Monday on HBO: Becoming Mike Nichols

Courtesy of HBO
Courtesy of HBO / Courtesy of HBO

Mike Nichols died in late 2014. He was widely known for his work as half of the comedy duo Nichols and May, but he was also a celebrated director of theater and film. He directed the classic films Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, The Graduate, and The Birdcage, among many others. He also made waves on Broadway, directing Neil Simon's Barefoot in the Park and The Odd Couple, again, among many others.

Nichols is one of only twelve people to hold an EGOT, meaning he won the Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, and Tony. Beyond that, he's one of only two people to hold a PEGOT, as he also has a Peabody Award (the other PEGOT holder is Barbra Streisand). It's fair to say that Nichols was an extremely accomplished performer, and it's likely he would have a lot to teach about his many crafts. In the film Becoming Mike Nichols, debuting Monday night (February 22) on HBO, we get to spend an hour with the master. Here's a trailer:

Just four months before Nichols died, he sat for two filmed interviews. Both were with his colleague, the director Jack O'Brien, and the pair explored quite literally how Mike Nichols became Mike Nichols—what it took to become an actor and improvisor, how he made the leap to directing theater, and then how he made the leap to directing film. The two interviews were then assembled into a documentary, along with photographs and footage from the 1960s onward. The film also touches on Nichols' early life, as his family fled Nazi Germany to reach the U.S. in 1940.

One of the interviews was just the two men on a stage together; the other was the two in front of an audience. By repeating similar questions and lines of inquiry, O'Brien managed to get Nichols to bring out different stories about his life—those that played both to the intimate setting of two friends reminiscing, and those that played to an audience. And by the way, they did the interview at the Golden Theatre, where Nichols and May made their Broadway debut in 1960.


What makes Becoming Mike Nichols so good is simply Nichols himself, as he tries to make sense of his celebrated career. At one point, he utters a classic Nichols line: "There are only three types of scenes: negotiations, seductions, and fights." He has a point. If you watch his film work, especially his masterpiece Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, that analysis is exactly right. In the Nichols school of drama, conflict is constant and beautiful, and only occasionally cathartic. Even if you watch his film The Birdcage, that same sense of drama within each scene is a constant presence. That's what a man born to the stage brings to film.

Mike Nichols and Elaine May performing with Compass Players (Courtesy of HBO)

Nichols tells us up front: "This is what you need to know about movies: You get lucky in various strange ways." And much of this documentary is about the combination of talent, skill, and luck that made him so successful. If you have any interest in film, theater, or the creative arts, I urge you to tune in for Becoming Mike Nichols. It's just over an hour long, and I can't think of a more delightful way to spend an hour. Plus, you get to hear the true stories behind the ending scene of The Graduate (wrenching and raw), and how Simon & Garfunkel's "Mrs. Robinson" was originally about an entirely different woman.

Becoming Mike Nichols debuts Monday night, February 22, on HBO. It's also on the HBO streaming services (HBO GO and HBO NOW). You can read more about the film from HBO, including air dates and behind-the-scenes photographs.