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Still in Fine Feather

United Artists has asked me if I would interview Mike Nichols for the L.A. Times in order to get some free publicity for “The Birdcage,” which Mike directed and I wrote. Since it opens Friday, I quickly tracked Nichols down to Connecticut, where he and his wife, journalist Diane Sawyer, live on a 15-acre trout farm (he races trout and has since 1986). There, sitting in his trophy-filled office, stroking one of his beloved trout, Mr. Nichols, an imposing figure in fly hat, vest and white waders, answered every question I threw at him. What follows, I think, is a probing, in-depth look at one of the most attractive and accomplished directors of our time.

Elaine May: Now that you’re famous and probably rich, do people treat you differently from the way they did when you were broke and unknown?

Mike Nichols: People are the same. They treat me with the same courtesy and consideration they did before. It is I who have changed. I am much more polite because I’m afraid they might report me. Actually, being just a little famous like me is nice. You can usually get a table in a restaurant, but nobody talks to you in the steam room. My wife is really famous, and when I accompany her to affiliates conventions in large hotels I like it when people ask me what I do while she’s in meetings. Sometimes I tell them the truth, which is that I take messages for her and rinse out her delicate underthings.

E.M.: Is there anything in your life you would change if you had the chance?

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M.N.: No. Well, I might like some self-discipline. No, never mind, forget it. Maybe be more decisive? I’m not sure.

E.M.: What about my life?

M.N.: Yes, I would like you to get a second phone line so I can reach you anytime and also to stop going out for the same reason.

E.M.: A miraculous being with divine powers appears to you and says, “Mike, you have a choice. You can be incredibly handsome and have a perfect physique or you can be very, very smart.” What do you say to her?

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M.N.: That’s a very tough one. I think next time around I would like to try being smart.

E.M.: Do you ever feel God has given you too much?

M.N.: I don’t want to say too much since he might reconsider.

E.M.: I’m told there are two kinds of people, those who know exactly what they are going to say when they open their mouths and those who don’t. When you begin a sentence do you know how it will end?

M.N.: I am fortunate enough to be able to form perfect sentences when I etaoin shrdlu gormph glirbah foik.

E.M.: You know how sometimes you lie in bed at night and think, “What if the law of gravity just wears out and lets go and I drift into space?” Does that make you anxious?

M.N.: It always did, of course, until I remembered that Archimedes wrote, “I could move the whole world if I had a place to stand.” I figure that once I was out in space I could find some small place to stand and give us all a shove. That calms me.

E.M.: What is the biggest secret you were ever told and asked not to repeat?

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M.N.: The identity of Anonymous. You know, the one who wrote “Greensleeves.”

E.M.: Ann Roth, who did the costumes for “The Birdcage,” is a brilliant designer. Do you think she’s right about my shoes?

M.N.: No. I think the Nikes set off your great legs. There is no American writer who can match them except maybe Joan Collins, but she doesn’t count because she is really English.

E.M.: How would you go about achieving world peace if you had the time?

M.N.: I would institute a huge tax break for interracial marriages as well as marriages among warring factions. Eventually we would have one very good-looking group of people who get along fine. I admit this would take time but I am patient.

E.M.: You have just directed Robin Williams, Gene Hackman, Nathan Lane and Dianne Wiest in “The Birdcage” but, of course, you know that. My question is--if Steve Forbes won and the flat tax became law, would you be secretly pleased or torn?

M.N.: I’ve been deep into mixing my picture for the past two months. Who is Steve Forbes?

E.M.: It’s not important. Many directors sleep in the nude. What do you wear?

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M.N.: Woolly PJs with feet. In summer my National Guard uniform.

E.M.: You once said to me “I should have been a pair of ragged claws” or words to that effect. Do you still feel the same way?

M.N.: I believe I said “I should have been a pair of jagged paws.” At the time my dog, Warren, had been hurt by a car which he was chasing and had, inadvertently, caught. He limped for a whole summer and my reference to “jagged paws” was inspired by guilt. I should have driven faster.

E.M.: You have made many movies for many studios. Have you ever met a studio head you really didn’t like?

M.N.: No, I honestly don’t think so. It was touch and go for a while with Jack Warner because he told jokes all the time. One day at lunch he told a long one, and I burst into tears. Somehow after that we were very close and remained fast friends until the day he died.

E.M.: Do you subscribe to the current belief that there is no paranoia?

M.N.: Far from it. I happen to know for a fact that this is a lie instituted by the international banking conspiracy and the FBI.

E.M.: Do bad reviews bother you?

M.N.: My doctor has told me that a bad review of any kind would be actively dangerous for me. I can only hope that simple humanity will prevent anyone from, in effect, making an attempt on my life.

E.M.: Do you have any good answers that you would like a question for?

M.N.: Yes. “Shoofly pie and apple pan dowdy make my eyes light up, my stomach say ‘Howdy.’ Shoofly pie and apple pan dowdy, I never get enough of that wonderful stuff.” Do you know the question?

E.M.: “Et pour monsieur?”

M.N.: Exactly.

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The Way They Were

Mike Nichols and Elaine May, shown here in 1959, formed a comedy team in 1957, making a splash on Broadway for a year in 1960 before embarking on separate careers. Nichols’ directing credits include “The Graduate,” “Carnal Knowledge,” “Silkwood” and “Working Girl”; May co-wrote “Heaven Can Wait” and directed “The Heartbreak Kid” and “Ishtar.” “The Birdcage,” an American updating of “La Cage aux Folles,” marks their first official collaboration for the big screen.


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