Birds are chirping and bees are buzzing about the bushy, Edenic grounds of Los Angeles’ Hotel Bel-Air, and inside his comfy suite, Mike Nichols has sexual politics on the brain. This is terrain the director knows intimately — thoroughly exploring it in such classics as Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, The Graduate, and Carnal Knowledge. ”If you want to strike any kind of chord of recognition in people, the relation between the sexes is the easiest place to go,” explains Nichols. ”It’s the center of your life! There only is that — and your damn job.”
With the new comedy What Planet Are You From?, starring Garry Shandling, Annette Bening, and Greg Kinnear, Nichols’ career-long probe into the battle of the sexes reaches something of a conclusion, although the film’s kooky premise would seem to defy such weightiness. Shandling plays an alien sent to Earth to perpetuate his species by procreating with an amenable female. The problem is, Shandling’s ET doesn’t seem to have a penis. Instead, he employs a noisy artificial strap-on, one with the inhuman drive of the Energizer Bunny. (Explanation, Mike? ”I liked the metaphor…. Guys know it’s about the hard-ons they wish they can control.”) And the feeling of summation ”sort of echoes my own experience,” says Nichols, 68, who has found love with his fourth wife, TV journalist Diane Sawyer. ”It went from a battle of the sexes, to a negotiation between the sexes, and now, to a partnership.”
Nichols began sharing his experience in the late 1950s when he and Elaine May became one of that era’s most celebrated comedy teams. But after he and May split in 1961 he decided to give directing a go with the 1963 Broadway premiere of Neil Simon’s Barefoot in the Park. ”The first day,” he says, ”I remember thinking, Ah, yes. This is what I was meant to do.” Out of that fateful decision has flowed one of the most important careers in popular culture, one that includes staging a host of major theatrical productions, including Simon’s The Odd Couple, to drawing landmark performances from the likes of Elizabeth Taylor, Dustin Hoffman, Ann-Margret, Cher, and Meryl Streep.
And then there are the movies. Nichols saw his first film, Test Pilot, on the boat that brought him to New York from Nazi Germany in 1939. Moviegoing became his way to escape a home where his parents fought constantly. ”I remember thinking, Screw this, I’m going to the movies,” he says. ”I also remember thinking, What fools you are to be fighting, when you could go to the movies!”
His favorite movie is the one he says taught him everything about film directing: George Stevens’ 1951 masterpiece A Place in the Sun. ”It’s sort of my bible,” says Nichols. Asked how many films he has left in him, he quickly replies, ”Two,” then laughs and — no fool — says he really doesn’t know. He hopes to begin shooting his next film, Kind Hearts and Coronets, a remake of the 1949 British black comedy, in September. (May is writing and Robin Williams may star.)