Mike Nichols A life

Mark Harris, 1963-

Book - 2021

"A magnificent biography of one of the most protean creative forces in American entertainment history, a life of dazzling highs and vertiginous plunges--some of the worst largely unknown until now--by the acclaimed author of Pictures at a Revolution and Five Came Back. Mike Nichols burst onto the scene as a wunderkind without parallel: while still in his 20's, he was half of a lucrative hit improv duo with Elaine May that was the talk of the country. Next he directed four hit Broadway ...plays, picking up the Best Director Tony for three of them, and by his mid-30's the first two films he directed, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf and The Graduate, were the highest-grossing movies of 1966 and 1967 respectively, and The Graduate had won him an Oscar for Best Director. Well before his 40th birthday, Nichols lived in a sprawling penthouse on Central Park West, drove a Rolls Royce, collected Arabian horses, and counted the likes of Jacqueline Kennedy, Stephen Sondheim, Richard Avedon and the Aga Khan as good friends. Where he had arrived is even more astonishing given where he began: born Igor Peschkowsky to a Jewish couple in Berlin in 1931, he and his younger brother were sent alone to America on a ship in 1939. Their father, who had gone ahead to find work, was waiting for them; their mother would follow, in the nick of time. His name changed by his father to "Michael Nichols," the young boy caught very few breaks: his parents were now destitute, and his father died when Mike was just 11, leaving his mentally unstable mother alone and overwhelmed. Perhaps most cruelly, Nichols was completely bald: as a small child an allergic reaction to an immunization shot had caused total and permanent hair loss. His parents claimed they could not afford to buy him even a cheap wig until he was almost in high school. Mark Harris gives an intimate and even-handed accounting of success and failure alike; the portrait is not always flattering, but its ultimate impact is to present the full story of one of the most richly interesting, complicated, and consequential figures the worlds of theater and motion pictures have ever seen. It is a triumph of the biographer's art"--

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Subjects
Genres
Biographies
Published
New York : Penguin Press 2021.
Edition
First edition
Language
English
Physical Description
xiii, 673 pages, 32 unnumberered pages of plates : illustrations (some color) ; 25 cm
Bibliography
Includes bibliographical references (pages 647-650) and index.
ISBN
9780399562242
0399562249
Main Author
Mark Harris, 1963- (author)
  • Part One. What It Was Really Like
  • Part Two. What Happened Next.
Review by Booklist Reviews

*Starred Review* Harris follows two outstanding works of film history (Pictures at a Revolution, 2008, and Five Came Back, 2014) with this robust biography of legendary director Mike Nichols. Harris' skill as a storyteller in on full view as he follows Nichols' immigrant's journey from Berlin in 1939, when the seven-year-old and his three-year-old brother, Robert, traveled alone to New York to join their father, through the early years as an outsider and indifferent student, and then on to his improbable and wildly successful career, first as an improv actor with Elaine May and then throughout a 50-year run as a stage and film director. This ground has been covered before, notably in the oral history Life Isn't Everything (2019), but Harris brings new dimension and context to the story, showing in vivid detail and with a novelist's feel for narrative, that Nichols' directorial career, despite its phenomenal beginning (Tony Awards for his first three Broadway shows and blockbuster success with his first two movies, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and The Graduate), had its share of low points. Nichols' reactions to such film flops as Catch-22 and The Day of the Dolphin are covered much more fully here than in the necessarily celebratory oral history, and they provide some of the book's most revealing glimpses of Nichols' personal vulnerability. Like the best biographies, Harris brings his subject's life and work together in a perfectly unified whole. Copyright 2020 Booklist Reviews.

Review by Library Journal Reviews

Editor and journalist Harris's (Five Came Back) engrossing, pull-no-punches biography of American movie and theater director Mike Nichols (1931–2014) presents both well-known and more obscure portions of his subject's life and work through a chronological arrangement, with copious excerpts from interviews with actors, writers, designers, and other creative folks. The author divides the narrative into two- or three-year chunks, examining Nichols's Jewish family's escape from Germany on the cusp of World War II; his early successes in clubs, radio, and television as a duo with Elaine May; and his collaborations with Neil Simon on Broadway and his renown for movies such as The Graduate. Neither avoiding nor emphasizing Nichols's excesses of consumption and failed marriages, Harris creates a fully rounded portrait of a person who could command the respect and support of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis and master his craft yet still feel insecure when confronted with disappointment. VERDICT A compelling storyteller, Harris sweeps readers up into the whirlwind of Nichols's life. Likely to become the definitive book about Nichols, Harris's exhaustive take should have widespread appeal, especially given the dearth of currently available literature about this important and influential entertainment icon.—Barry Zaslow, Miami Univ. Libs., Oxford, OH Copyright 2020 Library Journal.

Review by Publishers Weekly Reviews

Harris (Five Came Back) delivers an entertaining portrait of actor, director, and producer Mike Nichols in this bracingly candid biography. Drawing primarily on interviews conducted by himself and others, Harris captures the award-winner's "precision and finesse" during his "five-decade career in movies and theater," which included directing the 1967 film The Graduate and the 1984 play The Real Thing. Nichols's first major success came in 1960 with An Evening with Mike Nichols and Elaine May, a comedy act that "more than doubled its investors' money"; his fame continued as he released his first feature film in 1966, an adaptation of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? starring Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor. Though Nichols's work style—he "wasn't shy about using his personal experience to motivate his actors"—is front and center, Harris empathetically digs into his subject's private life: never far below the surface was the self-aware young Jewish immigrant from Germany who became a master of self-presentation and invention (Nichols took "great care never to look or sound too excited about anything"). Harris also doesn't gloss over Nichols's demons, including his drug use, demand for perfection, and "irritability and condescension" on set. The result is a joyously readable and balanced account of a complex man. Agent: Andrew Wylie, Wylie Agency. (Feb.) Copyright 2020 Publishers Weekly.

Review by Publisher Summary 1

The author of Pictures at a Revolution draws on interviews with such notables as Meryl Streep, Emma Thompson and Tom Hanks to document the remarkable creative achievements and private struggles of entertainment wunderkind, Mike Nichols. Illustrations.

Review by Publisher Summary 2

"A magnificent biography of one of the most protean creative forces in American entertainment history, a life of dazzling highs and vertiginous plunges--some of the worst largely unknown until now--by the acclaimed author of Pictures at a Revolution and Five Came Back. Mike Nichols burst onto the scene as a wunderkind without parallel: while still in his 20's, he was half of a lucrative hit improv duo with Elaine May that was the talk of the country. Next he directed four hit Broadway plays, picking up the Best Director Tony for three of them, and by his mid-30's the first two films he directed, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf and The Graduate, were the highest-grossing movies of 1966 and 1967 respectively, and The Graduate had won him an Oscar for Best Director. Well before his 40th birthday, Nichols lived in a sprawling penthouse on Central Park West, drove a Rolls Royce, collected Arabian horses, and counted the likes of Jacqueline Kennedy, Stephen Sondheim, Richard Avedon and the Aga Khan as good friends. Where he had arrived is even more astonishing given where he began: born Igor Peschkowsky to a Jewish couple in Berlin in 1931, he and his younger brother were sent alone to America on a ship in 1939. Their father, who had gone ahead to find work, was waiting for them; their mother would follow, in the nick of time. His name changed by his father to "Michael Nichols," the young boy caught very few breaks: his parents were now destitute, and his father died when Mike was just 11, leaving his mentally unstable mother alone and overwhelmed. Perhaps most cruelly, Nichols was completely bald: as a small child an allergic reaction to an immunization shot had caused total and permanent hair loss. His parents claimed they could not afford to buy him even a cheap wig until he was almost in high school. Mark Harris gives an intimate and even-handed accounting of success and failure alike; the portrait is not always flattering, but its ultimate impact is to present the full story of one of the most richly interesting, complicated, and consequential figures the worlds of theater and motion pictures have ever seen. It is a triumph of the biographer's art"--

Review by Publisher Summary 3

A National Book Critics Circle finalist • One of People's top 10 books of 2021 • An instant New York Times bestseller • Named a best book of the year by NPR and Time A magnificent biography of one of the most protean creative forces in American entertainment history, a life of dazzling highs and vertiginous plunges—some of the worst largely unknown until now—by the acclaimed author of Pictures at a Revolution and Five Came BackMike Nichols burst onto the scene as a wunderkind: while still in his twenties, he was half of a hit improv duo with Elaine May that was the talk of the country. Next he directed four consecutive hit plays, won back-to-back Tonys, ushered in a new era of Hollywood moviemaking with Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, and followed it with The Graduate, which won him an Oscar and became the third-highest-grossing movie ever. At thirty-five, he lived in a three-story Central Park West penthouse, drove a Rolls-Royce, collected Arabian horses, and counted Jacqueline Kennedy, Elizabeth Taylor, Leonard Bernstein, and Richard Avedon as friends.Where he arrived is even more astonishing given where he had begun: born Igor Peschkowsky to a Jewish couple in Berlin in 1931, he was sent along with his younger brother to America on a ship in 1939. The young immigrant boy caught very few breaks. He was bullied and ostracized--an allergic reaction had rendered him permanently hairless--and his father died when he was just twelve, leaving his mother alone and overwhelmed.The gulf between these two sets of facts explains a great deal about Nichols's transformation from lonely outsider to the center of more than one cultural universe--the acute powers of observation that first made him famous; the nourishment he drew from his creative partnerships, most enduringly with May; his unquenchable drive; his hunger for security and status; and the depressions and self-medications that brought him to terrible lows. It would take decades for him to come to grips with his demons. In an incomparable portrait that follows Nichols from Berlin to New York to Chicago to Hollywood, Mark Harris explores, with brilliantly vivid detail and insight, the life, work, struggle, and passion of an artist and man in constant motion. Among the 250 people Harris interviewed: Elaine May, Meryl Streep, Stephen Sondheim, Robert Redford, Glenn Close, Tom Hanks, Candice Bergen, Emma Thompson, Annette Bening, Natalie Portman, Julia Roberts, Lorne Michaels, and Gloria Steinem.Mark Harris gives an intimate and evenhanded accounting of success and failure alike; the portrait is not always flattering, but its ultimate impact is to present the full story of one of the most richly interesting, complicated, and consequential figures the worlds of theater and motion pictures have ever seen. It is a triumph of the biographer's art.