Sundance Film Review: ‘Becoming Mike Nichols’

The late Mike Nichols holds court to engaging effect in Douglas McGrath's oddly truncated overview of his early career.

'Becoming Mike Nichols' Review: An Engaging, Over-Abbreviated Tribute
Courtesy of HBO Documentary Films

From the revealingly sustained closing shot of “The Graduate” to the rich structural sprawl of “Angels in America,” Mike Nichols was a filmmaker who often knew the virtues of taking his time — so for a documentary on his work to clock in at just 72 minutes doesn’t seem fitting in any sense. Not that Douglas McGrath’s “Becoming Mike Nichols” attempts a precis of its subject’s whole, many-leveled career in such a drastically short running time. “Becoming” is the operative word, as Nichols — in an onstage interview shot months before his death in 2014 — talks through only his formative work in the 1960s, with his Oscar win for his soph feature “The Graduate” bringing proceedings to an abrupt close. If the material feels inadequate for a freestanding doc, that’s no fault of Nichols, who’s on playful, perspicacious form; at the very least, McGrath’s film reps a useful resource for docmakers attempting a more expansive overview in the future.

2016 is proving a generous year so far for Nichols acolytes. Following its one-night-only premiere in Park City, “Becoming Mike Nichols” will air on HBO on Feb. 22 — less than a month after PBS’s “American Masters” special hits small screens. Directed by his devoted friend and erstwhile collaborator Elaine May, the latter tribute is even briefer, though has the advantage of an intimate guiding perspective. The pleasures of its interview footage notwithstanding, McGrath’s film can feel a little impersonal in its construction: Opening titles run through Nichols’ impressive career awards tally (including the coveted showbiz EGOT of Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony wins) in positively Wikipedia-like tones, which hardly encapsulates the substance or influence of his oeuvre.

Things warm up as we head into the interview itself. Set up as a dialogue with fellow theater director Jack O’Brien, it was shot over two nights at Broadway’s John Golden Theater — one with an audience and one without. This contrast seemingly enables two tiers of conversation, with Nichols’ witty skills as a raconteur coming to the fore with an audience present, while dwelling on more internal or theoretical subjects without one. Still, as editor Camilla Toniolo (McGrath’s collaborator on “Infamous” and “I Don’t Know How She Does It”) cuts fluidly between the two dialogues — sometimes in the space of what seems a single soundbite — the disconnect can be distracting, however engaging the content of the discussion.

The choice of venue is a poignant one, returning Nichols to the stage where he and Elaine May performed “An Evening with Nichols and May” in 1960. An early portion of the interview is dedicated to their sparky comic collaboration, while well-chosen clips of their quicksilver improv sketches — including a particularly hilarious back-and-forth set in a discount funeral parlor — should delight viewers who know Nichols only for his directorial work. Meanwhile, he speaks of his early, prodigious achievements in theater with a disarmingly roundabout style of self-deprecation (“I was extremely good, and I was a prick”) and matter-of-fact name-dropping — as when he explains how Lillian Hellman offered a vital fix to “Barefoot in the Park,” the first play he directed on Broadway.

Nichols is equally frank and funny on his first forays into film, openly admitting to his initial cluelessness regarding the possibilities of camera lenses — Anthony Perkins, we learn, was on hand for a quick tutorial — and recalling how a technical flub almost cost “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” Richard Burton’s immortal one-take delivery of the “burgen” monologue. (The thankfully salvaged monologue is included in full, as are a number of key scenes from Nichols’ first two films: Viewers may or may not need such extended reminders of his gifts, but these unabbreviated clips effectively show the calm, unfussy confidence of his technique.) He has a rich reserve of anecdotes, many involving the creative decisions that might have been: His tete-a-tete with Jack Warner over the right to shoot “Virginia Woolf?” in black-and-white, or Simon & Garfunkel’s initial, unsatisfactory composition of “Mrs. Robinson” for “The Graduate.”

It’s in discussing the latter title that Nichols gets more contemplative about his learning curve as a filmmaker, noting how the not-wholly-calculated process that led to that now-classic closing shot “taught [him] what films really are.” His explanation of this epiphany will only make viewers hungrier to hear how he applied it to subsequent films, fostering productive collaborations with the likes of Meryl Streep, Jack Nicholson and Nora Ephron along the way; teasingly, a concluding montage of film posters is all we get.

Sundance Film Review: ‘Becoming Mike Nichols’

Reviewed at Sundance Film Festival (Documentary Premieres), Jan. 28, 2016. Running time: 72 MIN.

  • Production: An HBO Documentary Films presentation. Produced by Ellin Baumel. Executive producers, Frank Rich, Jack O'Brien, Douglas McGrath, Sheila Nevins.
  • Crew: Directed by Douglas McGrath. Camera (color), Tim Orr; editor, Camilla Toniolo; music, David Lawrence; production designer, Derek McLane; supervising sound editor, Eliza Paley.
  • With: Mike Nichols, Jack O'Brien.