EXCLUSIVE: Frank Rich recently had an email conversation with Deadline’s Jeremy Gerard about his upcoming HBO documentary Becoming Mike Nichols. In addition to executive producing the film, Rich is a creative consultant for HBO and an executive producer of Veep. Becoming Mike Nichols was unveiled at Sundance and will have its HBO premiere February 22.
DEADLINE: You’ve written movingly about watching Mike Nichols at work with Neil Simon during the Washington, D.C. tryout of The Odd Couple, and learning, as a 15-year-old, the meaning of perfectionism. That was half a century ago. A phrase I hear used ever more frequently in Hollywood these days is “passion project.” Are the seeds of Becoming Mike Nichols to be found in that first experience?
FRANK RICH: As a young ticket taker, watching Nichols and Simon work on The Odd Couple at the National Theater in my hometown of D.C. was a huge learning experience because I saw two professionals take a show that was obviously a hit from the moment of its first tryout performance, with a rollicking audience response and rave local reviews, and continue to refine and improve it anyway, right up to the moment it moved on to New York and opened on Broadway. I particularly remember how they kept toying night after night with different ideas for the Pigeon sisters in the second act, finally arriving on the denouement of Felix moving in with them only at the very end of the DC run. I was so lucky to see this production in embryo: As Mike says in Becoming Mike Nichols, it may have been the best thing he ever did in the theater.
I didn’t meet him until almost a decade later, when, on an early magazine assignment, I spent something like two weeks watching him make the film The Fortune on the Columbia lot in Culver City. That was no less instructive. It was a can’t miss comedy starring Warren Beatty, Jack Nicholson and Stockard Channing, but it was apparent even to me, who’d never been on a Hollywood set before, that it was unfunny, and to watch Mike try (and fail) to beat some life into it was an object lesson in the limits of talent when lavished on inferior material. In the years that followed, I reviewed a number of Nichols movies and plays — more than a few unfavorably — but his career was always a source of passionate interest to me, dating back prior to Odd Couple, even, when I first saw Nichols & May on television and listened to their comedy albums.
That said, however, Becoming Mike Nichols was not a premeditated project. What happened was that my wife, Alex Witchel, seated out of my earshot at a large-ish dinner party in New York in March, 2014, had a conversation with the theater director Jack O’Brien during which Jack expressed his concern that Mike, a close friend of his, was in frail health and was never going to write a memoir setting down all his marvelous stories. Alex mentioned it to me when we got home and thought Mike and Jack talking might make a documentary for HBO, where I have worked since 2008 and where I had previously produced a documentary about Stephen Sondheim. I called up Jack and asked if he liked that idea, which he did, and he sounded out Mike, and soon I was on the phone with [HBO chief executive officer] Richard Plepler, [head of programming] Mike Lombardo and [head of the documentary unit] Sheila Nevins at HBO, who said yes immediately. Mike was a passion project for them too — after all, he had directed one of his very best films, Angels in America, for HBO. Then we had the good sense to ask Doug McGrath to direct, and he said yes, and away we went — as quickly as possible. The interviews were filmed that July. Mike died in November.
“Having a short, unknown Jewish guy carry the romantic lead of a Hollywood film, complete with sex scenes, was an anomaly. Nichols’ casting of Dustin Hoffman in The Graduate helped open the door for a whole new breed of Hollywood leading man — Pacino, DeNiro, et al.”
DEADLINE: It’s been said that in American cinema there’s Kazan, and then there’s Nichols, who regarded Kazan as his mentor. Without dwelling on the reductiveness of the statement, it’s probably fair to say that Kazan and Nichols shared an immigrant’s mixed sense of awe and bemusement regarding American culture. Like Nabokov. That’s what makes Nichols’ comments here about both Virginia Woolf and The Graduate so on the money. Could any two movies have been more acutely American, and of their time?
RICH: That’s true about Mike’s first two movies. What strikes me as particularly impressive about The Graduate as I reflected on it again, both for this documentary and to write an essay about it for the restored Criterion Collection DVD coming out later this month, is how prescient it was about an America on the brink of massive change. The film was released in 1967. What we think of as The Sixties hadn’t erupted yet. And the title character of The Graduate, Benjamin, though just out of college, neither smokes dope nor faces the Vietnam-era draft. Yet through his almost existential anxiety, we feel the storm clouds gathering and a counter-culture waiting in the wings. Something in America would not hold.
One other point about Kazan and Nichols: You could argue that the very best film adaptations of classic American plays were made by them: A Streetcar Named Desire, Virginia Woolf, Angels in America.
DEADLINE: Staying with The Graduate for a moment: It’s occurred to me that the casting of Dustin Hoffman was, for its time, a notable example of Hollywood diversity.
RICH: Yes, given that Hollywood’s diversity record then, unimaginable as it may seem, was even shoddier than now. Having a short, unknown Jewish guy carry the romantic lead of a Hollywood film, complete with sex scenes, was an anomaly. Robert Redford — whom Nichols tested for the role — would have been the obvious way to go. Nichols’ casting of Hoffman helped open the door for a whole new breed of Hollywood leading man — Pacino, DeNiro, et al.
DEADLINE: How much planning did you, director Doug McGrath and interviewer Jack O’Brien do before the sessions were filmed? I’m interested in what’s not covered in the film. Carnal Knowledge, for example, I’m not sure is even mentioned, yet it’s as searing a film today as it was in 1971.
RICH: A lot. The three of us met repeatedly to pool questions on every aspect of Mike’s career in comedy, theater and movies. And that certainly included Carnal Knowledge, which is my favorite film of his after The Graduate. But Mike didn’t have a lot to say about that movie and he just wasn’t that interesting about a lot of his later projects, whether successful or not. He told Doug McGrath off-camera that he felt he did his best work early in his career — a judgment with which I would agree, some obvious exceptions notwithstanding — and that it was his early work he wanted to talk about most. It was Doug who conceived the notion that our film should focus in depth on the making of Mike as an artist, and he came up with the title as well. The truth is that in many successful careers, show business careers particularly, the first act is the most dramatic and exhilarating. If Moss Hart had lived to write an Act Two and Act Three, would they have been the equal of Act One, the memoir that ends with the opening of his first Broadway hit, at age 26? I doubt it.
DEADLINE: You loved Tom Stoppard’s The Real Thing, which starred Glenn Close and Jeremy Irons, and which Nichols directed. (As a side note, given what Nichols told your director about his first movies: The writer-hero of that play says, ruefully, of his critics, “They always like the early work best.”) What was it about Nichols that made him as insightful directing Tom Stoppard (and Chekhov, for that matter) as he was with Neil Simon?
RICH: At his best as a stage director, he really thought through the text, and thought it through with well-cast, often great actors. I don’t think the skills for directing Odd Couple are that different for those required by The Real Thing. Particularly the way Mike directed early Neil Simon. Though there have been many other versions of that Simon classic — the movie, the TV series, countless stage revivals — only in the original, with Art Carney playing opposite Walter Matthau, did you feel that Felix really might try to kill himself in the first act. That Carney, Nichols and Simon found comedy in that sadness is about as Chekhovian — or Stoppardian — as can be. (I’d add, by the way, that Jack O’Brien is Mike’s match as a director of Stoppard, and, very much like Mike, has a rare ability to direct plays both at the high and low ends of the cultural spectrum.)
What Mike did not direct well was subpar scripts — and he signed on for more than a few of them in both his Broadway and Hollywood careers. Given something great on the page, however, he was unbeatable — as exemplified by his majestic, Kazan-esque production of Death of a Salesman, with Philip Seymour Hoffman as Willy Loman, in the twilight of his life.
DEADLINE: Mike was such a practiced storyteller. Were there any revelations or surprises for you, watching those three sessions between Nichols and O’Brien?
RICH: What I hadn’t quite appreciated previously was just how rapturously he loved and admired Elaine May. Nor had I understood how the first post-Nichols-&-May venture, a flop play that she wrote and he starred in (and which closed in its pre-Broadway tryout in 1962), led not just to the dissolution of their creative partnership but set Mike on the path to becoming a director (and perhaps May, too). It was obviously an emotionally fraught chapter for both of them, but out of that failure, as Mike explains in detail, came a whole new and exciting chapter in his artistic development.
DEADLINE: Tell us something we don’t know about the upcoming season of Veep…
RICH: We are still shooting, but the one spoiler I can happily reveal now is that Veep is a completely Trump-free zone.