The Master of (Self-inflicted) Disaster

Mike Nichols’s films about escaping catastrophe can guide us in the post-Trump era.

The Trump administration was a disaster of our own making. Through decades of laissez-faire policies and a long history of intolerance, our politics managed to elevate a deranged man with apparent authoritarian tendencies to the White House. As a consequence of our collective decision (and skewed electoral system), we were subjected to four years of a remarkably xenophobic administration and extraordinarily incompetent governance. It has been frightening and agonizing in almost equal measure. 

To make sense of the horror, scores of people turned to dystopian fiction. After Trump assumed office, George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, Upton Sinclair’s It Cant Happen Here, and Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America all spiked in sales. It’s easy to see why. Never before had the nation elected such a dangerous president, and we were left with totalitarian parables to understand our situation.

Now that the Trump presidency is over, however, what should we look to? One new book makes a strong, if unintentional, case for the work of the legendary filmmaker Mike Nichols. In Mike Nichols: A Life, Mark Harris shows that the director spent much of his career making films and plays about self-inflicted disaster. The Graduate, for example, is about a recent college graduate in the middle of an existential crisis who starts an affair with an older woman, Mrs. Robinson, and then falls in love with her daughter and ultimately destroys their family. Carnal Knowledge centers around a character whose domineering personality and sexual exploits leave him alienated and alone. The Birdcage is about an elaborate plot that a son and his gay father undertake to convince the parents of the son’s fiancé that the father is a cultural attaché from Greece and not the proprietor of a South Beach drag club. (The fiancé’s father is a conservative senator from Ohio who loves Rush Limbaugh.) Of course, the scheme descends into riotous chaos.

This theme was deliberate. “Disaster can reorder our lives in wonderful ways,” Nichols once said. “I passionately believe that in art, and certainly in the theater, there are only two questions . . . The first question is, ‘What is this, really, when it happens in life?’ Not what is the accepted convention . . . but what is it really like? And the other question we really have to ask is, ‘What happens next?’ ”

Perhaps it’s no surprise that Nichols was preoccupied with disaster; his life was marked by it. But while he spent much of his career focused on characters who create their own crises, his life began with a series of disasters that were no fault of his own. 

Nichols, born to a Jewish family in Berlin in 1931, was sent by his mother on a ship to the United States when he was seven years old to escape Nazi persecution. There he met his father, who had already fled. His mother later joined them after escaping through Italy, and they settled in New York City. 

Nichols’s boyhood trauma did not end there. After a botched whooping cough vaccination, he was left permanently hairless (later in life, he wore a wig and fake eyebrows). His father died from leukemia when Mike was 12. He was bullied relentlessly in school. 

As a young man, Nichols discovered—perhaps as a form of self-medication—a facility for comedy. After graduating from high school, he attended the University of Chicago and got involved in an improv group called the Compass Players, where he met the acerbic Elaine May. Quickly, they developed a remarkable rapport. The two had a short, ill-fated romance, but even after its collapse, they couldn’t ignore their onstage chemistry. Nichols and May starred as an improvisational comedy duo at Chicago’s famous Second City comedy club, and together, they left for New York to train as method actors with Lee Strasberg. When they got gigs on Broadway, they quickly became hits. 

It was, therefore, deeply traumatic to Nichols when May decided to stop working with him in 1961. “Not only had I lost my best friend, I lost my work,” he reportedly said. “I was the half of something.” Harris writes that in response, Nichols left acting and turned to directing. In the 1960s, he directed four hit plays, including Neil Simon’s Barefoot in the Park with Robert Redford and Elizabeth Ashley, and The Odd Couple, winning multiple Tonys. Then he began making movies. His first feature film, an adaptation of Edward Albee’s play Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, deals with the breakup of a husband and wife and is a case study in passive aggression catapulting into mayhem. The main characters, George and Martha, have another couple over for a dinner party, where they reveal, after a night of arguing, that they have made up an imaginary son who died in a car crash to fill the void for George’s impotence. (Coincidentally, the film starred Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, who had the most famously tumultuous marriage of their era.)

The Graduate unveils an early but undeveloped Nichols revelation: that people have an unconscious tendency to create personal calamity in order to reorient their lives. Notably, The Graduate leaves the audience wondering what happens next to Ben and Elaine.

The Graduate, his next film, begins as a story about an angst-ridden young man who doesn’t know what he wants to do with himself. “I’m just a little worried about my future,” Benjamin Braddock says, almost robotically. It ends with him creating a cataclysm like none other in American cinema: disrupting the wedding of Elaine Robinson (Mrs. Robinson’s daughter) and running out with her after locking the angry wedding crowd inside a glass church. The two hop on a bus, going no one knows where. They sit down happily, but after the exultation of what transpired wears off, their faces transition to blank and ominous stares. Simon and Garfunkel’s haunting song “The Sound of Silence” plays. 

Many critics have read The Graduate as one of the defining films of the 1960s, a blockbuster that captured the essence of a young generation’s discontent—a rejection of their parents’ commercialism and an unwillingness to play by society’s rules. It also unveils an early but undeveloped Nichols revelation: that people have an unconscious tendency to create personal disasters in order to reorient their lives. Notably, The Graduate leaves the audience wondering what happens next to Ben and Elaine. 

The success of the film—adjusted for inflation, it is the third-highest-grossing movie ever made—was enough for Nichols to earn free creative control for much of the rest of his life. He won the Academy Award for Best Director for The Graduate, and by the age of 36 was living in a Central Park penthouse and driving a Rolls-Royce. While he never made as good a film again, he became one of the most powerful directors in Hollywood. “It’s rumored that you even had final cut at your own circumcision,” Robin Williams joked when Nichols was awarded the AFI Lifetime Achievement Award in 2010. 

Nichols’s later cinematic work continued to center around characters dealing with calamities of various kinds, although he started to get more political. In 1998, he adapted Joe Klein’s novel Primary Colors, about a fictional character who is all but named Bill Clinton and an idealistic aide who tries to save the presidential campaign as revelations come to light that the candidate is a serial adulterer. The roman à clef shows the complexities of a man like Clinton, the dirtiness of politics, and what can happen when good politicians put noble goals at risk because of their bad personal behavior. 

Nichols continued that thread in 2007 with his last film, Charlie Wilson’s War. The movie features two characters responding to the tyranny of the Soviet Union in the 1980s by developing a U.S. program to arm Afghan rebels. Wilson, a congressman from Texas, convinces the House appropriations defense subcommittee to provide funding and weaponry to the mujahideen through Pakistan, as he’s simultaneously embroiled in an ethics scandal over palling around with drug dealers and strippers in Las Vegas. 

In each of these later films, the main characters respond to and ultimately overcome their own flaws by focusing on work and problem solving. The Clinton analog, Jack Stanton, does so by successfully seeking higher elected office. Wilson does so by becoming obsessively committed to liberating the Afghans from Soviet rule. 

Just as his later characters responded more proactively and constructively to their shortcomings, Nichols made positive transformations in his own life as he grew older.

Nichols, too, was known for throwing himself completely into his work, and rarely took time off. And just as his characters responded more proactively and constructively to their shortcomings, he was making transformations in his own life. According to Harris’s book, after meeting and falling in love with the legendary ABC anchor Diane Sawyer, he quit Halcion, a popular sleeping pill he had become hooked on that was later discovered to have psychotic side effects. After a two-year courtship, Nichols and Sawyer married in 1988 and stayed together until his death, in 2014. It was the longest-lasting romantic relationship he had and remained a subject of intrigue in Hollywood circles. One of Nichols’s best friends, Jackie Onassis, was wildly jealous of Sawyer. 

Devourers of Hollywood gossip may enjoy Harris’s book as much as cinephiles and theater mavens will. But any reader will be able to appreciate the biography for providing the most well-rounded and complex look at Mike Nichols to date. It is not a universally glowing portrait but a comprehensive chronicling of how one of America’s foremost theatric talents turned life’s harsh crucibles into artistic fodder. 

It is difficult to speculate on what kind of films Nichols would have made had he lived through the past four years. But now that the Trump era is all but over—we hope—and the immediate disaster is behind us, Americans are left with the same question Nichols wanted his films to provoke: What happens next?

Support Nonprofit Journalism

If you enjoyed this article, consider making a donation to help us produce more like it. The Washington Monthly was founded in 1969 to tell the stories of how government really works —and how to make it work better. More than fifty years later, the need for incisive analysis and new, progressive policy ideas is clearer than ever. As a nonprofit, we rely on support from readers like you.

YES, I'LL MAKE A DONATION

Eric Cortellessa

Eric Cortellessa is the Investigative Editor of the Washington Monthly.