Becoming Mike Nichols on HBO Recalls His Early Triumphs

Mike Nichols (1931-2015).

Mike Nichols (1931-2014) recalls his early career breakthroughs with Elaine May, The Odd Couple, Liz, Dick and Dustin in BECOMING MIKE NICHOLS.

“I wasn’t interested in doing a film about anything other than his work as an artist,” says director/executive producer Douglas McGrath about the subject of his new documentary, Becoming Mike Nichols. “It’s not a gossipy piece.”

McGrath’s goal certainly seemed a reasonable way to approach prolific film, TV and theater director, writer, comedian, actor and producer Mike Nichols (1931-2014).  As you will see in Becoming Mike Nichols, McGrath meets that goal admirably.

Fresh from its world premiere at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival, Becoming Mike Nichols debuts on HBO tonight, Monday, February 22, 2016, 9:00 – 10:15 p.m., ET/PT. (Check listings for additional HBO playdates in the weeks ahead and availability on HBO NOW, HBO GO and HBO On Demand.)

If you read my reviews regularly in FrontRowCenter, you know that Becoming Mike Nichols is the second film about Nichols to air in the past month. See also   Both films rely heavily on interviews with Nichols recorded just prior to his death in November 2014. The first to hit the airwaves, Mike Nichols: American Masters for PBS, was directed by his former partner, comedian Elaine May. It is propelled by Nichols’ running monologue culled from interviews with producer Julian Schlossberg, who never appears on camera. Celebrity anecdotes, photos, film and TV clips rather artlessly frame Nichols’ monologue and condense his massive career trajectory into one 60-minute documentary. It’s a tough squeeze and doesn’t do Nichols or his work justice.

An Evening with Mike Nichols and Elaine May opened on Broadway in October 1960.

AN EVENING WITH MIKE NICHOLS AND ELAINE MAY opened on Broadway in October 1960.

Douglas McGrath’s Becoming Mike Nichols, on the other hand, has clearly defined parameters and focus. Lovers of Nichols’ inventive routines with Elaine May, as well as his early, acclaimed directorial work on stage and in film will have a much more rewarding time of it here.

Becoming Mike Nichols is aptly titled. While it also primarily consists of filmed interviews with Nichols, the interviews were conducted by his friend and colleague, the esteemed stage director, Jack O’Brien, who does appear on camera.  The congenial Nichols-O’Brien chats took place in the summer of 2014, four months before Nichols died. They were filmed in two sessions, one with an audience and one without, on the stage of the Golden Theatre in New York City. The John Golden Theatre was the site of his acclaimed Broadway debut with Elaine May, An Evening with Mike Nichols and Elaine May, that opened in October 1960.

McGrath’s decision to dispense with distracting, schmaltzy celebrity anecdotes is a definite plus. Although Nichols’ body of work garnered an astounding number of awards and accolades, including an Academy Award®, four Emmys, nine Tony Awards and a Grammy; and his film work alone received 42 Academy Award® nominations, McGrath smartly narrows his frame of reference. He zeroes in on Nichols’ early career as an actor and improv performer with Elaine May and his segue into stage and film directing. Although he seemed to hit home runs right off the bat, Nichols provides an honest and invaluable appraisal of the roadblocks he surmounted as a fledgling performer and director.

Photo courtesy Playbill.

Photo courtesy Playbill.

Excellent use is made of numerous, well-chosen film clips and on-stage and on-set archival photos to illustrate Nichols’ anecdotes. There are hilarious, black-and-white archival clips of Nichols and May’s seminal routines that are as fresh and timely today as they were in the Sixties.  Nichols also recalls the surprising challenges he faced and resolved as director of his first two Neil Simon plays–Barefoot in the Park (1964) and The Odd Couple (1965)–both of which won him Tony Awards.

His transition to film directing with Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966) and The Graduate (1967) provides equally fascinating content, as McGrath juxtaposes Nichols’ casting and production insights with lengthy referenced film clips. You will definitely be compelled to take a fresh look at both films after travelling down this road with Nichols.

With this year’s Oscar telecast on the horizon, it’s a perfect time to revisit clips from these two extraordinary, 50-year-old Oscar winners and the Oscar confabs that honored them with a boatload of trophies. Mike Nichols’ acceptance speech upon winning the 1967 Best Director Academy Award® for The Graduate was gracious and quite revelatory.  The Graduate was only his second film, and he was 36 years old at the time.

Dustin Hoffman floats, while Mike Nichols directs THE GRADUATE, circa 1967. Photo courtesy United Artists.

Dustin Hoffman floats, while Mike Nichols directs THE GRADUATE, circa 1967. Photo: United Artists, courtesy HBO.

There are a few awkward transitions between the Nichols-O’Brien interview sessions, with and without the audience. And a wacky Jack Warner story that Nichols tells in the American Masters’ profile is oddly truncated in Becoming Mike Nichols.  But the latter is a much more entertaining and substantive resource for students and fans of his early work.

Director Douglas McGrath brings a string of notable writing and directing credits to the table, including his own Academy Award® nomination for the screenplay of Bullets Over Broadway, which he co-wrote with Woody Allen. And, more recently, his book for Beautiful: The Carole King Musical was nominated for Tony, Drama Desk and Outer Critics Circle Awards.

Becoming Mike Nichols debuts on HBO tonight, Monday, February 22, 2016, 9:00 – 10:15 p.m., ET/PT. (Check listings for additional HBO playdates in the weeks ahead and availability on HBO NOW, HBO GO and HBO On Demand.)–Judith Trojan

About Judith Trojan

Judith Trojan is an Award-winning journalist who has written and edited several thousand film and TV reviews and celebrity profiles.
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