‘Becoming Mike Nichols’: a master class

becomingmikenichols4When Mike Nichols died two years ago, we didn’t just lose a great stage and film director, we lost a great talker.

Nichols put a lot of effort into interviews, whether he was sharing public time with a prestigious national publication or a regional journalist such as myself. I don’t remember much of the movie that gave me access to a chat with the director – “Regarding Henry” (one of Nichols’ lesser films) – but the interview remains vivid because the man was clearly a believer in giving any reporter his best 30 or 45 minutes.

Nichols spent a good chunk of the time talking about his harrowing experiences when he quit taking the highly addictive sleeping pill Halcion, an event which caused a terrible depression and a break in his career. The director thought he was going crazy until he learned that so many other users of that drug were experiencing the same thing. Many celebrities spend interviews doing nothing but selling their latest project. Nichols’ willingness to air a recent, awful experience (in the hope of connecting becomingmikenichols1with readers who might be going through the same thing) was a very powerful moment in my reporting career.

Four months before he died, Nichols agreed to a series of interviews for HBO with his fellow director Jack O’Brien, and the result is “Becoming Mike Nichols,” a fantastic 70-minute look at the early years of his career. Directed by Douglas McGrath, the film debuted on HBO earlier this year, but only recently became available on streaming services (I downloaded it via Amazon).

Shot in the Golden Theatre, where Nichols appeared in “An Evening with Mike Nichols and Elaine May” 50 years earlier, the interview takes us through his early actor days in Chicago’s Compass Theatre (where he teamed up with May), and moves on on to his success as an improvisational comedian and then his emergence as one of the greatest stage and film directors of the modern era.

O’Brien turns out to be the perfect interviewer for Nichols, mixing some gossipy questions with calls for detailed analysis of early projects such as the back-to-back stage smashes, “Barefoot in the Park” and “The Odd Couple,” and his remarkable first two films, “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” and “The Graduate.”

Nichols is very forthcoming about the special challenges he faced with his “Odd Couple” star Walter Matthau and the technical crew on “Virginia Woolf.” Several of his comments and descriptions are illustrated with perfectly chosen clips, including Richard Burton’s determination to do a new kind of laugh in a key “Virginia Woolf” scene, and the way that Nichols and Elizabeth Taylor used a screen door to heighten a poignant moment in the same film.

“Becoming Mike Nichols” is must-see TV, a model of how to shoot and edit an interview.

"The Graduate" Dustin Hoffman, director Mike Nichols1967 United Artists