Broadway‘s John Golden Theatre was SRO Friday evening with invited guests and fans who’d scored tickets through a lottery to hear directors Mike Nichols and Jack O’Brien talk movies — specifically Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf? (1966) and The Graduate (1967), Nichols’ freshman and sophomore efforts following an extraordinary run of Broadway hits that included Neil Simon’s Barefoot In The Park and The Odd Couple. The first film earned him an Oscar nomination for best director; with the second film, he took home the statuette.
The conversation, which was being filmed for HBO, began a day earlier, in private, and covered his years as half of the comedy team of Nichols and May (whose 306-performance Broadway run beginning in October 1960 had taken place in this same theater) and his collaborations with Simon and others. And it will pick up again in private on Monday, dealing with his years working both sides of the continent. But Friday night, the subject was filmmaking, a career Nichols practically fell into by accident.
“Who the hell are you, and how did you know you could do a film?” O’Brien asked, only half-kiddingly after a brief introduction. O’Brien — himself one of the theater’s most intelligent and crystalline directors (with Nichols he shares a special affinity for the work of Tom Stoppard) — explained that after recently publishing his autobiography, he’d encouraged Nichols to do the same. Out of Nichols’ demurral came the idea of filming the conversations; the timing is fortuitous, coming just a day after the announcement that Nichols will film an adaptation of Terrence McNally’s Master Class, starring Meryl Streep as a diva in the mold of Maria Callas, beginning after the turn of the year.
“I went to see Virginia Woolf and I was stunned, paralyzed,” Nichols said. “I’d never seen such a play.” Around the corner from where he and Elaine May were performing, Burton was starring as King Arthur in Camelot at the Majestic Theatre, and they became friends. “Two years passed, and I read that they’d hired Elizabeth Taylor to do Virginia Woolf,” Nichols recalled. He sent a message saying that he should direct it, and she agreed.
“I cast Burton — because they’re already there,” he added, drawing laughter from the crowd. He wasn’t talking about location. “The people in the play loved each other, as they did. And they had issues…”
Recalling that studio head Jack Warner insisted he shoot the film in color, Nichols declined — and got his way. But he knew nothing about filmmaking and turned to lifelong friend Tony Perkins to learn what he hadn’t already picked up from seeing A Place In The Sun “maybe 150 times — it was not only my favorite movie, it was my bible. There’s nothing in movies you can’t learn from George Stevens.”
The most important lesson relearned from Virginia Woolf, Nichols said, was “how beautiful black-and-white is. It’s not literal. It’s a metaphor automatically, already saying, this is not life, it’s about life. I was excited about that.”
Disarmingly self-deprecating, Nichols, 82, looked almost gaunt, slouched in an onstage chair as his brown trousers gradually rode up his legs during the 75-minute conversation. He said he’d actually signed on for The Graduate before Virginia Woolf, but finding the right writer to marry Charles Webb’s novel to his own ideas about the tale took awhile.
“I knew it was a great story,” he said. “I wanted a boy who was drowning in things, in affluence. … Madness is what he found to save him.” The writer was Buck Henry, and the boy, of course, was an unknown Dustin Hoffman.
“Dustin had the thing that Elizabeth had,” Nichols recalled. “A deal with the [photo] bath — what you see on the floor is good, but what you see on the screen is better. Dustin had an astonishing amount of life, just doing nothing.”
Nichols also had the good fortune of hearing the music of Simon and Garfunkel and feeling it would be right for the film. “When you get hot,” he said of that time of explosive creativity, “you get lucky in various ways.” The final scene of The Graduate, he said — after Hoffman and Katharine Ross have escaped from her wedding and are on a bus into the unknown, their faces unrehearsed masks of laughter turned to terror — “taught me what movies really are.
“That part of us that comes from the unconscious is what we have to nourish. … It took me ” — he began counting the decades on his fingers — “50 years to realize that The Graduate is Phedre. These Ur-stories that we have from the Greeks and creep into our unconscious will come back. These stories are who we are.”
Time ran out before O’Brien could get Nichols talking about his ever-blacker follow-up to The Graduate, 1971′s Carnal Knowledge. We’ll have to wait for the HBO show for the inevitable stories about shooting Jules Feiffer’s brilliant, bleak, massively discomfiting script with Nicholson, Garfunkel, Bergen and Ann-Margret.