In the late 1940s, young émigré Mike Nichols — born Mikhail Igor Peschkowsky in the waning days of the Weimar Republic — headed to Broadway to catch a new play, starring a then-unknown transplant from Nebraska. "To this day," he tells interlocutor Jack O'Brien in Douglas McGrath's "Becoming Mike Nichols" (HBO), "it was the only thing I've seen that was 100% real and 100% poetic, both at the same time." Though "paralyzed" by its remarkable confluence of writing, acting, and directing, he nonetheless absorbed from the production something like a calling: Nichols aspired to recreate that alchemy of the real and the poetic for the rest of his life.
The play was "A Streetcar Named Desire," the performer Marlon Brando, and Nichols the filmmaker cleared this extraordinary bar twice: in his dreamy anthem for doomed youth, "The Graduate" (1967), which remains an iconic artifact of the 1960s, and in his 2003 adaptation of Tony Kushner's "Angels in America" (HBO), which deserves consideration alongside "Berlin Alexanderplatz" (Fassbinder, 1980) and "Fanny and Alexander" (Bergman, 1982), as one of the finest works of art ever conceived for television. In each, Nichols elucidates a specific historical moment — the rise of the counterculture, the AIDS crisis — by buffeting the naturalistic with the fantastic, the tragic with the comic, much as Tennessee Williams tossed the romantic Blanche DuBois into the lion's den with roughneck Stanley Kowalski. The magic of Mike Nichols was to understand that we cannot see ourselves clearly except at a slight remove, and to construct that distancing effect without losing the lifelike texture of his characters.
That neither "Becoming Mike Nichols" nor longtime collaborator Elaine May's "Mike Nichols: American Masters" (PBS) manages to marshal his prolific work in theater, film, and television into a fully satisfying portrait is, in this sense, unsurprising: No career as long and as varied as Nichols' is easily reduced to feature length. Yet McGrath and May alike, relying on Nichols' own words to structure the narrative, recognize the formative influence of his work in comedy without deigning to elucidate the point. At 71 and 53 minutes, respectively, their films focus on the period of meteoric success that culminated in "The Graduate" — and then cut off or peter out, as if there were nothing left to say.
This is unfortunate, because Nichols' understanding of his own steep learning curve is charming, illuminating, and terrifically funny. He knew so little about cameras going into "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" (1966) that he conscripted actor Anthony Perkins to explain the rudiments of lens lengths, and yet his renowned instinct with actors seems, in retrospect, an inborn trait. He cast relative newcomer Robert Redford in the Broadway debut of Neil Simon's "Barefoot in the Park," for example, after seeing him just once, on "Playhouse 90." (Nichols recognized a star when he saw one.) The result was a filmmaker whose treatment of the topical was rooted not in cinematic realism, exactly, but the stage's willing suspension of disbelief. The premise of "Working Girl" (1988), which finds Melanie Griffith's secretary, Tess, aping her high-powered boss (Sigourney Weaver) to establish herself on Wall Street, is a flight of fancy, but the film captures true-to-life professional barriers — of gender, of class — with such precision it still feels fresh.
The through-line in Nichols' wide-ranging body of work was his ongoing attempt to rediscover the poetic realism he saw in "A Streetcar Named Desire" — filtered, of course, through the comic prism he developed in collaboration with May, and achieved, with varying degrees of success, in everything from "Carnal Knowledge" (1971) to "Wit" (2001). Even at his most caustic, in "Closer" (2004), the cruelty on display veers toward comedy — the climactic argument between Julia Roberts and Clive Owen has something of the roast in it, powered by the fleeting delights of pure malice.
If "Mike Nichols: American Masters" and "Becoming Mike Nichols" fail to suggest how the director's artistic principles influenced the more cagey sense of humor that marked his final decade, both at least reopen the door to more thorough appreciations and reconsiderations of Nichols' life behind the camera. The filmmaker himself, fortunately for us, never forgot the lesson he learned in his earliest days in the theater — whether producing the gutsiness of "Silkwood" (1983), the dirty politics of "Primary Colors" (1998), or the ironies of "Charlie Wilson's War" (2007). "There are only three kinds of scenes," he says in "Becoming Mike Nichols." "Negotiations, seductions, and fights." That he became a master of all three would itself require the willing suspension of disbelief, except that, for more than four decades, he kept providing the evidence.
Nichols" airs tonight at 9 p.m. on HBO. Watch "Mike Nichols: American
Masters" at pbs.org.