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Director Mike Nichols on his actors

The recipient of the American Film Institute's Life Achievement Award talks about directing Elizabeth Taylor, Jack Nicholson, Meryl Streep, Alan Arkin, George C. Scott, Dustin Hoffman and Julia Roberts.

June 09, 2010|By Susan King, Los Angeles Times

On the eve of being honored by the American Film Institute, Mike Nichols shared memories of some of the actors he has directed.

Elizabeth Taylor (Nichols directed her to the best actress Oscar in 1966's "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?"):

She understood, since she had been doing it since she was 4 years old, what movie acting was, and she had that kind of secret deal with the lab that, overnight in the bath, what we had seen her do on the set was about three times better [on screen]. And Richard Burton studied her, fascinated about what she knew about the camera, the light, the makeup and the costumes, and what to trust to them and what to do yourself. She was a true film actress and there was a lot to learn from her.

Jack Nicholson (Nichols directed him in 1971's "Carnal Knowledge," 1975's "The Fortune" and 1985's "Heartburn"):

It is a joy, it's a wonder. I learned from him that if you are connected to everyone on the set and the crew, you just let it lift you. He was so lovable with everyone and so funny. When he had to do a nude scene, he had everybody rolling around laughing.

Meryl Streep (Nichols directed her to best actress Oscar nominations for 1983's "Silkwood" and 1990's "Postcards From the Edge," to an Emmy in 2003's "Angels in America," and in 1985's "Heartburn"):

Meryl can be anyone. Nobody understands what she does and how she does it. It's great to be near her and to be part of it; it's great to see her happen. The thing I always say is that she's never lost an iota of the joy of doing it.

Alan Arkin (Nichols directed him on Broadway in 1964's "Luv" and in the 1970 film "Catch-22"):

He's unique. He invented not acting. It was so long ago that he didn't act! That is to say, there he is and he's not doing anything you can perceive. But he's hilarious and true, but you trust him. He's a great actor and he's as funny as it gets, but he's completely different from everyone else.

George C. Scott (Nichols directed him in the 1973 film "The Day of the Dolphin" and on stage in 1968's "Plaza Suite" and 1973's "Uncle Vanya"):

He was a great actor and powerful and, as we know, he was not happy and he had his problems and he was quite scary. We were all scared of George. I did it over and over because I thought he was so wonderful. In a way I loved him, but in another way I was scared of him.

Dustin Hoffman (Nichols directed to him a best actor Oscar nomination in 1967's "The Graduate"):

He has said he never knew if I was pleased or not. I don't know how he didn't know it. I had to eat several handkerchiefs during many takes so I wouldn't spoil them by laughing. I remember specifically that scene when Mr. Robinson's arm was around his shoulder asking him about the girls and Dustin keeps making that little whimpering sound, which I gave him. I told him when I first met producer Jack Warner, who tells a terrible joke every 45 seconds, somebody said to me, "You have to stop doing that." I said, "Doing what?" "You whimper every time he tells a bad joke." And Dustin used that. I remember one take when I said, "Cut," he said, "Oh, God, this is so much fun." He is so enormously gifted. You can't see him doing anything much, he is just alive, hilarious and touching.

Julia Roberts (Nichols directed her in 2004's "Closer" and 2007's "Charlie Wilson's War"):

She is the ideal actress. She is so beautiful and so alive. She knows what she's doing. Yet there are things that nobody understands. In "Closer," there was part of one difficult scene for us, where she tells Clive Owen that she's leaving him. There's a moment in the scene where he discovers she's had sex with the other guy in their apartment on this sofa and she would blush with embarrassment and shame — and she would do it in every take. The great ones like Julia and Meryl somehow manage to live in the scenes and believe the things that are happening in the scene.

susan.king@latimes.com

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