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MoMA: Mike Nichols in Conversation

April 18, 2009 | Museum of Modern Arts, New York City

As part of a Mike Nichols retrospective, MoMA hosted “Mike Nichols in Conversation” on April 18, 2009. The panel was moderated by Rajendra Roy, MoMA’s chief curator of film, and panelists included longtime Nichols collaborators: writers Nora Ephron, Buck Henry and Elaine May and actress Meryl Streep.

Streep recalled how Out of Africa director Sidney Pollack told her toward the end of shooting that he was sick of the physical chore of it all and that he couldn’t wait to “get back to Los Angeles and the editing room so I can make this movie.” Nichols, on the other hand, really loves the filmmaking process because of give-and-take familial atmosphere, and that he always gets a little gloomy when a film is about to finish. Movies always take you back to the world in which they were made, Nichols said, but life has a way of overtaking them. “We ran Catch 22 just to check the print and it was almost like a documentary,” he said. Joseph Heller’s book was fairly nervy and audacious for its time, he recalled, but “everything has caught up to it. The whole idea of everything being pure market forces is pretty much the way countries are run and certainly the armed forces.”

The scene with Meryl and Al Pacino as Ethel Rosenberg and Roy Cohn, which I think is maybe the greatest acting I’ve ever seen in my entire life. And it’s an actor in a bed and an actor in a chair, just talking. There are very few directors who wouldn’t say, ‘I can’t do this for eight minutes. I can’t. We have to go for a walk’. The thing, just looking at that, that movie and how today if one were doing that we’d take a picture of the two of you. We wouldn’t be afraid looking at two people saying those hilarious words. No one would think you had to cut to a pair of Sneakers. But that is a thing that happens in Mike Nichols’ movies. There are long scenes. And it doesn’t matter. People just talk. That’s just like our lives. We all live in places where people just talk to each other. (Nora Ephron)

A question was asked about the casting of Dustin Hoffman in The Graduate. Nichols recalled a Mad magazine parody in which Benjamin Braddock says to his mother, ‘How come I’m Jewish and you and dad aren’t?’ I never said to myself, ‘I need a Jew here.’ But I needed an outsider. And then I thought of a guy that I saw in a play playing a tranvestite Russian…” Henry corrected Nichols by saying, “Actually a German tranvestite cripple. And Hoffman was totally convincing on all three things.” Nichols spoke about how he’d screen-tested Robert Redford for the Braddock role, but told him over a game of pool later on that he was wrong for the part. “You were wonderful in the test, I said, but you can’t play this part. ‘Of course I can!’ said Redford. No, you can’t, I said. You could never play a loser in a million years. ‘That’s not true!,’ he said. Then I asked him, ‘Have you ever struck out with a woman?’ and he said ‘what do you mean?'”