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CRITIC AT LARGE

Mike Nichols: A New Feeling About Films

December 27, 1988|CHARLES CHAMPLIN | Times Arts Editor

It seems like only yesterday that Mike Nichols and Elaine May were the freshest voices in comedy--he the love-struck dentist, she the patient in a wonderful send-up of "Brief Encounter," one among their many deft little skits. But they broke up the team nearly 30 years ago.

It seems like only the day after yesterday that Nichols was the hottest young director on Broadway, commencing with the Tony-winning "Barefoot in the Park," but that was in 1963.

And it seems only the afternoon of the day after yesterday that Nichols was loitering nervously on a cavernous sound stage at Warner Bros. during a set party Jack Warner himself gave to launch the production of "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf" (1966).

Many a triumph ("The Graduate," "Carnal Knowledge") and an occasional near-miss ("The Fortune") later, 57-year-old Mike Nichols is an ungrayed eminence of stage and screen. His recent production of "Waiting for Godot" with Robin Williams and Steve Martin at Lincoln Center was a sellout. His latest film, "Working Girl," with Melanie Griffith, Harrison Ford and Sigourney Weaver, looks to be one of the substantial hits of the Christmas season.

Nichols, briefly in Los Angeles for the premiere of "Working Girl," was saying that he now feels a good deal less like a director on loan from the stage to a dubious film industry.

"I used to find making movies painful; I no longer do. It's now entirely pleasurable, even the shooting, which people used to say was the boring part after all the creative work had been done in pre-production.

"It all shakes down to people," Nichols says. He has built a team. Sam O'Steen was his editor on "Virginia Woolf"--it was O'Steen's first film as well--and has edited for Nichols ever since, with an editing room in Nichols' New York house. Costumer Ann Roth, whose dresses for Weaver and Griffith are meaningful as well as decorative, is another regular.

On the other hand, says Nichols, "I am less sanguine about the theater audience. It astounds me that they pay $40 or $50 for a ticket and then start trying to read the Playbill as soon as the lights go down. They're suburbanites terrified of being at home alone with each other for an evening."

"Godot" required an institution, with subscribers, which creates its own problems. "The blind trustingness of subscribers leads to an audience who can't be in the moment, can't surrender to it. . . . People who like the theater have been lied to so often--'You'll love it'--that they're forever on guard."

Movie audiences are another matter. "I love them. They have no preconceptions about Life or Art." (You could hear the capitals). "Give them an experience and they're yours."

The problems of the stage are not entirely the audiences' fault, Nichols adds. "The theater and the audience have inhibited each other. Injuries have taken place. Yet the troubles can be blown away by a powerful experience. The John Malkovich performance in 'Burn This,' for example. It happens every 10 years or so and it takes care of the lethargy."

"Virginia Woolf" was a baptism of fire, almost but not quite searing enough to put a man off making movies thenceforward.

"I had to be political with Jack (Warner) and strong and overbearing with everyone else. Five days before shooting, Jack said New York said it had to be done in color. I said that that would give away Elizabeth Taylor's aging makeup. He persisted. I said, 'I'll go home; you do it in color.' Jack relented, then he invited me to dinner every night. I made excuses not to go." (It was obvious to Nichols that Warner had not given up hope of color.)

"Two days before shooting the cameraman said, 'Why don't we shoot it in color and print it in black-and-white.' I realized where his loyalties were and I let him go.

"After the first shot, I heard the assistant director murmur, 'It's just another picture' and I fired him on the spot. I felt like a Jew in the Merchant Marine. It was very lonely. It's much nicer now; there's no longer that kind of opposing pressure."

It would be difficult to describe Nichols' feelings about the old-time major studios as mixed, but in fact they are. "I defy you to say what it was that the barracudas knew. And while I'm loathe to quote Bill Goldman favorably, he rightly said, 'The thing about Hollywood is that nobody knows anything.'

"But what those guys knew had something to do with the public, with having absorbed the public. I don't want to idealize them, but they had powerful appetites. They wanted a lot of everything--power, houses, girls, food, money. Power. And this led them to want movies to deliver powerful experiences.

"What we've seen since is the committee approach which gives you homogenized experiences. That's why I admire Barry Diller at Fox (which did "Working Girl"). He's one man who can say, "We'll do this or we won't. Right or wrong, this is what I want to do.' "

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