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‘Becoming Mike Nichols’ review: HBO taped months before death

Mike Nichols, right, works with editor Sam O'Steen

Mike Nichols, right, works with editor Sam O'Steen on "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" in 1965. Credit: mptvimages.com / HBO / Bob Willoughby

THE DOCUMENTARY “Becoming Mike Nichols”

WHEN | WHERE Monday at 9 p.m. on HBO

GRADE A+

WHAT IT’S ABOUT In this documentary, taped over two days at the Golden Theatre on West 45th Street in the summer of 2014, legendary director Mike Nichols is debriefed by another legendary theater director — Jack O’Brien — about his early career, beginning with his association with Elaine May, his comedy partner. They then talk about his sensational 1965 launch on Broadway (“The Odd Couple”), followed by an even more sensational Hollywood launch — “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” (1966), followed by “The Graduate” (1967).

MY SAY “Becoming Mike Nichols” finally delivers the tribute Nichols deserves — and he’s the one who does the delivering. There are no testimonials to greatness here, no accolades. O’Brien, his interlocutor, doesn’t shower him with rose petals either. Greatness is assumed. No need to waste anyone’s time on blandishments. Let’s get down to business instead — this intelligent, brisk and deeply heartfelt portrait insists — and tell us the secrets behind your magic tricks. The magician obliges.

Taped just months before Nichols’ death, there’s no evidence of impending mortality here. Nichols is fully engaged, his memories fresh. But he was also ill at the time and perhaps buried in his subconscious — a word that finds its way into almost every anecdote — was a sense that opportunities like this may not be coming along much more often. If so, that may explain some of the wistfulness and melancholy that also permeates this film.

In the main, “Becoming Mike Nichols” is a portrait of the artist as a young man. He speaks of his long-ago breach with May — an unburdening almost — and blames himself for a “very controlling” nature. He’d nitpick her: “You were a little slow tonight. ... And once that starts, you’re in very bad trouble.”

In theater, he explains, there are only three scenes: “Negotiations, seductions and fights. All scenes come into one of those three categories, and that’s what we do in life.”

But May, he recalls, “doesn’t battle.” She later wrote a play for him. He hated it. They drifted apart. (May recently directed an “American Masters” about Nichols — and other than an old clip, not once appeared on camera.)

He indicates that his early years in Hollywood were a learning curve, but it’s unclear from here who exactly was on that curve. Jack Warner insisted “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” be shot in color. Nichols insisted on black-and-white. He won: “Black-and-white is a metaphor automatically, and that’s the whole point. A movie is a metaphor.”

In his telling, “The Graduate” seemed to get made almost despite itself. He hated the scripts, until he met Buck Henry. He cast a then-unknown Dustin Hoffman for the lead. And the music? He had no clue. Every morning while getting dressed before heading to the studio, he listened to some new album named “Sounds of Silence.” Hmm, what if …

He later asked Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel to also write a new song for the movie — and hated it. Did they have anything else? Paul Simon did — something called: “Here’s to You, Mrs. Roosevelt.”

But beyond the memories, Nichols clearly wants to explain himself and his art. That effort yields this: “One minute you don’t know and the next minute you suddenly get it! That’s the great thrill, whether it happens in your life, in your work, in your study, in watching something. When you get it, everything shifts and changes and says some simple clear thing... That part of us that comes from the unconscious, when we are hot … is what we have to nourish.”

Meanwhile, fine tributes also need expert guidance, and that’s what O’Brien offers. A legendary director in his own right, he’s also an excellent listener. He nods, smiles, and only occasionally speaks. But the respect is clearly mutually, and Nichols doesn’t want to let an old friend down. He doesn’t.

“Well, I’ve never had a worse afternoon,” O’Brien jokes at the end. The two old pals have a good laugh over that. You’re left with the sense that they’ve never had a better one.

BOTTOM LINE Pure joy and the tribute Nichols finally deserves.

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