Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Mike Nichols

The Nichols improvisation

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Elaine May and Mike Nichols

It’s hard to imagine this now, but there was a year or so in the early sixties when the hottest ticket in show business consisted of a man and a woman simply talking on stage. An Evening With Mike Nichols and Elaine May premiered on Broadway on October 8, 1960, and over the course of three hundred performances, it gave mainstream audiences their first real taste of improvisation as a comedic art, with sketches that encouraged a kind of collusion—or collaboration—between the audience and the performers themselves. It wasn’t purely improvised: for most of the night, Nichols and May ran through established routines, with only one scene opened up to suggestions from the crowd, but the impression of a theatrical tightrope act persisted even in bits that had been thoroughly refined. The young, attractive duo had emerged from a hugely talented circle of improvisational actors and comedians in Chicago, the precursor to the Second City, and it’s not a stretch to say that much of what comedy became in the ensuing fifty years originated right here. But after the year was up, they simply walked away, like Jordan at his prime, except that they never returned.

Nichols, of course, went on to become one of the most acclaimed film, theater, and television directors of his generation, while May quietly burrowed into much odder places. And at first, the contrast between Nichols the master improviser and his later directorial career can seem rather stark. David Thomson’s assessment is typical:

Mike Nichols is an unquestioned figure in our culture, a smart man, a funny man, a proven success in cabaret, on records, as a stage director, and as a deliverer of talking-point movies—movies that are smart, funny, “adult,” “on the pulse,” and “of their moment.” Yet I find it hard to grasp a him in there, a movie director: after fifteen or so films, is there anything more substantial than a high reputation and a producer’s instinct for what smart people might want to see?”

For many of us, even if we love film, Nichols never quite emerged as a personality in the same way that his most revered contemporaries did, even if he was unquestionably more adept at holding a stage than the rest of them combined. And in the days since his death, which put a full stop on one of the most accomplished—and curiously impersonal—of all careers in movies and the stage, that paradox has seemed even harder to resolve. I’ll miss Nichols, but I never really knew him.

Mike Nichols

When you dig a little deeper, though, you find a possible answer that casts a surprising light on the nature of improvisation. Improv comedy is often seen as a kind of controlled chaos, but it owes its survival, like jazz, to the continuous imposition of rigorous rules and discipline. The best improvisers are excruciatingly aware of where they stand from one moment to the next, and the ongoing management of the comedic situation demands a peculiar sort of watchfulness. It’s the overarching superego that allows the id to take hold, and you can see it clearly in the original clips of Nichols and May at work. Nichols plays the straight man, which is only another way of saying that he unobtrusively directs the sketch as it unfolds, feeding May the necessary setup for each payoff and gently creating the conditions that she needs to arrive at the punchline. It’s the same set of skills—as enabler, facilitator, and willing conspirator—that served him so well later on. You get a glimpse of his bag of tricks in a late interview he did with May in Vanity Fair:

The greatest rule was yours, Elaine: when in doubt, seduce. That became the rule for the whole group. And looking back, because I did teach acting for a while, we figured out over a long time that there were only three kinds of scenes in the world—fights, seductions, and negotiations.

That sense of what works and what doesn’t, developed in real time under unforgiving conditions, lasted throughout Nichols’s career, even if the subjects he chose felt less wild and more like those of a shrewd packager of talent. Nichols frequently took risks with weird, original material, but his most successful films—Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, The Graduate, even The Birdcage—were all adaptations, as if he instinctively sought proven vessels that could then be crammed with life and ideas. It’s the résumé of a man who valued structure, even as he tested it, and it’s an example that many of his stated admirers, like Judd Apatow, could stand to follow. And if Nichols never quite received the popular adulation of some of his peers, even as he continued to rack up awards, it may have been because it made it look too easy. You could make a case that his real impact on our culture has been greater than that of Coppola or Scorsese, and just a bit below Spielberg and Lucas, but it’s an influence that feels almost subliminal, a way of regarding the process of acting and comedy itself. Perhaps because he was so famous so early, he always seemed content to disappear. But he never forgot how to seduce.

Written by nevalalee

December 2, 2014 at 10:22 am

Birds of a feather

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Nathan Lane and Robin Williams in The Birdcage

A while back, for the book Inventory by The A.V. Club, the director Paul Thomas Anderson shared his list of “Two movies that without fail or question will make me stop dead in my tracks and watch them all the way to the very end, no matter what else is happening or needs to get done.” The films were The Birdcage and The Shining. His second choice probably won’t raise many eyebrows—The Shining‘s fingerprints are all over his work, particularly There Will Be Blood—but the first one might give us pause. Yet when I watched it over the weekend, I had no trouble seeing why Anderson finds it so appealing. There’s the astonishing opening shot, for instance, which zooms across the waters of South Beach and continues in an unbroken movement into the club where Robin Williams is greeting patrons and overseeing his floor show of drag queens. Among other things, it’s impossible not to see it as an influence on the opening tracking shot of Boogie Nights, which would come out the following year. (The cinematographer here, incidentally, was Emmanuel Lubezki, who would go on to do spectacular work for the likes of Terrence Malick and Alfonso Cuarón and win an Oscar for his indispensable contributions to Gravity.)

After almost twenty years, it’s fair to say that The Birdcage holds up as an unexpectedly rich, sophisticated slice of filmmaking. Like many of Anderson’s own films, it has a deep bench of supporting players anchored by a generous lead performance: I felt like watching it primarily as a reminder of how good Robin Williams could be with the right direction and material, and what stands out the most is his willingness to dial down his natural showiness to highlight the more flamboyant performances taking place on all sides. He’s essentially playing the straight man—well, sort of—to Nathan Lane and Hank Azaria, but his restrained energy and intelligence give all the actors around him an additional kick. Not surprisingly, for a movie directed by Mike Nichols from a script by Elaine May, it’s often subversively clever, like a Woody Allen film disguised as a studio crowdpleaser. Lane’s very first line is a reference to The Red Shoes, and the film is packed with nods to gay culture, like the way Lane’s show begins with the opening notes of “The Man Who Got Away,” a la Judy at Carnegie Hall, that probably went over the heads of much of its audience. But I don’t think even I would have watched it nearly as attentively or affectionately without the clue from Anderson.

Paul Thomas Anderson

And Anderson clearly knew what he was doing. Whenever you’re asked to provide a list of your favorite movies or other works of art, there are several competing impulses at play: you’re torn between providing a list of major milestones, the films that speak to you personally, or simply the ones that you enjoy the most. There’s also an awareness that a surprising choice can be notable in its own right. After composing his final list for the Sight and Sound poll of the greatest movies of all time, Roger Ebert wrote:

Apart from any other motive for putting a movie title on a list like this, there is always the motive of propaganda: Critics add a title hoping to draw attention to it, and encourage others to see it. For 2012, I suppose [The Tree of Life] is my propaganda title.

Whether or not Anderson was thinking explicitly in these terms, there’s no question in my mind that he listed The Birdcage so prominently as a way of highlighting it in the reader’s mind. This is a great movie, he seems to be saying, that you may not have sufficiently appreciated, and listing it here without comment does more to lock it in the memory than any number of words of critical analysis.

That’s the real pleasure—and value—of lists like this, which otherwise can start to seem like pointless parlor games. We don’t learn much from the debates over whether Vertigo really deserves to be ranked above Citizen Kane, but it can be enlightening to discover that Quentin Tarantino’s favorite films include titles like “The Bad News Bears,” “Dazed and Confused,” “Rolling Thunder,” and “Pretty Maids All in a Row.” (Going through the Sight and Sound lists of great directors is like a miniature education in itself: after seeing that both Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola named Andrej Wadja’s Ashes and Diamonds in their top ten, there’s no way that I can’t not see this movie.) Once we’ve worked our way through the established canon, as determined by a sober critical consensus, the next step ought to be seeking out the movies that people we admire have singled out for love, especially when they take us down unexplored byways. After watching one movie through Anderson’s eyes, I wish he’d tossed out a few more titles, but maybe it’s best that he left us with those two. And the next time The Birdcage comes up on television, it’ll stop me dead in my tracks.

“For instance, if you grow up odd…”

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Mike Nichols

I’ve learned that many of the worst things lead to the best things, that no great thing is achieved without a couple of bad, bad things on the way to them, and that the bad things that happen to you bring, in some cases, the good things. For instance, if you grow up odd…The degree to which you’re peculiar and different is the degree to which you must learn to hear people thinking. Just in self-defense you have to learn, where is their kindness? Where is their danger? Where is their generosity? If you survive, because you’ve gotten lucky—and there’s no other reason ever to survive except luck—you will find that the ability to hear people thinking is incredibly useful, especially in the theater.

Mike Nichols, to Vanity Fair

Written by nevalalee

January 27, 2013 at 9:50 am

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