Remember that infamous scene from “The Graduate” where Benjamin Braddock (Dustin Hoffman) tells Mrs. Robinson (Anne Bancroft), “Mrs. Robinson, you’re trying to seduce me. Aren’t you?”
Of course she was. And if you’ve seen the movie, then you remember not only that moment in the darkness when America gazed in at some sexual gawkiness but the accompanying whoops of laughter that filled theaters everywhere.
But the real seducer wasn’t Mrs. Robinson. It was Mikhail Igor Peschkowsky, directing the film under his American name, Mike Nichols.
For over half a century, Nichols seduced the hell out of us. He directed movies and shows, comedies and dramas, and partnered with Elaine May to help us laugh at our mid-20th century cultural neuroses.
Peschkowsky, the little boy outsider who became Nichols, was chased out of Germany to America by Hitler. Jews didn’t belong in Hitler’s world. So Nichols spent half a century in his new home, figuring out what he saw, falling in love with it, and attempting to seduce us the way any outsider attempts to understand his new surroundings and then endear himself in order to become part of it.
That’s the message from a brand new book, “Life Isn’t Everything: Mike Nichols, as Remembered by 150 of His Closest Friends” (Henry Holt & Co.) by Ash Carter and Sam Kashner. I couldn’t put it down. It’s smart, funny and insightful, and it helps fill in American pop culture history of the last 60 years, as well as insights into the real Mike Nichols, who died in 2014.
Among the friends offering insights are Hoffman, Meryl Streep, Jack Nicholson, Nathan Lane, Al Pacino, Candice Bergen, Natalie Portman, Cher, Matthew Broderick, Paul Simon, Art Garfunkel, Shirley MacLaine, Harrison Ford, Tom Hanks, Robin Williams …
Oh, hell, that’s just for starters. They all came under Nichols’ influence in movies or shows ranging from ‘Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” to “Angels in America” to “The Birdcage” to “The Odd Couple” to “Annie” to “Carnal Knowledge” to …
Oh, hell, that’s just for starters, too.
But “Life Isn’t Everything” – the title’s taken from a wry expression of Nichols’ – is much more than a compilation of terrific stories out of Hollywood and Broadway. It’s an implicit tale about outsiders, immigrants to a new country or a new culture, or both.
They’re the ones who make up America, no? They’re the ones studying the mainstream culture when most of us simply take it for granted. They’re the ones figuring out the nuances, pushing at the edges, seeing things the rest of us hadn’t previously noticed. They’re hungry to make themselves part of it.
Leonard Bernstein once told Nichols, “Oh, Mike, you’re so good. I don’t know at what. But you’re so good.”
That was Nichols’ journey, finding out what he was good at. It turned out that he was good at just about everything. His movies and shows didn’t just make us laugh and cry. They told us stuff we didn’t quite know before young Mikhail Igor Peschkowsky arrived on the scene.
A former Baltimore Sun columnist and WJZ-TV commentator, Michael Olesker is the author of six books. His most recent, “Front Stoops in the Fifties: Baltimore Legends Come of Age,” was reissued in paperback by the Johns Hopkins University Press.