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Nichols and May: Interviews
Robert E. Kapsis, Editor
Book Review by Ron Fassler
Nichols and May: Interviews, edited by Robert E. Kapsis, a professor emeritus of sociology and films at Queens College and the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, is the latest to be published. It features interviews that Mike Nichols and Elaine May gave over the course of their separate careers. I have long admired Mike Nichols and Elaine May enormously (and even had the chance to interview Nichols himself in 2014, not six months before he died), and jumped at the chance to review this book.
The partnership of Nichols and May, as revered as it was by hordes of fans, became a chore for one half of the team: Elaine May. She simply couldn't abide the repetition of performing, even though their famed show two-person show An Evening with Mike Nichols and Elaine May included a segment at the end that was pure improvisation, rather than their finely finessed sketches first born out of that process. They announced in 1961, shortly after the smash Broadway run concluded, that they would not be performing together anytime soon, though it wasn't a break up per se and more like a pause (the official split would come later in 1962, after May wrote a play for Nichols to star in which closed out of town when May refused to make a single change to her script). Eventually, they would come back to working together (he as a director of her screenplays), but that would be after a pause of thirty-five years. That it was the highly successful 1996 comedy The Birdcage, starring Robin Williams and Nathan Lane, was cause for rejoicing for longtime admirers of them both, together and separately.
What we have in Professor Kapsis's collection of interviews are alternate chapters of her, then him (though there are far more with him, as he was much less shy about courting the press). Most are print interviews which cover the past sixty years with journalists like Nora Ephron, Frank Rich and Peter Biskind among the more famous names. There are a few transcriptions of live events, like Nichols interviewing May (or is it the other way around?) from a talk they gave in 2006. And if you never saw May pay tribute to Nichols when he received the American Film Institute's lifetime achievement award, her speech is transcribed in full (although you really are better off finding it on YouTube so you can hear her destroy the assembled guests with her devastating humor and wit).
Ordered chronologically, we get a sense of the pair's trajectories and are treated to their offbeat comedic sensibilities, while they try their best (or do they?) to be serious about their work. May is, in particular, one tough cookie to nail down to anything close to a normal answer to a normal question. It's part of her quirky charm, but it does begin to wear thin when she uses it as a defense mechanism time and time again. Nichols, on the other hand, is much more comfortable schmoozing, which sometimes leads to a certain glibness. But he is almost always affable and his knack for telling a story or getting a punchline just right is something to behold. If you read books like this as I do, with a pencil or highlighter in hand, you will be underlining like mad at not only bon mots, but revelations on the themes of acting, directing and writing. In short, interviews like these are mini-master classes (even from the reticent Miss May), still happily with us at age eighty-eight and working, the recent recipient of the 2018 Tony Award for Best Actress for her appearance Kenneth Lonergan's The Waverly Gallery. If you missed that performance, it was a wowser!
The biggest drawback to reading the book like you would a novel, as opposed to picking through it piecemeal when the spirit arises, is that many of the quotes and stories are told numerous times. The editor warns as much in the preface, stating "As with all the books in the series, the interviews are reproduced as they originally appeared and have not been edited in any significant way. Indeed many of the repetitions that will be found here are integral to the story that is being told." Integral though they may be, the sameness can be wearying, and they don't gather further enlightenment with each successive reading.
Thought it can be read elsewhere, I was surprised the book did not include John Lahr's masterful New Yorker interview with Mike Nichols in 2000, titled "Making it Real." Nichols is more self-revealing here than in any gathered for this volume. Perhaps it had to do with Lahr's masterful touch and his relationship with Nichols, but it's a most soulful piece, one which I have read more than a few times.
Which only goes to show, that even with a book as chock-full as this one with insights and confessions, there's still a further deep dive to be done when dealing with the likes of Elaine May and Mike Nichols.