A loving tribute presented largely in his own words, the “American Masters” documentary “Mike Nichols” is directed by his one-time collaborator Elaine May, and drawn extensively from producer Julian Schlossberg’s candid interview with the director conducted for the film. While an hour is hardly sufficient to fully do justice to Nichols’ rich stage, film and performing resume, it’s enough to provide ample insight into why so many speak of the artist – who died in 2014, at the age of 83 – so reverently and affectionately.
Nichols talks about his humble beginnings – coming to America as a German refugee in the wake of World War II – and early schooling before his move into performing with May, which, he notes, earned him more universal accolades than anything he had done since. (There’s a hilarious clip of the two of them spoofing a Hollywood awards show, with her singling him out from the stage for his utter mediocrity.)
After that, though, the special is a virtual who’s who of gaudy name-dropping, from how influenced he was by seeing Marlon Brando on stage in “A Streetcar Named Desire” to counsel received from Lee Strasberg and Elia Kazan to assuring Jules Feiffer – the author of “Carnal Knowledge” – that a young actor named Jack Nicholson would become one of the signature talents of our time. And that’s giving relatively short shrift to his stage work with Neil Simon, directing “The Graduate,” what he learned from the perceived failure that was “Catch-22,” and a relationship with Meryl Streep – on “Silkwood” and later HBO’s “Angels in America” – that just talking about brings him to tears.
Nichols is such a gifted raconteur – and clearly so at ease with Schlossberg, who produced an earlier “American Masters” devoted to Nichols & May – that the hour flies by, offering fascinating insights about everything from a director’s role in the collaborative process to the alchemy of casting. And it’s all garnished by snippets of interviews with the likes of Streep, Tom Hanks, Dustin Hoffman, Alec Baldwin and Paul Simon, who more than anything convey a sense of how they genuinely treasured Nichols as well as the joy they derived from working with him.
The Nichols documentary kicks off another busy 30th-anniversary season of the “American Masters” franchise, with films devoted to B.B. King, Carole King, Fats Domino, Loretta Lynn, Janis Joplin and The Highwaymen. And while it probably won’t be easy to catch them all, it’s worth making time for this last memorable Nichols-May collaboration.