Becoming Mike Nichols full movie review - sure it's a feature-length interview with clips... but what an interview!
If you've ever had the chance to hear Mike Nichols speak in interviews or at Q&A's (I was infinitely lucky enough a few years before he passed on to see him at one for Carnal
Knowledge), you find one of those filmmakers who is in his way intense about the craft, how to go about working with actors, finding those moments and the feeling that makes things different from anything expected, and yet is genial, funny, and compulsively witty. When he talks about what makes things 'different' for him is finding what *not* to do, which is often far more important for a filmmaker than necessarily going in knowing always 100% what to do, and also the power of the unconscious, what things can come up through chance or moments with actors (how he managed to get those final moments with Hoffman and Ross in the back of the bus in The Graduate is such a story for example).
What I liked is that it's not a life-long film-by-film biography, which would have been fine but perhaps a bit much with only Nichols (then it'd become something else like the PBS Woody Allen documentary from 2011). This is more like getting the story right up to the edge and first successes, and then of course we all know what comes after that (of all things I'm reminded of the Off the Wall doc by Spike Lee also from this year). Aspects like seeing how an artist develops as a young man, and how a comedy team finds its niche like the wildly funny Nichols and May did, help to show the progression from one thing to the next.
Nichols could do many things, and though he was a creature of process, it's interesting to find out when he worked with Elaine May how little they really wrote stuff down; at a certain point they worked out their improvisations to where they could come up with things on the spot (his anecdote about May coming up with a jingle based on Brothers Karamazov is a hoot). And so by giving us this it's not simply about Virginia Woolf and the Graduate - or, at the least, Douglas McGrath gives us a lot of this all being of a piece for Nichols to grow and become who he was; being an immigrant (escaping just barely from the Nazis) and learning English from New York matinée movies; seeing Brando in Streetcar and being figuratively struck by lightning; directing The Odd Couple's first run (his self-professed highlight of his career); learning about acting by acting and just doing it.
It's amazing to think, more after the fact than while watching it, that most of these first accomplishments happened all in his early/mid 30's 50 years ago. You never consider it, and it feels all the more melancholy that he is gone now. But we have those early films, and he made a mark on Broadway and New York theater that will be felt for generations (you tend to forget he directed Spamalot too), and this is a massively entertaining, and endlessly insightful, conversation about how to find onesself in the company of very talented people (and Jack Warner).