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COVER STORY

They All Have a Secret

With 'Primary Colors,' director Mike Nichols finds the common denominator of sex, politics and Hollywood.

March 15, 1998|Patrick Goldstein | Patrick Goldstein is a regular contributor to Calendar

Mike Nichols has a secret.

Actually, the fabled film director has lots of secrets. As soon as he is alone in his Bel Air Hotel suite, Nichols drops his voice to a conspiratorial hiss, swearing a visitor to silence, a bad idea when the visitor is a reporter. Nichols should know better. After all, his new $65-million movie, "Primary Colors," which stars John Travolta as a Bill Clinton-esque presidential candidate, is based on a reporter's juicy literary caricature of Clinton's campaign trail travails.

Nichols is even married to a journalist, ABC News' Diane Sawyer, who, as bad luck would have it, is the person he wants to keep this particular secret from. "Don't tell my wife I'm smoking," he says, lighting up the first of many cigarettes. "I officially quit two years ago. But with the movie coming out, having to do all this press and promotion, I've been backsliding."

For Nichols, secrets are integral to the creative process. Asked how he and screenwriter Elaine May plotted out "Primary Colors," due this Friday from Universal Pictures, he explains, "What we really did was endlessly discuss its secrets--the levels and levels and undercurrents of this story."

Most of the 66-year-old director's movies are about secrets, in particular the messy concealments that come from sexual conflict. A scroll through his credits finds amorous discord everywhere: The marital gamesmanship of "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" A college-aged boy's clandestine affair with his girlfriend's mother--the legendary Mrs. Robinson--in "The Graduate." The erotic twists and turns of "Carnal Knowledge." Love and betrayal in "Heartburn." And the many-layered sexual identity shifts in "The Birdcage."

So it's hardly surprising that "Primary Colors" appealed to Nichols. The best-selling novel focused on the exploits of Jack Stanton, a womanizing Southern governor whose presidential bid is punctuated by bimbo eruptions, marital spats and hardball spin control.

For Nichols, the story's web of seduction and betrayal offered a perfect subject for a film--a satiric morality tale about political sex and sexual politics. When Nichols bought the book, it even had its own secret--an author who went by the pen name of Anonymous. Months would pass before he was unmasked as Joe Klein, who'd covered Clinton's first presidential campaign for New York magazine.

Making his pitch to buy "Primary Colors," Nichols wooed Klein's literary agent, Kathy Robbins, by saying he was drawn to the novel because it was about honor. When Robbins relayed this pitch to Klein (then still publicly denying his authorship of the book), he told her Nichols was right. "Primary Colors" was about exactly that: honor. There were other bidders willing to match Nichols' $1.5 million offer, but Klein chose Nichols.

And why not? With Nichols, you feel as if you're traveling first class. Even in rumpled black slacks and a houndstooth jacket, he looks like a man in an Armani tux. Warm, courtly and a wonderful raconteur, adorning his anecdotes with quotes from Oscar Wilde, Woody Allen and longtime pal E.L. Doctorow, he has the soothing air of a psychiatrist who understands his patients far better than they understand themselves.

"Mike's probably the smartest guy I've ever met in my life," says Billy Bob Thornton, who plays a grits 'n' gravy political consultant in "Primary Colors" modeled after James Carville. "One minute he'll be talking about Russian theater in the 1930s, the next about some philosophical debate. When we had rehearsals before shooting the film, it was like a therapy session. One night I asked Diane Sawyer, 'Do you ever find yourself nodding your head and agreeing with him all the time because you have no idea what he's talking about?' "

Like so many successful film directors, Nichols is a great salesman. When wooing Klein, he talked about honor. But now, with "Primary Colors" arriving on the heels of a new presidential sex scandal, Nichols sees the film from a different angle.

"This isn't a movie about politics," he says firmly. "It's a movie about our problems dealing with the sexuality of our leaders. Why is everyone allowed to ask the president if he's had a sexual relationship? You can't ask me that, or ask your friends that. But we judge politicians differently. We expect politicians to be the superego. They're supposed to control every circumstance and control themselves, even though everything this country has taught us is that sexuality is beyond control--that's the whole point of sex, isn't it?"

He casually raises an eyebrow. "Do you know the woman in England who is the subject of most men's erotic dreams?" The answer isn't Helena Bonham Carter or Minnie Driver or even Emma Thompson, although Nichols liked Thompson's work so much that he hired her, British accent and all, to play Susan Stanton, the governor's strong-willed, Hillary-esque wife.

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