4/17/21: Becoming Mike Nichols (2016) — Poetic Careerist #poetry
Orson Welles found poetic achievement in career failure. Mike Nichols found poetic achievement in career success.
Mike Nichols was a man of great personal charm, strong intellect and diligent work ethic. He had amazing taste. He innately knew how to behave with people. He was warm and confident. He knew what he wanted and he was kind. His qualities were irresistible to the people with the money, and all the artists that he made his movies and plays with, and audiences, and critics. He was destined to be successful from the start, and there was no secret about it. Everyone could see it. He was obviously great.
People offered Mike Nichols opportunities to do interesting things that he had never done before. Paul Sills cast him as an improviser. He learned about scenes, acting and his own creativity and knew when to leave. He intuitively knew that improvisation is an education, not an end in itself. Later, he understood that as an analytical proposition.
Next, he was satisfied doing comedy. He was making good money, dating cute women and working only two hours a night. He could have stayed in that phase of arrested development forever. Successful people are many things including lucky. He was lucky his comedy career ended. His partner Elaine May wanted more. So Nichols was forced out of comedy and after a period at loose ends, he became a director. Then smart took over again and drove the rest of the way. Elaine May wanted more and Mike Nichols got more … and more …
Mike Nichols learned how camera lenses worked when filming a movie in three days. No one taught Mike Nichols a thing. No one had to … He figured everything out. Mike Nichols did the jobs that he got so easily. He did them well. He was hired, then hit it out of the park — repeatedly. Mike Nichols was a careerist who turned his social and financial opportunities into art. He did not have to work to develop a poetic sense. You either have that or you do not. A poet does a thing with a dimension that uses it to point to something bigger. As literal as the stuff of poetry might seem, it is never really literal. Mike Nichols did the amazing, uncanny, natural (for him) and unselfconscious thing of making money in a way that was about something more than making money.
Nichols wasn’t about being Mr. Success. He was about doing the job. When a person is great at their work, and knows that work in the context of their life that work becomes poetry, becomes art. It doesn’t matter what the work is. When the work involves writers and actors and art directors and cinematographers and musicians … well, the Force is strong in that one.
Anything done well can be a poem. A meal, a staging for a house that is for sale, a sonnet, a basketball game … Nichols accomplished what Welles said was possible. Welles loved Hollywood and wanted it to be about quality. He wanted Hollywood movies to be poems. Hollywood wasn’t ready for Welles. It was ready by the time Mike Nichols came along. Welles confronted Hollywood. Nichols seduced it. He learned the art of seduction from Elaine May. She said that in art and life when in doubt seduce. Nichols used his powerful charm to get what he wanted — and what he always wanted was to do an excellent job.
Nichols did entertaining and socially relevant films but they always were ultimately about what it is to be a human being. Nichols made movies and plays of the social moment, but always in the context of eternal humanity. Humanity is eternal and therefore poetic. The humanist is as connected to the divine as the truly religious. The differences are just semantical. We watch Shakespeare today because what is eternal in man is unchanging. Nichols saw that in everything that he did. He directed a comedy revue like Spamalot in the same way that he directed a great American drama like Angels in America. He saw the same intangible in comedy and tragedy, serious art and entertainment. He found the humor in the most dramatic scene and the meaning in the most frivolous scene.
Nichols was self – reflective, but not overly so. He found himself in his material, but only realized it after the fact. Welles knew that he was a poet, and so did Nichols. Welles thought about his poetic nature constantly. Nichols wore his poetic nature lightly. I am not making a competitive comparison between the two geniuses. Welles was the greater director, Nichols was the greater producer … they both pointed people in the direction of the divine within us and around us … the wonderful thing about the poetry in life is that is expressed by such different people in such different ways … when there is a resonance in one’s heart in the observation of something within another person that touches one’s soul … that is love, that is peace, that is harmony, that is beautiful diversity … what a great experience that I have had … reconsidering these two filmmakers … the martyred genius and the recognized master, and seeing their commonality. Success and failure are ultimately irrelevant. Poetic achievement is the thing.
Mike Nichols was famously well read, but he wasn’t the most well read. The playwright Tony Kushner said that whenever he mentioned a book that Mike Nichols hadn’t read, Nichols went out and read it in full by the next time they met. That tells me that Nichols was a working intellectual — his knowledge was a tool. Someone like Kushner was not only more knowledgeable but also had the greater mind. But Nichols greatness lay in his appreciation of great minds, and like a great football coach he knew how to showcase the qualities of other geniuses so that they could be the most effective and successful.
Nichols was a politician. He was connected and knew how to leverage relationships to achieve desired results. He told a story with a lack of pretension that few other people could pull off. Jack Warner the head of Warner Brothers fired Nichols during the post-production of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? because Warner was afraid of the Catholic Legion of Decency that could condemn the movie and severely hurt the box office. Nichols got word to Warner that he was friends with Jackie Kennedy and that she would do him the favor of sitting behind the monsignor from the Legion of Decency at his screening, and telling the monsignor what a beautiful and moral picture “Virginia Woolf” was. Jack Warner rehired Nichols. A film director paints with money and power and connections.
Mike Nichols used his worldly acumen to further art, and to get rich and famous … but he wore his worldly ambition as lightly as he wore his poetic sense. He won an Oscar for The Graduate. His next picture Catch 22 wasn’t as well received. Nichols felt relieved. Now he could just work without pressure. Work — he focused on his work and everything else took care of itself … in this world and in all other dimensions.
Nichols calculated being popular. He was involved in so many hits. But he was not a prostitute seeking the audience’s approval. Commercial movies and plays were the medium for his art. He wasn’t a bully, or a liar. He was adept at so many areas of life. Too often complimentary aspects of being human are presented as binary choices. You can have money, but you can’t have poetry. You can have poetry, but you can’t have power. You can have honesty, but you can’t have charm. It’s all nonsense. The human being is an amazing creature.
Nichols knew his own gifts and he knew his own limitations. He took advantages of all of his opportunities. He did excellent work and was a good friend and colleague to those who knew him. He was given a lot, and made a lot of what he was given. If that’s not poetry, I don’t know what is.
The lesson from Nichols for lesser mortals of fewer abilities comes from an example he must have absorbed from Paul Sills his director with the Compass Players. Sills made theater out of who and what was available — the people and performance spaces and thrift shop props that he could get his hands on. Sills looked for each individual’s personal genius and tried to use that inspiration in the creation of his productions. Sills was as great as Nichols — he just had less material to work with concretely and in the realm of social skills. It makes no difference. Both men were poets who changed the world by pointing to the world’s essential eternal nature, the realm of living that men and women tend to forget.
Many other film and play directors had the means to make the impressive outward shows that Nichols made in his prominent career. But few of those others turned Hollywood and Broadway into poetry — and that made all the difference.
Copyright 2021 Richard Thomas