By John H. Foote

Though I have always admired many of the films of Mike Nichols, I think he peaked with his first two films. Though he directed many fine films, did he ever again reach the heights he did with Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966) and The Graduate (1967) for which he won the Academy Award as Best Director? I do not believe he did, though he certainly reached for that brilliance many times.

In the superb new biography “Mike Nichols” by Mark Harris, I found myself pulled in effortlessly to Nichols, who admittedly I have always thought a tad overrated as a film director. Like the great Elia Kazan, Nichols was a bi-coastal director, moving easily between the cinema and the stage. On stage, he was simply a legendary director, winning an astonishing 8 Tony Awards for Best Director for Barefoot in the Park, Luv, The Odd Couple, Plaza Suite, The Prisoner of Second Avenue, The Real Thing, Spamalot, and the recent remount of Death of a Salesman. A further five nominations came for directing, and five more nominations for producing, with two wins for Annie and The Real Thing.

On film he won an Oscar for just his second film, earning nominations for Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966), Silkwood (1983) and Working Girl (1988). He collected two Emmys for Best Director for Wit (2001) and his bold Angels in America (2003), both for HBO.

Harris starts at the beginning and moves in chronological order through his life, built around the films and plays for which he became renowned.

What I loved best about the book was the discussion about his connections with actors. Nichols loved talent, thereby adoring actors, living for that exciting back and forth taking place between he and his actors. Tight, lifetime friendships were forged with Meryl Streep, Jack Nicholson, Christopher Walken, Emma Thompson, Robin Williams and Julia Roberts. He spoke their language as a performer himself, and directed by suggesting. The freedoms he afforded his collaborators was huge, he trusted his cast, he wanted their feedback, but preferred it come to him only.

Among those cast in his films, there were 19 Academy Award nominations for the actors spread across the four categories. There easily could have been more.

Despite his fussy appearance and love of heady conversations, Nichols preferred the quiet life, though never far from New York. His horse farm was among his great loves, the absolute love of his life being Diane Sawyer, his wife.

Well done Mark Harris, the finest biography of a director since Sam Wasson’s “Fosse”.

Coming soon from me: “The Ten Greatest Films of Mike Nichols”

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