In a way, Becoming Mike Nichols isn’t much more than the equivalent of an Inside the Actor’s Studio episode for directors. And yet it’s still far more enjoyable and focused than a lot of biographical documentaries. The 70-minute feature consists primarily of an interview between Mike Nicholas, mere months before he died, and theater director Jack O’Brien. Some of their discussion is conducted before a live audience at the Golden Theater, where Nichols and Elaine May broke out with their hit Broadway show in 1960. And some of their discussion, the more detailed bits, takes place on the same stage but with an empty house.
What they talk about specifically are the play and movie director’s early years. His background fleeing the Nazis is addressed briefly, but it’s really just his career that’s concentrated on. First his meeting of May and their work in improv through that major show, An Evening With Mike Nichols and Elaine May, followed by his first big theater directing gigs, helming Neil Simon’s Barefoot in the Park and The Odd Couple, and then Nichols’s Hollywood debut, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, and sophomore hit, The Graduate. Very little if any of the anecdotes Nichols tells O’Brien here are new let alone revelatory, but he’s still quite delightful and funny and makes every bit seem completely fresh.
The film is modestly helmed by Douglas McGrath, who previously gave us the more traditional yet also very entertaining Jerry Weintraub biography His Way. That documentary is something I recommend to anyone who even partially appreciates stories of Hollywood. Becoming Mike Nichols is a little more narrow in its appeal. You needn’t be a big fan of Nichols, though, and McGrath makes it so we still appreciate his early work. Especially in his inclusion of lengthy clips from Woolf and The Graduate, played in supplement to Nichols’s words on the productions, always illustrating exactly what he’s talking about. He discusses a montage from the latter film, and then it’s shown in full.
Certainly, due to our expectations with biographical docs, we’re left wanting for more. We want to hear from May and Dustin Hoffman and Robert Redford when they and their work with Nichols is discussed. Well, fortunately there’s also a new American Masters profile on Nichols that premiered last month that’s just that — and it’s directed by May, in fact (I don’t think Redford appears, however). You can even watch it online right now (through February 27th). We may also wish the interview went further through his career. But this is a film about the origins of one of the great American dramatists of stage and screen, a man we sadly can no longer hear such stories from, and for that it’s sufficiently satisfying.