Red Carpet Chatter: Mike Nichols Gets His AFI Lifetime Achievement Award

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Born in 1931 in what was very soon to become Hitler’s Germany, young Michael Peschkowsky was living in Manhattan by 1939. It was great luck both for the future Mike Nichols and for the country that accepted him.

Nichols is, of course, one of the most respected directors in Hollywood, and for good reason. He’s the original, craftsmanlike, and emotionally astute directorial voice responsible for such sixties and seventies classics as “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?,”  “Carnal Knowledge” and, of course, “The Graduate” (the source of his only directorial Oscar so far) as well as such eighties, nineties, and oughts successes as “Silkwood,” “Working Girl,” “The Birdcage,” and “Closer.” Even if some of the later films are not on the same level of quality as his earlier films — and several, especially his 1988 box office hit, “Working Girl,” stray into mediocrity — it’s still one of the most impressive and diverse careers of any living director in Hollywood.

That’s just on the big screen. On television, Nichols has rebounded in the eyes of many critics, directing two of the most acclaimed television productions of the last decade, 2001’s “Wit” with Emma Thompson, and the outstanding 2005 miniseries adaptation of Tony Kushner’s brilliant and mammoth epic play, “Angels in America.” With his 80th birthday just a year and a half away, he’s still working hard with two thrillers movies planned, including an I’ll-believe-it-when-I-see-it remake of Akira Kurosawa’s “High and Low” currently being rewritten by the decidedly counter-intuitive choice of Chris Rock.

Before he directed his first foot of film, Mike Nichols was a noted theater director. That in itself is not so unusual a root for directors to travel. What is different is that, before he was a noted theater director, he was half of one of the most influential comedy teams in show business history, Nichols and May. (His comedy partner, Elaine May, went on to become an important, if less commercially successful, writer and director in her own right.)

Still, from the moment he directed his first major play, Neil Simon’s “Barefoot in the Park,” Nichols mostly abandoned performing. Today, his highly regarded early work is mostly known only to fairly hardcore comedy aficionados.

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That Nichols/comedy disconnect is probably related to the fact that Nichols has become famous for films and plays that are usually witty but often anything but comedies.  Some, like “Closer,” are downright dour. Still, he has never made a film where where wit was not a factor. Dissecting relationships and politics with great skill, he’s more recently allowed his comedy freak-flag to fly with farce in 1996’s “The Birdcage,” and complete absurdity in the Monty Python-based theatrical musical comedy smash, “Spamalot.”

No, there’s little doubt that there’s very little in the way of traditional drama or comedy that Mike Nichols hasn’t successfully accomplished and, as his Wikipedia entry reminds us, he’s got his “30 Rock” EGOT (Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, Tony) to back that up. There are other awards, nevertheless, and so it was that he was honored a couple of weeks back with an American Film Institute (AFI) Lifetime Achievement Award, easily one of the  highest honors any U.S. movie director can win. It was presented at what sure sounds like a highly entertaining superstar-laden black-tie ceremony on the Sony lot in Culver City. I haven’t been allowed to see it yet, but we can all catch up on it after it premieres on TV Land, tonight, June 26th, at 9:00 P.M/8:00 P.M. central.

While such mega-luminaries as Dustin Hoffman, Meryl Streep, Shirley MacLaine, Elaine May, and a reunited Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel stayed far away from the press, a number of us writers were allowed to briefly chat with a few select notables and friends from Nichols’ past. The first to visit with the online press was Wallace Shawn.

An extremely busy comic character actor who began his film career being insulted about his looks by Woody Allen in “Manhattan,” Wallace Shawn’s best known work ranges from the “Toy Story” films (he’s the voice of Rex, the dinosaur) to the inconceivable villain, Vizzini, of 1988’s “The Princess Bride” who proved that sometimes you actually can go up against a Sicillian when death is on the line, though we’ve all been reminded lately that getting involved in a land war in Asia remains questionable.

The son of legendary New Yorker editor William Shawn, Shawn has been a noted playwright since the 1970s. He first came to national fame having a feature-length dinner with visionary directory Andre Gregory, in the Louis Malle directed two-character 1981 art-house sensation, “My Dinner with Andre,” co-written by Shawn and Gregory. Some years later, he again collaborated in what amounted to a starring role, and a dramatic role at that, alongside Gregory and opposite a then-unknown Julianne Moore in Louis Malle’s final film, the great semi-documentary adaptation of Chekhov’s “Uncle Vanya”, “Vanya on 42nd Street.” Though Shawn’s flair for comedy and humble, regular-schmo demeanor might make him seem like the opposite of a creative flamethrower, his plays are politically charged, highly controversial, and definitely not for everyone. Fiscally speaking, I’m sure he’d agree it’s a good thing he’s got such strong acting skills.

As for his connection to Mike Nichols, though the ex-comedian has done very little acting since the early sixties, Nichols did Shawn the rare honor of starring in both the stage and film versions of Shawn’s three-character piece, “The Designated Mourner.” It was directed on both stage and screen by playwright David Hare.

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Wallace Shawn might be a man of big and challenging ideas. However, as in “My Dinner with Andre,” he seemed more comfortable discussing humorously mundane matters. Asked by a highly attractive podcaster next to me about what jobs he’d be doing if he wasn’t an actor and playwright, he started discussing his early position as a shipping clerk, an experience he remembered rather fondly when asked how he’d feel if he had to return to it.

“I worked for very nice people, and it was folding nice dresses. It would be alright.”

But what about the pay?

“The pay was [long pause] poor. Because I was not at the top of the shipping clerk world. It was rather low down…I only had started as a messenger. They said, ‘This guy can probably fold these dresses as well as the next guy.'”

When asked who he admired as a young man coming up, he said that, while there were many, he was more likely to idolize people today, specifically naming Mike Nichols as well as Nobel Prize winning linguist and leftist intellectual superstar Noam Chomsky.

Then I thought I’d go back to a line from a “Andre” in which he mentioned that, as a child raised in comfort, all he thought about was art and music, but that as 36 year-old working adult, he mainly thought about money. Where was he on the curve now?  Was he back to thinking about high-minded matters like art and philosophy or still focusing on the mundane need for ready cash?

“I do think a lot about how money affects things, but I think about it philosophically and artistically.”

I tried to follow it up with a question about the politics in Nichols’ work but after agreeing that “Angels in America” was a really good and weighty work of theater and politics, he was off to the next interviewer.

My dreams of a substantial, if necessarily super-brief, Terry Gross-style discussion with Shawn dashed, there was no time for recriminations because next up was character actor Tim Curry.  Though he’ll never quite live down the charismatic Mick-Jagger-meets-Juliet-Prowse excellence of his cult superstar making performance in “The Rocky Horror Picture Show,” Curry has more than 200 credits on his IMDb page, including innumerable voice characterization for animation, and he may well rack up another hundred at the rate he’s going.

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So, after such an eventful career, including innumerable highly demanding stage roles such as originating the role of Mozart in the Broadway production of Peter Shaffer’s “Amadeus” and any number of strong performances in films ranging from the board-game adaptation “Clue” to “The Hunt for Red October” to Bill Condon’s terrific 2004 docudrama, “Kinsey,” what was it like finally working with Mike Nichols during the 2005 Broadway production of the ultimate (and so far only) Monty Python-derived stage musical comedy, “Spamalot”?

“It was really great, which is why I’m here.”

Did that have something to do with Nichols own background as a comedian.

“Absolutely, because nobody knows funny like he does. He’s brilliant at comedy. He knows what it is. He knows how to make it work.”

Then it was time for my ultimate fall-back question which invariably pleases highly experienced actors — and for which I once again must credit Mr. Will Harris. Was there anything in Mr. Curry’s hugely full background which he felt deserves more attention?

“That’s a good question,” said Curry, taking a second to think. “I did a film in Arkansas where I played…a sort of version of [scandal plagued TV preacher] Jim Bakker. The company went broke just as it came into the theater, so nobody ever saw it.”

(The film comedy in question, 1988’s “Pass the Ammo,” is currently unavailable on DVD. Bug Lionsgate if you want to see it.)

After that, it was time for Curry to move on to the next questioner who queried him about his ongoing stint on “Criminal Minds.” For the sake of any fans of the shows out there — which I gather may include the previously mentioned Mr. Harris and another fellow PHer, Ross Ruediger — Curry confesses to being a huge enthuisast of the show himself and admits that he lobbied heavily for a part. Also, for any “Clue” cultists out there, he’s aware of the Rocky Horror-esque midnight shows at theaters like the Nuart in Los Angeles — complete with costumed film-goers — but he hasn’t attended. “It’s a bit late for an elderly person.”

Next up was one of the most familiar faces of American movies circa 1965-1980. In the seventies, George Segal carved himself a niche as somewhere between the Jewish Cary Grant and the handsome Woody Allen in films like “A Touch of Class,” Robert Altman’s classic look at compulsive gamblers, “California Split,” Carl Reiner’s edgy cult comedy classic, “Where’s Poppa?” (aka “Going Ape”) as well as such late seventies mainstream fare as “Fun with Dick and Jane” and “Rollercoaster.” These days, Segal is probably best known for his role as Laura San Giacomo’s publisher father on TV’s “Just Shoot Me.” In his mid-seventies, he remains a busy character actor and is about to headline his own sitcom on TV Land, “Retired at 35.”

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Segal’s career got a major kick-start in the mid-sixties with two acclaimed films, the POW drama “King Rat” and, more relevant here, his somewhat underrated supporting turn in Mike Nichols hugely important directorial debut, Edward Albee’s “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” In the film, he and actress Sandy Dennis portrayed a younger married couple on shaky ground who find themselves drawn in to a very late night of ultra-dysfunction by rampaging academic drunks George (Richard Burton) and Martha (Elizabeth Taylor). Though most of the attention went to the more histrionic performances by Burton and Taylor, Dennis and Segal were invaluable in grounding the film with their two highly layered performances.

Still, when asked about what he would do if he weren’t acting by my neighbor, he said that he’d probably be a professional banjo player. “I wouldn’t work as much — there’ s not much demand for them.” Late seventies/early eighties TV viewers and really knowledgeable traditional jazz fans will know this is no mere joke. Segal’s singing and banjo playing was once a familiar site on “The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson” when he fronted the Dixieland-playing Beverly Hills Unlisted Jazz Band alongside writer Sheldon Keller and fellow thespian Conrad Janis (“Mork and Mindy”).

When asked about Mike Nichols directorial technique, he denied ever having doubts about any of Nichols’ directorial decisions. “Those smart guys, they’re smart.”

Being curious about what smart guys do, I pretty much had to ask Segal about the making of Nichols epochal film adaptation of “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” Among other matters, the 1966 relationship-drama-on-steroids — already something of a shocker on Broadway — more or less delivered the final blow against the strict classic-era film censorship of the MPAA Production Code as well as changing preconceptions about what mainstream audiences would accept with its then remarkably blunt language and brutal emotionalism.  Since it was theater director Nichols’ first film, sure to be a super-controversial sensation, and  starring easily the most famous couple of the time in Taylor and Burton — very much the Brangelina of their day — those must have been heady times for a relatively new performer like the 32 year-old Segal.

“It was very intense. It was like six months that we spent on that movie, and one of those months was all rehearsal. So, that movie was prepared. By the time we got to doing it, we could have put it on as a play. And I think that comes across. They don’t do that anymore,” Segal said.

(Actually, it was pretty rare even then. Then and now, movies are typically shot over a period of 4-8 weeks, with only minimal or no time for rehearsal.)

Next up was a real hero of my youth — and it’s not like he’s exactly chopped liver now — Eric Idle. No more able to escape his past association with a certain six-man comedy ensemble than the surviving Beatles will ever escape their fab past, Idle has recently found great success retrofitting the group’s mega-cult breakthrough, “Monty Python and the Holy Grail” into the smash Broadway and London musical comedy success, “Spamalot,” directed, naturally, by Mike Nichols.

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Talking to Idle, I found it necessary to gush a bit. I was probably one of the first in L.A. to know anything at all of the existence of Monty Python, which had barely begun playing on PBS in Southern California, when “Holy Grail” opened in theaters in 1975. Being a bored kid with nothing to do but having never seen a single Python sketch, I hopped on a bus for Westwood Village to see the film on the strength of a couple of a couple of good reviews. Let’s just say that, as it would for so many geeks, my life would change just a little bit that day.

Still, it sure didn’t seem like it was on its way to being an institution and an English national treasure that day. There were perhaps three or four other people in attendance that afternoon. Idle says he was actually there at the Regent Theater for some of those early screenings, alongside “Brazil” director to be Terry Gilliam — quite possibly including the one I attended. I certainly wouldn’t have recognized either one of them at the time. But that was then, this is now and we’ve both moved on from our respective immanent projects at the time: becoming a worldwide comedy star in Idle’s case, puberty in mine.

How was working with Nichols on “Spamalot,” different than it would have been with other theater directors.

“He’s a comedian. He’s been there, so he knows where the laughs are. When to take them and when to leave them alone. He’s got a great deal of taste.”

So, other than Nichols, and himself, who are Idle’s favorite comedy directors?

“There are one or two people who are very good. Johnny Lynn [English sitcom creator and film director Jonathan Lynn of “My Cousin Vinny” and “Nuns on the Run”] is very good. It’s a specialized skill, comedy. But Mike really tends to leave the comedy to itself and then he tends to go more about truth-telling. He’s not worried about the comedy, he’s more concerned about the drama and the relationships and emotions. That what makes him so good.”

And was there anything Idle had worked on which he felt hadn’t gotten enough attention? At first, he misunderstood the question as, I think, the project he was most proud of, and answered “Spamalot.” When I explained I was talking about projects that had been mostly ignored — and a nationally touring, Tony-winning show doesn’t really qualify — he got into the spirit.

“Well,” he said, laughing, “[Composer] Johnny Du Prez and I have been writing musicals for 25 years, and we finally did ‘Spamalot.’ We have about 280 songs recorded. So, I think when we’re gone there’s boxes full of old songs.”

Little did I know at that point, but Idle would shortly be dressed as an angel while serenading Mike Nichols and the AFI crowd with a rendition of  “Always Look at the Bright Side of Life.” The song — which really was the perfect ending for the follow-up Monty Python classic, “Life of Brian” — has most certainly not been ignored. It’s been covered by Harry Nillson, Art Garfunkel, and Green Day and, according to Wikipedia, is sometimes sung at soccer matches and, yes, funerals.

Moving along, it wouldn’t be a red carpet if there wasn’t at least one celebrity present who is completely unknown to most Americans and has no discernible connection to the event. In this case that would have to be Jaime Camill, a personable actor and television host apparently hugely famous in Mexico and Latin America and who was then preparing to help cover the World Cup. He naturally made it very clear that he’d be honored to work with Mike Nichols at some point and who declared that all Mike Nichols films are “amazing.” I’m mentioning him really only because of the sheer randomness of it. Also, who knows, we might get some Latin American hits out of it.

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Then we got to the point at the Red Carpet that I will call the Hyperspeed Parade of A-Listers Past and Present, or H-PALPAP for short. This is the point when the real household names at any of these events, having already spoken profound words to the truly major outlets (say, “EXTRA” and “ET”), whiz by us less major outlets. If we’re very lucky, they may provide a wave or a stray word or two.

Now, the only way to properly deal with the H-PALPAP is to have a large microphone in your hand and preferably a very large TV camera behind you. Then, you must come up with a really quick question that is entirely non-controversial but also kind of interesting enough to get their attention and ignore the (literally) screaming paparazzi behind them. The classic example of an H-PALPAP question is, I’m sure, “Who are you wearing?” Since you guys presumably don’t care about that, I really don’t know Vera Wang from Vera Miles, and I don’t own a large television camera, I have yet to perfect my H-PALPAP approach. However, since I got a few okay pictures of some of the more super-celebs, I’ll go with some pictures and brief commentary for the balance of this post.

Like Mr. Camill, the first H-PALPAPer jovially confessed to not having ever worked with Mike Nichols and expressed a sincere desire to do so. However, if Michael Douglas — who is promoting both the limited release success “Solitary Man” and the upcoming sequel to “Wall Street” — really wants to go to a party, he usually gets to go. After making a sincere case that he’s a fan of Mr. Nichols to a swarm of press that had clustered around him, however, the H-PALPAP-savvy reporter next to me asked Douglas — as she’d been asking almost everyone — what entertainment figures had inspired the young Michael Douglas to go into “the industry”?

“What am I going to do? My whole family’s in it. I couldn’t get away from it!” said the second generation A-lister son of Diana Douglas and Kirk freakin’ Douglas, suddenly seeming a bit more half-Jewish than usual, right down to talking with his hands.

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Perhaps getting ready for a role, actor Giovanni Ribisi was next, sporting a mustache and soul patch which makes him like something between a Western bad guy and and a perverted jazz musician. A very solid performer but perhaps not really an A-lister, Ribisi stopped by long enough to answer a previously discussed H-PALPER-friendly question, about what he’d be doing if he weren’t an actor. “I’d be watching the Laker game.”

Apparently, if he were just a little more famous, he could have done both because later reports indicated that Jack Nicholson arrived late from watching the game and perhaps enjoyed a few beers, or something while doing so. According to numerous accounts of the night, his joke cum unsolvable Zen koan or perhaps veiled threat/warning to Nichols was “even oysters have enemies.” Someone should use those words in a song someday.

In any case, my Ribisi pictures didn’t come out so great. So, here, have a totally random picture of Harrison Ford, and a portion of Calista Flockhart, though I didn’t hear a word either said.

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Wow, he’s really famous.

And then there the great women who passed where I simply fouled up with the camera. Candice Bergen (“Murphy Brown”), a huge favorite/crush of mine since I first saw her in “Carnal Knowledge” rushed by, clearly uninterested in courting the press too much. I got one picture that, tragically, just didn’t seem to look right when I put it here.

I had even worse luck getting a good photo of Helen Mirren with or without her director husband, Taylor Hackford (“Ray”). She cheerfully past us all by, but but gave a rather long and detailed answer to a writer from a green website who shouted a quick question asking her what she did to try and limit her carbon footprint. That’s part of why she’s super-cool, I guess. My recorder failed to capture the witty words of Emma Thompson in response to the same question, and my camera only caught half of her face at time, as well as the top of her head and, I swear by accident, her chest. If I could put them all together, I might have a decent picture.

They were followed quite rapidly by Steven Spielberg, who truly had no time for us Pixel-stained wretches and Mike Nichols himself, who was being understandably a bit selective and thoughtfully avoiding the 299 questions I could ask him. I got a picture of Nichols’ news anchor wife, Diane Sawyer, ironically begging not to be asked any questions by the media. Alas, it was bit too skewed, “Battlefield Earth” style, to use here.

I did, however, manage an acceptable picture of Warren Beatty and his mega-talented wife Annette Bening who, when asked one of the standard H-PALPER’s questions, said hardly a word, but provided fast-fingered photographers, but not me, a hilarious moment of prime Beatty-style evasiveness. You’ll have to make do with the squinty one I got below.

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Then, somewhat surprisingly, none other than Cher, who is currently preparing to costar in the musical drama “Burlesque” with Christina Aguilera and Kristin Bell alit near us, talking to reporters en mass. She discussed her dress, of course, and her first meetings with Mike Nichols. (He famously rejected her early overture about acting in one of his films, later changing his mind, apologizing, and asking her to join the case of 1983’s “Silkwood.” That film wound up getting the singer her first Oscar nomination.)

She also took to the green question — and this time my recorder caught her answer.

“Oh, God. I just bought the ugliest car in the world. It’s some sort of Mercedes station-wagon that puts steam back into the air.”

And what would she have done if she hadn’t become a ultra-glam singer/actress and just had a “regular Joe job”?

“I’d be a bank robber.” I was also robbed of any good pictures of her.

Then, finally, my photographic luck improved a little with the appearance of Mary Louise Parker of “Weeds” and “Angels in America.” I had watched her the night before via my jam-packed-with-old-stuff DVR interviewing Elvis Costello on his “Spectacle” chat show in a special role-reversal episode. I figured it would be good to have seen it in the off-chance that I had a second to talk to her.  That wasn’t to be as the star was walking by as fast as her feet could move. I did, however, overhear that if she hadn’t become an actor, she’d be a kindergarten teacher.

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