One of my first undergraduate film courses was a director’s class on Mike Nichols. As a nineteen year-old I didn’t know much about him other than he had directed The Graduate (1967), which I knew mostly because of the Simon and Garfunkel score rather than the film itself. On the first day of class, I learned that Nichols had a long career in theater and, that because the instructor, Meredith McMinn, also had an extensive theater background, she was interested in exploring the film work of a theater impresario. Nichols, who passed away in 2014, was still alive and working at the time, and this class was a rare opportunity to celebrate a filmmaker producing a new film at the time, just down the road in Hollywood.
Ultimately, I dropped the class in the second week. As a product of a working-class family, I was inherently suspicious of The Theater, and as a novice film student, I recognized that I should first take a history or genre class before delving into a “specialized master” class. I might have also picked up an extra shift at my campus job because, at the time, I could have really used the money. (Some things never change, I guess.)
Although I didn’t stick it out, I never forgot the two films we studied during my abbreviated enrollment: Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and The Graduate, easily two of the finest films of the 1960s.
Those two films comprise the bulk of Becoming Mike Nichols a newly premiered documentary on HBO, which you can also stream on HBO Go and HBO Now. Documentary might not be the best description: it consists of two separate on-stage interviews with Jack O’Brien and is richly illustrated with photographs and extended clips from Nichols’s oeuvre. Think of it as an episode of Inside the Actor’s Studio with a bigger budget for rights clearance.
As the title suggests, Becoming Mike Nichols focuses on his early work. It allows the conversation to explore Nichols’s most formative and creative years. Though Nichols worked in both stage and screen over a six-decade period, the documentary only chronicles his early work in the 1950s and 1960s: his improv acts with Elaine May, his early stage work directing two very celebrated Neil Simon plays, and his learning the film medium with Virginia Woolf and The Graduate. The results of these on-the-job training exercises were nothing short of critical accolades in the form of Grammy, Tony, and Oscar awards.1 Would it glib to characterize Nichols as a “quick study?”
Becoming Mike Nichols smartly sacrifices breadth for depth. It was much more engaging to watch his reminisce about this early work than it would have been to review his later work. Wolf (1994) wasn’t a bad film, but it was not going to get you a master class, either.