Mike Nichols: A Life

By Joanna Langfield

Awesome in scope and detail, Mark Harris’s remarkable biography is not just essential, but completely delicious reading for people who, like me, love theater, film and the people who make them.

The iconic Nichols was the man who gave us The Graduate, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, The Birdcage and Postcards from the Edge. His collaboration with Neil Simon helped plays like The Odd Couple become American classics. And while Harris fills each page with insider anecdotes and clear-eyed perceptions about these and other productions, this is far more than just a catalogue of the man’s work. It truly is a look, as the title indicates, at his life. And Mike Nichols’s life, for all its glorious highs, was a complicated one. It was a life of contradictions, a bald child, new to America, whose shyness evaporated when he found comedy. A celebrated performer who walked away from the stage to, instead, direct and produce some of the most recognized works of his generation. A man whose looks-great-from-the-outside life was haunted by depression and substance abuse. Harris gives us insight into it all, never exploiting but allowing an understanding of this very complex artist.

But, let’s get back to the movies. And the stage plays. And the who’s who of actors, comedians, writers, directors, producers and society types that pops up throughout the 688 pages. Each chapter is filled with great stories, not just about how Nichols created what he did, but also about the people who were there with him. We get to spend some quality time with Elizabeth Taylor, Meryl Streep, Jack Nicholson, Elaine May, Richard Avedon, Nora Ephron, Gene Hackman, Natalie Portman, Whoopi Goldberg, Robert Redford and so many, many more. Through their eyes, and Harris’s compassionate crafting together of all these many pieces, I wanted nothing, when I finished reading, but to start watching Nichols’s work all over again. Because now, I am so much smarter about it.