Talking about “The Odd Couple,” which he directed for the stage in 1965, Mike Nichols wisely points out that Neil Simon’s show was the “perfect way to be funny about marriage.” In HBO’s short new documentary “Becoming Mike Nichols,” he breezes through a few memories of his time on the production, which starred Art Carney and a “not easy” Walter Matthau. His conclusion: It was the best thing he ever did on Broadway, which is saying plenty, since Nichols ultimately won six Tony Awards for directing plays.
But “The Odd Couple,” and the many Simon plays that Nichols directed, are a small part of this film, which premieres Monday night at 9. Directed by Douglas McGrath, “Becoming Mike Nichols” is an edited version of two conversations between Nichols and theater director Jack O’Brien — one with an audience, one tete a tete — a few months before Nichols died in 2014. It touches only lightly on the breadth of Nichols’s work in order to focus primarily on his thoughts about two of his seminal 1960s movies, “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” and “The Graduate.” Rather than pushing his subject into a superficial survey of his life and work, O’Brien lets Nichols go deep and muse freely. The film invites you to listen to an aging master explain his decisions and praise the accidents that are essential to any great movie or play.
Nichols describes a war he fought with studio chief Jack Warner in order to release “Virginia Woolf” in black and white. Why was the first-time director (who got an emergency lesson in cinematography from friend Anthony Perkins) so bent on a look that was becoming dated? When you watch black and white, he explains, “it’s not literal. It is a metaphor automatically.” We know we’re not seeing real life when we watch in black and white, and Nichols wanted the audience to have that unconscious response. Now, it’s hard to imagine the 1966 classic, based on Edward Albee’s play and starring Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, having as much power without all the rich shadows and silvery whites. Nichols doesn’t talk much about the production code issues the film raised, with its profanity and nakedly sexual references, which made me wish for an entire film of him discussing “Virginia Woolf.”
Really, that’s the only big flaw with “Becoming Mike Nichols” — there’s not quite enough of it, even though what’s there is so engaging.
Nichols clearly had a strong connection to “The Graduate,” and at times when he talks about the 1967 film — particularly the ending — he wells up with emotion. He recalls the moment Paul Simon took the lyric “Here’s to you, Mrs. Roosevelt” and altered it to “Mrs. Robinson” for the film, and he recalls his unlikely casting of Dustin Hoffman. Wisely, McGrath gives us a generous number of clips from “Virginia Woolf” and “The Graduate,” including the indelible image of Hoffman floating in a pool, his face empty and yet wildly expressive. Occasionally, McGrath edits together a story Nichols told the audience with a story he told O’Brien individually, an awkward effect that doesn’t work, but it never disrupts the flow enough to ruin our viewing experience.
At one point, Nichols confesses to having seen George Stevens’s 1951 film “A Place in the Sun” about 150 times. “It was not only my favorite movie,” he says, “it was my bible.” “Becoming Mike Nichols” will make you want to go back and rewatch Stevens’s gorgeous and definitely American film, but only after you’ve paid a nice, long visit to Nichols’s greatest hits.
BECOMING MIKE NICHOLS
On: HBO, Monday at 9 p.m.
Matthew Gilbert can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @MatthewGilbert.