Mourning Mike Nichols, the enemy of mystery

Staff Writer
Columbus Monthly

NEW YORK (AP) — The last time he was on Broadway, director Mike Nichols was asked what his secret was to getting the best from his actors.

"If you can get it right, there's no mystery," he said in a rehearsal room for the 2013 revival of "Betrayal" starring Daniel Craig and Rachel Weisz. "It's not about mystery. It's not even mysterious. It's about our lives."

Nichols, who died Wednesday at age 83, was the enemy of riddles, of inscrutability, of charades. During a long and illustrious career in the arts that included stage, films and TV, Nichols searched for truth, humor and celebrated real human flaws.

The suave, bespectacled Nichols said he wanted work presented in a way "so that you are part of it and it is part of you." He wanted to find the connections between people, to prove that whatever was happening onscreen or onstage wasn't so different from what the audience was going through.

"I've seen plays about South Africa where I've felt that. We all have. We're all people and if somebody can find the heart of what they're doing and why, we can say, 'Oh, yeah, me, too. Me, too,'" he said. "I love that. That's fun."

And so we inevitably said "me, too" after seeing his 1966 film directing debut "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" We said it after seeing his "Angels in America" on HBO or his "Death of a Salesman" and "Wit" on Broadway. We uttered it after seeing Nichols' "Working Girl" and "The Graduate" on the big screen.

Nichols was among only a handful of people to have won an Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony — the hallowed EGOT. He did it with a remarkable gift for mixing edgy humor and dusky drama in the search for honesty.

He explained that even a play like "Hamlet" needn't be frightening or daunting. It was, in essence, a play about a man cheated of his birthright: "It can be done so that you realize no one needs to help you understand it. Just watch it. It's about you."

One theme that constantly popped up in his career was adultery. Many of his film and stage projects — "The Real Thing," ''Carnal Knowledge," ''Closer," ''Primary Colors," ''Heartburn" and "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" — are littered with love aches and broken hearts.

"Realistically, sex and marriage are big subjects in his work," theater and movie producer Scott Rudin said in 2013. "It lives in the place where he has lived very successfully and owned for many years."

Nichols, thrice married, fell in love with the stage at age 15 when the mother of his then-girlfriend gave them theater tickets. He saw the second night of the debut of "A Streetcar Named Desire" starring Marlon Brando in 1947. He was riveted.

"I'm amazed about our bladders because we never went to the bathroom and it was about 3½ or 4 hours. We never got up at intermission. We were poleaxed, stunned. We didn't speak to each other. We just sat like two half-unconscious people. It was so shocking. It was so alive. It was so real."

During his career, some of the world's best actors adored working with him: Richard Burton, Elizabeth Taylor, Jack Nicholson, Meryl Streep, Emma Thompson, Gene Hackman, Robin Williams, Harrison Ford, Sigourney Weaver, George Segal, Tom Hanks and Julia Roberts.

They signed up because Nichols created a safe environment and liked to talk at length about the work, turning it over and letting them find the truth inside. He was urbane and witty and smart and calm, when he needed to be.

"What he does is very gentle, imperceptible, nearly invisible nudging in the direction of the play," said Rudin. "It's by inference and implication, storytelling and discussion, and gradually, over the course of the workshop and rehearsal, they make their way into the play."

Nichols was a horse lover, a rider in college and became a breeder of Arabian horses. During the visit to rehearsals of "Betrayal" — and far from the ears of Craig and Weisz — he confided that he often used his equestrian skills on actors.

"There are some horses that you have to dominate and there are some horses that you join and there are some horses that are your partner and you think something and they will do it," he said. "And the story is taking shape."


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