Should You Aspire To Becoming Mike Nichols?
Legendary writer-director Nichols gave his last in-depth interview to friend Jack O'Brien; viewers get to eavesdrop.
I can't speak for everyone, but I didn't look forward to reviewing this one, because Nichols & May is, as an entity, one of those received-wisdom artifacts in the culture that I acknowledge as brilliant and seminal and all the rest of the hoop-de-hoy adjectives, without having any genuine desire to interact with it anymore. No doubt there's a word for that feeling..."the Citizen Kane-undrum," something like that, where you happily acknowledge the ground broken by whatever work or artist, while not feeling quite up to trying to un-remember all the other descendent examples you happened to see first?
Tributes to Nichols & May can feel a little like "hilarious" stories from a theater camp you didn't attend, in other words, and the danger particular to Becoming Mike Nichols is that his two nights of conversation with his friend theater director Jack O'Brien turned out to be his last of any consequence before he suffered a fatal heart attack in November of 2014, so on its face, this is perhaps not for everyone.
But Nichols himself is so good at getting an entire feeling, narrative process, or actor's subconscious palette into a few words, and it's even more impressive when you remember, as I inevitably fail to, that he arrived in the States with exactly one sentence of English ("I don't speak English; please don't kiss me") and mastered not only its literal grammar but its improv and film grammars. He also gets gossipy and process-y about films and scenes while eminently watchable stills and vintage posters unscroll onscreen.
If you're a '60s film buff or just like thinking about how stories get told, this is a must-see.
Nichols speaks for himself; Jack O'Brien is a Tony- and Drama Desk-winner; director of Becoming Mike Nichols Douglas McGrath also wrote and directed Infamous ("the other Capote movie," and I actually preferred it/would recommend it) and Emma, among other things.
Doin' Your Homework
At a couple of points, BMN does feel, if not exactly homework-y, a little self-regarding; some of the clips go on a bit too long (the $65-funeral bit, for one), and the story of how he and Neil Simon "solved" a scene in Barefoot In The Park is too granular for even this methodology dork.
Nichols makes up for that, though, talking about seeing Brando in Streetcar and feeling as though the production were "written in fire" and couldn't have been done by any other company or confluence of artists; describing Anthony Perkins giving him a three-day clinic on physical shot-making; calling studio honcho Jack Warner "actually sort of a person." He opens a window into a handful of ways of creating without making a pompous show of doing it; I felt like I was meeting a friend, at times.
I mean, do you count feeling a little annoyed that Elizabeth Ashley never got super-famous?
It's An Outrage!
ELIZABETH ASHLEY NEVER GOT SUPER-FAMOUS!!1
Intrusive Filmmaker Agenda
Again, a few sequences where the film's master-class approach to Nichols in form and feeling gets a little portentous, but it's not wrong on the merits.
It's not made explicit, but I imagine many of the on-set stills from The Graduate and Virginia Woolf were, if not furnished by Nichols, not exactly easy to get; I didn't feel like I'd seen them a hundred times in Oscars montages, in any case. And man, the vintage posters and Playbills. I just love that time's print aesthetic, its fonts. BMN is a good sit on mute, even.
This is the pitch, basically, and Nichols gives top-notch Actor's Studio. O'Brien is an unobtrusive moderator.
Threw a few classics on my Netflix list for sure, and redoubled my efforts to track down out-of-print histories of the horrendous filming of Cleopatra.