Mike Nichols: A Penny For His Ideas
It modified our lives ceaselessly. And it wasn’t about Styrofoam cups. It was about Mike Nichols, comedian genius, director of The Graduate. Yup. The movie that altered all of us coming-of-age-ers. It catapulted younger Dustin Hoffman’s career, reworked Simon & Garfunkel’s, and absolutely modified mine.
A studious East Coast highschool teenager in 1967, I used to be transfixed by Nichols’ flawless touch: on screen and in life. I was stirred by the younger, confused college graduate Ben Braddock — the icon of inertia, pacing in opposition to the Sounds of Silence. I was immediately immersed in Nichols’ sun-drenched scenes of a dazed Benjamin, floating aimlessly in his dad and mom’ Southern California swimming pool, drifting between flickering squares of sun glare, answering The Adults’ countless questions about his future — in a monotone.
Who might ever erase from our minds these edgy film segues and montages: Ben diving into the pool, leaping off of his raft (Lower), proper into the arms of Mrs. Robinson, within the hotel mattress. These Nichols-ian cinematic photos are ingrained in our brains for eternity.
And the way might we ever neglect the nervous whimper of “Track Star Benjamin,” the kid holding a toothbrush at the swanky Resort Taft reception desk, waiting to be seduced by Anne Bancroft Or “Relentless Benjamin,” pursuing the girl of his desires, darting down the freeway in his red Alfa Romeo, appearing on her wedding day, rattling the church doorways, begging to vary destiny, screaming, “ELAINE”
It was all because of Mike Nichols: comic, martian manhunter logo t shirt zip author, director (Barefoot in the Park, Dying of a Salesman, Silkwood, Virginia Woolf, Angels in America, and Annie). Mike Nichols: one of many 12 select few to garner the quartet of awards — egads — the OGET (Oscar Grammy Emmy & Tony).
I always felt a deep pang of connection to Nichols. Perhaps it was due to his Russian Jewish heritage — on his father’s side. Or his pursuit of dark Jewish humor. Maybe it was his name (my Hebrew identify is Michaela; he was born Mikhail) or his “fish out of water” persona; or perhaps it was merely his inner longing to get on stage.
Whatever the unofficial bond, I at all times admired his motto:
“The one safe factor is to take a chance.”
Our own Jewish household was cautious, encouraging us youngsters to take the sensible highway. He, however, seems to have chosen the road much less travelled. He trusted his intuition: rejecting golden boy Robert Redford in casting The Graduate, prolonging his seek for a darker, quirkier Jewish actor (eventually discovering Dustin Hoffman) for the position of Benjamin. Later, he swooped a comparatively obscure monologuist’s one-woman present from oblivion onto Broadway, and referred to as it Whoopi. The rest is herstory.
I usually puzzled what Mike Nichols was thinking when he gave up medical faculty training for Lee Strasberg How the heck did he have the guts to depart a safe career path behind and comply with the unsure path of a performer If solely I may have asked him. He appeared ever-so- certain in regards to the ever-so-unknown.
Nichols always seemed ahead of the curve; he did improv way before improv was UCB-trendy. He joined The Compass Gamers with downright confidence method before the Upright Residents Brigade existed. As an impressionable kid, sitting in our olive-curtained Queens living room one night, I heard smidgens of something completely mind-blowing. It turned out to be An evening with Mike Nichols and Elaine Could.
My parents, after all, were both pragmatic and inventive. On special birthday celebrations, they spun the globe, educating me geography and tradition. They took me to Carnegie Hall to hear Danish comedian Victor Borge. They handled me to Ararat, my first Armenian restaurant; to my first Washington Square Village Artwork show; my first Japanese tatami room in Manhattan; and my first Rooster Kiev at the Russian Bear restaurant, where I first heard strolling violinists playing Midnights in Moscow.
They’d an extensive 33 1/3 vinyl LP file assortment and played fantastic avant-garde stuff, from ’60s bossa nova jazz (Stan Getz and Jobim) to the folk music of Harry Belafonte and The Weavers. They held dinner parties of their tiny garden residence, taking part in hours of Judy Garland and Ella Fitzgerald for their friends. After which came the comedians. Lenny Bruce, Mort Sahl, Woody Allen, and The 2000 Yr Outdated Man with Mel Brooks and Carl Reiner. One splendid Saturday evening, while my sister and i were snoop-sitting on the top of the steps, eavesdropping on the get together down below, we had been spellbound by some mad geniuses.
Yup. We have been listening to the sounds of Nichols and will. Mike Nichols, King of Spoken Phrase Comedy. Just as in music, it is all about the timing: the pauses, the suspense, the syncopation. It was The Operator sketch, where the out-of-all-his-change guy (Nichols) calls The Operator (Elaine Could), determined for the number of a Mr. George Kaplan. The Operator takes an excruciating amount of time spelling out KAPLAN: “Okay for Knight… A for Aardvark…” and so forth. I was eight, and I was smitten. The second I heard Elaine May martian manhunter logo t shirt zip in her nasal, snarky Operator voice, I wished to become a comedienne. But one with wit and grit.
It was a blissful trip: a roller coaster of hilarity, because the caller gets more and more determined, scrambling for the quantity, losing the dime as he hears it clink towards all the opposite dimes, pleading for the Managing Supervisor and then the nonetheless greater up Mrs. Jones, finally crying tears of joy, talking to the Goddess of Bell Telephone Management as if he have been at the knees of Mom Theresa, or maybe on the therapist’s couch.
Nichols’ mix of brutality, bite and poignancy was his brilliance, spilling over with insight — on movie, in comedy, on stage, on Television, in love, and in life. In the Mom and martian manhunter logo t shirt zip Son bit, scientist Nichols defends his negligence in calling his mother: “Mother, I was sending up a rocket, I did not have a second.” And mother’s (Elaine May’s) response: “I am going into the hospital … they will x-ray my nerves. How is your hangnail “
I unexpectedly bumped into Mike Nichols one chilly winter evening within the East Village. I used to be on a Bought-Out/Ready for The Cherry Orchard tickets line on the Classic Stage Company. Nichols was in his own quiet, private area, however graciously took some moments out to debate my struggles on the comedy path and his early improv days.
Once i glanced down, I noticed he was holding a styrofoam cup of espresso. I only want I may have heard his innermost ideas on the ironies of Life and Plastics.