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9 March 2022

In Mike Nichols’s inspiring life, I find a brief, defiant distraction from war

The director’s biography offers, I like to think, a giant “f*** you” to all murderous bastards, then and now.

By Tracey Thorn

For the past three weeks or so, I’ve been listening to the audiobook of Mike Nichols: A Life by Mark Harris. It’s taken me three weeks because the audiobook lasts for 20 hours, which might seem a lot but turned out to be barely long enough to contain all the action and incident of Nichols’s life. The story of how he progressed from improvisational comedy into theatre and film directing accompanied me on my own life during these weeks, providing a kind of inspirational soundtrack: “Look, see how much you could achieve in a life if you just got on with it.”

So as I walked up to the heath one frosty morning, winter sun sparkling on stiff blades of grass, seven-year-old Mike – who was still Mikhail – fled the Nazis in Berlin for New York, accompanied only by his three-year-old brother, Robert. He’d lost all his hair as a result of an allergic reaction, and arrived in the US speaking no English, but it soon became clear that none of that was going to stop him.

As I sat on a train to Newbury, gazing out of the window at blurred rainy fields, young Nichols teamed up with Elaine May, and together they more or less invented modern satirical comedy. I hunted down footage of their performances, marvelling at the sharpness, the hilarious skill involved in acting out a kissing couple who pass a lit cigarette from hand to hand behind each other’s back.

The next evening I stood by the stove cooking a risotto, my phone propped up against the bread bin, while Nichols started directing plays, teaming up with Neil Simon and having success after success on Broadway, filling his mantelpiece with Tony awards. Then movies called out to him, and he eased his way in by directing Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?. The film shocked people and won Oscars, which is the dream really, isn’t it? With his next film, The Graduate, Nichols created the template for the modern pop film soundtrack, using Simon and Garfunkel songs to underscore scenes in a way no one had done before.

[see also: In front of a Francis Bacon painting, a strange nausea sets in]

In the morning it was pouring with rain, and I donned waterproof gear to walk to my office – an hour-long trek through the sodden streets of Kilburn – while in my headphones Nichols’s life barrelled along. He’d been married a couple of times by now, the second time to Margot Callas, who had inspired the poet Robert Graves to write The White Goddess. The marriage didn’t last, but Nichols wasn’t lonely for long, passing evenings by dating, among others, Gloria Steinem.

I listened more as I went up to the shops, and had the sense of events speeding up. In the space of a few pages, Nichols discovered crack, had a heart attack, became addicted to the sleeping pill Halcion, had a nervous breakdown during which he asked a friend to lend him $25m, went into rehab, came out, and got back to making films again. After a brief pause to catch his breath, he remarried. This was wife number four, with whom he finally seemed to be happy – hooray! – but even happiness didn’t slow him down, and on he went, with films and plays and lunches and life, until the very last minute, when he dropped dead after a lovely evening out.

I was almost at the end of the book when my phone flashed with a news alert. You’ll know what it was, the moment when world events once again took a turn for the worse: the invasion of Ukraine.

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And I don’t know why I’ve written this whole column about Mike Nichols, in whom you might not be at all interested. I have no real point to make here except to say that, like you, I cannot quite concentrate on anything other than war right now. But I have no insight or knowledge to bring you on that subject, so I offer instead a brief distraction.

Nichols was haunted in later life by the thought that he came very close to being killed by the Nazis. And perhaps he packed in all that work, and love, and pleasure, and all the highs and all the lows as a kind of, what, act of defiance? I’ll take it as such. A good life, and a giant “f*** you” to all murderous bastards, then and now.

[see also: Watching the Company cast album, I sense the thrill and the terror of singing in front of Stephen Sondheim]

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This article appears in the 09 Mar 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's War of Terror