Last November marked the eighth anniversary of the passing of Mike Nichols.
Nichols’s five-decade career won him an Oscar, four Emmys, nine Tonys, a Grammy and AFI and Kennedy Center honors, among other honors. His motto: “The only safe thing is to take a chance.”
Our family didn’t exactly follow every twist and turn of Mike’s career but you might say, we did feel his presence.
A decade ago, my father handed me The New Yorker profile of Mike Nichols, the iconic stage and film director. “He’s our cousin. He’s a Landauer,” he informed me. I was vaguely aware Mike Nichols directed The Graduate and other films. As a child of the ’60s, I also recalled he was half of the Nichols and May comedy duo. And of course, he was married to Diane Sawyer.
Other than seeing his movies, and sharing a bit of genetic material, our worlds did not exactly overlap.
The New Yorker piece sparked a greater interest in my (third) cousin. And when the biography Mike Nichols, a Life by Mark Harris was published late last year, I was primed.
Unless you were sequestered in Osama’s cave, it was impossible to miss the glowing reviews of Harris’ 688-page tome that surfaced everywhere, from NPR to Variety.
The favorable reviews were warranted.
I enjoyed the book immensely for several reasons. First off, it’s exquisitely detailed. Let’s call it a definitive biography of Nichols’ life and times. From a personal perspective, his story reflects my own family’s saga of immigration from Germany, family trauma, and adaptation to a new life in America.
After all, the Nichols’ story is my family’s story.
Harris interviewed over 250 people who had any personal or professional association with Nichols, ranging from little-known set designers to big league actors, such as Dustin Hoffman.
To his advantage, Harris knew his subject personally.
A veteran entertainment journalist, Harris wrote a well-received book debut in 2008: Pictures at a Revolution: Five Movies and the Birth of the New Hollywood. It included a segment on The Graduate, which entailed research interviews with Mike Nichols and his lead actor Dustin Hoffman. So, Harris had a running start on the Nichols biography.
Everything is there.
Details are discussed about every movie, theatre, or comedy production he ever worked or collaborated on. Seemingly, all the actors Nichols ever directed, not to mention girlfriends, wives, and important friendships, are accounted for.
No detail is too insignificant.
(In case you were wondering who Diane Sawyer dated prior to connecting with Mike, it’s in the book. It was the iconoclastic diplomat, Richard Holbrooke.)
In short, Harris does a remarkable job of chronicling Nichols’ triumphant and not-so-triumphant moments over a 50-year career.
We learn intimately about the making of his highly regarded films, his flops, as well as his bouts of depression and substance abuse.
Harris doesn’t dwell on the dark or lurid stuff. He’s a serious journalist who appreciates the cultural milieu that produced a Mike Nichols.
As with my nuclear family, Mike’s saga began in Germany. Mike Nichols was born Igor Michael Peshkowsky to a Russian father and German mother, Brigitte Landauer. Like other branches of our family, Mike had the good fortune to escape to the United States.
Nichols’ German-Jewish heritage is central to his narrative.
His German side, the Landauer clan, was thoroughly assimilated into German society, having been there since the 18th century. Like many upper-middle class Jews, they were secular. They considered themselves, above all, Germans. All of his military-aged relatives that I’m aware of served as soldiers in the First World War.
Mike’s family, in particular, had a scholarly bent.
His grandfather, Gustav Landauer, a famous guy in his day, is aptly described by Harris as an “intellectual polymath.” A proponent of social anarchism, he was also immersed in metaphysics and religion. (One of his close friends was Martin Buber, a philosopher of note).
For good measure, Gustav translated William Shakespeare’s works into German.
Michael’s grandmother, Hedwig Lachman, was also no slouch.
She translated literary works from luminaries such as Edgar Allan Poe, Honoré de Balzac, and Oscar Wilde. Her translation of Wilde’s Salome was used by German composer Richard Strauss as the libretto for his opera, Salome.
At age 49, Gustav was brutally murdered by members of the Freicorps, a right-wing proto-Nazi paramilitary group. The pain and suffering inflicted on Brigitte Landauer, age 13 at the time, no doubt had repercussions on her son, Michael.
I say this with conviction because the generational trauma experienced in my own family was quite similar to the Nichols.
As an immigrant, young Michael not only had to learn a new language but confront his father’s death at age 12. This emotionally fraught experience plunged the family from an upper-middle class life to one of privation.
In addition, he had to cope with a special curse. At age 4, a nasty reaction to a whooping-cough vaccine left him permanently hairless.
No hair, no eyebrows, nothing. This required him to don a wig and eyebrows daily. In the book, Harris quotes Mike (confiding to actor George Segal), “It takes me three hours to become Mike Nichols every day.”
There is, of course, a silver lining to this story. His heightened sensitivity as an outsider (Jew, immigrant, and alopecia sufferer) helped him develop acute powers of observation. He was incredibly perceptive, sensitive, and – when he wanted to be – empathetic. For Nichols–or any director–the ability to put oneself in the place of his actors was priceless.
He paid a price for the hardships he experienced in his childhood.
Among Nichol’s insecurities was a lifelong craving for financial security and status. He had to have the trappings of wealth – a Bentley, the ultimate “country” home in Connecticut, a stable of Arabian horses, and the list goes on. The problem was too often he’d run out of resources to support his “rich and famous” lifestyle.
There was a big irony with this “rich and famous” thing. When you’re directing Liz and Dick, breeding Arabians, and having private lunches with Jackie O, you’re in a rarified demographic. While Mike was the definitive A-lister, he nonetheless always felt like the outsider.
Harris makes it clear that being Mike was complicated. And, he was not always a nice guy.
For example, while making The Graduate, Harris describes an “intimate, punishing relationship with Hoffman … which inflamed every private insecurity Nichols had about his personality, about his physical appearance, about his place in the world.”
Nichols in fact projected his own anxieties onto Hoffman and later in life, onto other actors such as Gary Shandling.
At times his insecurities had a positive outcome and, arguably, made for better movies.
Case in point: by casting Hoffman for the role in The Graduate, Nichols, recognized he had made this character “the Jew among the goyim, the visitor in the strange land,” according to Harris.
That was clearly a departure from the script where the character is a WASP.
“My unconscious was making this movie,” said Mike.
So, what made Mike tick?
Harris, to his credit, goes deep to unravel Mike’s psychology.
He reveals that Nichols made a serious attempt to understand himself – to work on himself, as the Buddhists say. That includes the trauma he endured as a child, a complicated relationship with his parents, and as he confided to Harris, the “life-shaming, undeserved luck” that allowed him and his family to survive.
Harris told me he was “very taken aback by the word ‘life-shaming.’”
Mike, in effect, suggested that surviving – getting out of Germany in time – left him “with a feeling that he would never be able to fully justify to himself why he had survived, and others hadn’t. And that feeling placed an impossible burden on his life,” said Harris.
So, a big part of what made Mike tick was a motivation to prove that he mattered – to prove that he had earned his survival.
I would say Cousin Mike fulfilled his promise, and then some.
Robert F. Kay is a columnist for the Honolulu Star Advertiser, a health nut, the author of two Lonely Planet guidebooks and Fijiguide.com. He’s currently working on a screenplay about WWII.