought out in me - more of the baby. And I feel like directing brings out the daddy in me to some extent. And I enjoy it more. I like it better.

GROSS: In what way did acting bring about the baby in you?

NICHOLS: Why did it? It's just something that happens to me. I just turn into a baby. You know, I say, shouldn't I have the other dressing room? I mean, look, that light is out. And why don't we come first? And who's opening? I just don't like the performer's baby impulses. And they come out plenty in me.

GROSS: Whereas as the director you have to be careful of all the other actors' egos and baby impulses, probably.

NICHOLS: Well, that's right. You're worrying about somebody else. You're thinking about somebody else, which is somehow more freeing, and which I enjoy more. I don't like worrying, did they like me, will they like me? I prefer worrying, will they like her, will they like him, will they like them?

GROSS: You must have had your hands full with the first movie you directed, "Who's Afraid Of Virginia Woolf?" because starring in that was Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, who were two of, you know, perhaps the most followed couple in the press and by the American public. And they had this tumultuous relationship. And the story is about people who prey on each other's neuroses and delusions. That must have been quite a job for a first-time director.

NICHOLS: Well, I was lucky. They were very good friends of mine. Richard and I were very good friends. We'd been in the same alley - our theaters were in the same alley when we were on Broadway in different shows. I was in "Evening With Nichols And May," and he was in "Camelot." And we'd become very close friends. And then I was just becoming a good friend of Elizabeth's. And I felt quite easy with them. And they were very sweet and wanted very much to make the movie as good as they could. And there was really only four of them - four actors. And they were wonderful to the other two actors, George Segal and Sandy Dennis. And they were wonderful to me. And Richard had his difficult days - difficult for him, first. But we waited for him in this way and that way, and that was the only problem that ever arose. I was extremely fond of them, and I thought they were doing very good work. And in a good way, we enjoyed doing it. I mean, they would get down. They would get depressed. Sometimes she'd say she was tired of spitting at him, you know? Could we do something else for a while? She'd have three days of spitting at him. But by and large, they were a pleasure.

GROSS: Let's just listen to a short scene from the film.


RICHARD BURTON: (As George) Stop it, Martha.

ELIZABETH TAYLOR: (As Martha) Oh, what do you want?

BURTON: (As George) I wouldn't go on with this if I were you.

TAYLOR: (As Martha) Oh you wouldn't, would you? Well, you're not.

BURTON: (As George) You've already sprung a leak about you-know-what.

TAYLOR: (As Martha) What? What?

BURTON: (As George) About the sprout, the little bugger - our son. If you start in on this other business, Martha, I warn you...

TAYLOR: (As Martha) I stand warned.

BURTON: (As George) Do we really have to go through all this?

TAYLOR: (As Martha) So anyway, I married the S.O.B. I had it all planned out. First, he'd take over the history department. Then, when Daddy retired, he'd take over the whole college, you know? That was the way it was supposed to be. Getting angry, baby? That was the way it was supposed to be - all very simple. And Daddy thought it was a good idea, too, for a while, until he started watching for a couple of years - getting angry? - until he watched for a couple of years and started thinking that maybe it wasn't such a good idea after all - that maybe Georgie boy didn't have the stuff, that maybe he didn't have it in him.

BURTON: (As George) Stop it, Martha.

TAYLOR: (As Martha) Like hell I will. You see, George didn't have much push. He wasn't particularly aggressive. In fact, he was sort of a flop - a great, big, fat flop.

BURTON: (As George) Stop it, Martha.

TAYLOR: (As Martha) I hope that was an empty bottle, George. You can't afford to waste good liquor - not on your salary, not an associate professor's salary.

GROSS: That's a scene of "Who's Afraid Of Virginia Woolf?" directed by my guest Mike Nichols. It was his first film - the first film he directed. You know, it's funny. As part of Nichols and May you dealt a lot with neuroses in relationships, but not on this level of kind of grand neurosis - you know, the grand, theatrical version of neurosis. So it was kind of continuing a theme but on a completely different level for you.

NICHOLS: Well, yes, I think that's right but, you know, when I saw the play of "Virginia Woolf," I was really knocked out by it. I thought, and still think, that it's a great play. And I was - I felt I knew a lot about it when it came up as a movie to direct because there's something about the way Albee went about it that was very different familiar for someone who'd gone to the University of Chicago and known certain people there who had difficult marriages and lived a certain kind of academic life. You know the gag about academia is that - you know why there's so much backbiting and viciousness in academia?

GROSS: No. Why?

NICHOLS: Because the stakes are so low.

GROSS: (Laughter) Right.

NICHOLS: And that - I had seen a certain amount of that at the university. And I really felt I understood it. And I think you're right. You know, Elaine May and I did neurotic couples, God knows. And here was one more.

DAVIES: Director Mike Nichols speaking to Terry Gross in 2001. More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to Terry's 2001 interview with director Mike Nichols. He's the subject of an American Masters documentary tonight on PBS.


GROSS: Your family had made quite a trek to get here. You were born in Berlin. You and your brother, when you were children, had to travel alone across the ocean to come here after Hitler's rise to power. Your father had already come here and your mother, I think, was sick and had to stay behind. That's a pretty scary journey for a couple of boys to make on their own.

NICHOLS: Well, it is, unless you're the little boy. Kids sort of accept whatever happens. For us, it was very exciting - a gigantic ship and nobody to tell us what to do. And sort of a nice - there was a stewardess meant to look after us who let us play or do - I don't even remember what we did, but we got to do what we wanted. It wasn't perceptibly scary to us. But you're absolutely right. It wasn't any bourgeois existence, either. We weren't in any way middle-class, Elaine or I. We were terribly poor, my family, when we got here. And when we'd been here for a while, my father eventually set up his practice and did fine. But you could never have called us, you know, a middle-class family, nor Elaine's family, who were Jewish actors who traveled all over mostly South America. We were really not talking about ourselves when we were making those jokes.

GROSS: You were talking about the people who you knew in Chicago.

NICHOLS: Right, and sort of the way that people had begun to talk about being middle-class - that it was something you were always a little ashamed of.

GROSS: They seemed a little oppressive.

NICHOLS: Oppressive, and you wanted to be special. You wanted to be a worker, a sufferer, somebody who had political aspirations. But middle-class, bourgeois - look at the word bourgeois itself. It started out meaning simply middle-class and then ended up pejorative as it came into our language from French.

GROSS: How old were you when you came to the States?


GROSS: So you were 7 speaking, I think, no English.

NICHOLS: No, not for the first couple of weeks. But, you know, again, kids learn it very, very fast. In a couple of weeks, I was speaking English in school.

GROSS: 'Cause you seem like such a verbal person. I mean you operate in such a verbal universe and you've had to be so quick verbally all your life. It must've been hard even if just for that early period when you couldn't communicate through language.

NICHOLS: I actually remember not knowing certain words in English. But it went so fast, you know, that it was - that it was over in a minute, as it were. And I think - I've always thought that that sort of immigrant's ear, that the extra ear that tells you what else is happening aside from what people are saying, is a very useful thing. And it's a very interesting thing to have because you do hear. Sometimes you hear things you wish you didn't, but sometimes, mostly, you hear very interesting and sometimes useful things. And I recognize it in other immigrants, you know, somebody like Dr. Kissinger, who was such a great negotiator. I could assume that that immigrant's ear let him hear things that they weren't saying and let him - he had a special talent, which was to hear what you were thinking and give it back to you so that you would think that you were just like him. And then, I assume, he would begin to negotiate. And I think all that has to do with being the little kid listening very hard for what's really happening in this new place.

GROSS: You've mentioned that you lost your mother to cancer. How long ago was that?

NICHOLS: That was in 1976.

GROSS: Did any of the ways in which she behaved when she was sick surprise you? Did anything seem out of character or so crystallized who - what her essence was?

NICHOLS: Absolutely. She was a person who didn't suffer things easily and did tend to complain. And we were all very touched and impressed by the - and surprised by the fact in the last year, when she certainly knew that she was going to die, that she was extremely courageous and changed in that respect absolutely and indeed had that - had her courage to hold to her during that toughest year. And I think I said '76 when I meant '86.

GROSS: Oh, that's much more recent, yeah.

NICHOLS: Yeah. And we were very proud of her and we all got very close to her through her courage.

GROSS: You're obviously a very verbal person and a fine writer. When your mother was dying or when your close friend was dying, did you feel like you had the words to say what you really wanted to say?

NICHOLS: Yes. I don't think it's a time for a lot of words. I think it's a time to be there. It's all about being there. You know, another friend of mine died some years ago and never spoke of it, and the doctor asked her on the last night, do you want to talk about it, and she said, my only chance is not to talk about it.

And I completely understand that. When you're there and it's somebody's last day, hour, whatever, it's not about what anybody says it all. I think so much of real life is not about what anybody says. It's about what we do, and in the sense of someone who's losing their life, it's about being there.

GROSS: Well, Mike Nichols, I don't want to say goodbye without asking you first about one of the most famous shots in modern movies - in a movie that you directed, "The Graduate." And the scene that this is from is the scene in which Mrs. Robinson, played by Anne Bancroft, is trying to seduce the young Dustin Hoffman freshly out of college. And the shot that I'm referring to is just as he's saying, Mrs. Robinson, are you trying to seduce me, she has been sitting on a bar stool - she's wearing a fairly short skirt - and, as if in answer to that question, she has, like, raised her legs a little bit and separated them. She's like, bent one of her legs, and you shoot Dustin Hoffman through that one bent leg. And that shot even became the shot used or the image used in the ad campaign. Can you just talk a little bit about coming up with that shot?

NICHOLS: Well, it was all about - that scene was all about him being stalked by Mrs. Robinson, you know? And we talked about it being a jungle - and it was a jungle, it was all these plants in the Beverly Hills garden that was, you know, behind the glass that surrounded this sun porch. And we talked about her being the tiger in the jungle, and she had a striped dress on, a tiger-striped dress on, and it was - it was all built to be a trap, a tender trap. And then I wanted to - just to find a way to express the fact that she was being extremely provocative and that he was framed by that provocativeness and that it was making him sweat. Anne put her heel up on the bar stool, and there was this very nice little arch through which you could see Dustin very well. And I said, oh good, let's come over here, I like this.

So, you know, things - things that become famous in movies are a concatenation of so many things that are out of control that have to do with the theme and with the way the theme strikes a time and a moment and people in their unconscious - all sorts of things that we don't control. But the process of choosing the pieces, the beads for the necklace that eventually gets thrown into the flames on the funeral pyre or that gets put on the princess as she's made into the queen, those - the process of making the beads - I'll try to abandon this metaphor as quickly as possible...


NICHOLS: ...Is always the same. You know, you just - you just look for the shot that most clearly expresses what's happening.

GROSS: Well, Mike Nichols, I want to thank you so much for talking with us.

NICHOLS: I enjoyed it, thank you.


ANNE BANCROFT: (As Mrs. Robinson) May I ask you a question? What do you think of me?

DUSTIN HOFFMAN: (As Ben Braddock) What do you mean?

BANCROFT: (As Mrs. Robinson) You've known me nearly all your life. You must have formed some opinion of me.

HOFFMAN: (As Ben Braddock) Well, I always thought that you were a very nice person.

BANCROFT: (As Mrs. Robinson) Did you know I was an alcoholic?

HOFFMAN: (As Ben Braddock) What?

BANCROFT: (As Mrs. Robinson) Did you know that?

HOFFMAN: (As Ben Braddock) Look, I think I should be going.

BANCROFT: (As Mrs. Robinson) Sit down, Benjamin.

HOFFMAN: (As Ben Braddock) Mrs. Robinson, if you don't mind my saying so, this conversation is getting a little strange. Now, I'm sure Mr. Robinson will be here any minute now...

BANCROFT: (As Mrs. Robinson) No.

HOFFMAN: (As Ben Braddock) What?

BANCROFT: (As Mrs. Robinson) My husband will be back quite late. He should be gone for several hours.

HOFFMAN: (As Ben Braddock) Oh, my God.

BANCROFT: (As Mrs. Robinson) Pardon?

HOFFMAN: (As Ben Braddock) Oh, no, Mrs. Robinson - oh, no.

BANCROFT: (As Mrs. Robinson) What's wrong?

HOFFMAN: (As Ben Braddock) Mrs. Robinson, you didn't - I mean, you didn't expect...

BANCROFT: (As Mrs. Robinson) What?

HOFFMAN: (As Ben Braddock) I mean, you didn't really think I'd do something like that? (Laughter).

BANCROFT: (As Mrs. Robinson) Like what?

HOFFMAN: (As Ben Braddock) What do you think?

BANCROFT: (As Mrs. Robinson) Well, I don't know.

HOFFMAN: (As Ben Braddock) For God's sake, Mrs. Robinson. Here we are, you got me into your house, you give me a drink, you put on music. Now you start opening up your personal life to me and telling me your husband won't be home for hours.

BANCROFT: (As Mrs. Robinson) So?

HOFFMAN: (As Ben Braddock) Mrs. Robinson, you're trying to seduce me.

BANCROFT: (As Mrs. Robinson, laughing).

HOFFMAN: (As Ben Braddock) Aren't you?

DAVIES: Mike Nichols was interviewed by Terry Gross in 2001. He died in 2014 at the age of 83. He's the subject of an American Masters documentary tonight on PBS and an HBO documentary which comes out next month. Coming up after a break, Carol Burnett. She gets a lifetime achievement award this weekend from the Screen Actors Guild. I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.