Almost a year after his November 2014 passing, Mike Nichols‘ famous friends and collaborators are remembering the filmmaker and theater director in the pages of Vanity Fair.
A comprehensive oral history populated by Anjelica Huston, Julia Roberts, Tom Hanks, Natalie Portman, Candice Bergen, Warren Beatty and more published this week, and with it some details about Nichols’ life and career.
From passing on a iconic horror film to his high-brow food obsession, his devotion to actors and life with wife and news anchor Diane Sawyer, here are five revelations from the piece
1. New York Times Theater Critic Ben Brantley’s Ultimate “Betrayal”
Nichols’ final project, a 2013 Broadway revival of the Harold Pinter play “Betrayal,” was called “crude and clunky” by NYT critic Brantley. Hindsight tells us Nichols would only live for a year after the production went up, and some of the director’s friends said the bad review sent him over the edge.
“We saw him diminish physically. I mean, as brilliant as he was, he was not going to think his way out of it. And he was not helped by Ben Brantley either, let me just add,” said Bergen, star of the 1971 Nichols drama “Carnal Knowledge.”
“I’ll never forgive him for that. It took away months — you just saw [Mike] go inert. He was like, ‘What more can I do?'” she added.
“There’s not one guy with a monopoly on whether something’s good or not. It became — though it’s been beaten out since — the highest-grossing Broadway straight play [for a single week] in history. But everyone was really upset by the Times review.”
2. Nichols Passed on “The Exorcist” — to Horrifying Results
Producer David Geffen shared an anecdote that John Calley, then head of production at Warner Bros., offered Nichols the gig to direct 1973’s “The Exorcist,” a job that eventually went to William Friedkin.
“Mike read it and decided it wasn’t for him,” Geffen recalled. “John said, ‘You really should do this, Mike, because it’s going to be a giant, giant hit.'”
Calley was right. On the film’s opening weekend, Geffen said Nichols was driving through Westwood and witnessed the longest line he’d ever seen outside a movie theater, queuing for “The Exorcist.” A distraught Nichols called his frequent comedy collaborator Elaine May.
“‘Elaine, I am such a schmuck. I just passed the longest line I’ve ever seen for ‘The Exorcist,’ and you know I was offered it and turned it down.’ And she said, ‘Don’t worry, Mike, if you had made it, it wouldn’t have been a hit,'” Geffen said.
3. Nichols Was a Next-Level Foodie
While celebrated for his urbane wit, Nichols was also no stranger to a high-brow metropolitan lifestyle. This often manifested itself in his work and professional relationships.
Actress Susan Forristal recalled shooting a party scene on 1991’s Harrison Ford-starring “Regarding Henry.” The scene called for caviar, and Nichols wasn’t satisfied.
“‘This isn’t good enough. I want big, bubbled beluga caviar.’ So they send this kid out to get caviar. It took an hour and a half… The kid comes back: wrong caviar. ‘That’s not what I want! Someone go with him!’ Scott Rudin as the producer is not only paying for all this caviar, three different kinds, but the clock is ticking. But he never said a word because it was Mike,” Forristal recalled.
“Until he had his heart surgery and it changed his appetite, he was such a gourmet and gourmand. He just loved food and would drive miles and miles for obscure fried-oyster places on [Martha’s] Vineyard, and then would drive from there to the best pizza place, and then would go home for lunch,” Bergen said.
“Diane would just be sitting in the front seat with her head in her hands. She finally just said, ‘O.K., I can’t keep up.'”
4. The Actor’s Director
If Nichols had a brand, it would be built on his ability to inspire performances in his stars. Julia Roberts, who had something of a critical reawakening after Nichols directed her in the 2004 drama “Closer,” said: “Mike and Natalie [Portman] and I all packed up and moved to London and left our lives behind, and Mike, there was a sense of responsibility he took for displacing us. We’d all go out to dinner or he would screen movies for us on a weekend night that nobody had anything to do. It was so special, like he just was always taking care of us.”
Emma Thompson, who worked with Nichols on HBO’s “Angels in America,” said, “One of the most vital things he ever asked of all of us is: What’s the event? What’s actually happening here? And are you doing too much, something that’s completely unnecessary? ‘That’s a hat on a hat,’ he’d say.”
5. Mike and Diane
Long a New York power couple, Nichols and Sawyer were more than window dressing, according to the piece.
“Look at Diane. Look at how long they were together and he was still smitten. She would just take his breath away — it was this mutual, active love affair,” Roberts said.
“After he married Diane, he was the happiest that he’d ever been. He always said that and meant it. He said, ‘I finally got it right,'” Geffen said.
“I can only imagine the conversations those two had over coffee and pancakes in the morning,” added Tom Hanks.