They All Have a Secret

Patrick Goldstein is a regular contributor to Calendar

Mike Nichols has a secret.

Actually, the fabled film director has lots of secrets. As soon as he is alone in his Bel Air Hotel suite, Nichols drops his voice to a conspiratorial hiss, swearing a visitor to silence, a bad idea when the visitor is a reporter. Nichols should know better. After all, his new $65-million movie, “Primary Colors,” which stars John Travolta as a Bill Clinton-esque presidential candidate, is based on a reporter’s juicy literary caricature of Clinton’s campaign trail travails.

Nichols is even married to a journalist, ABC News’ Diane Sawyer, who, as bad luck would have it, is the person he wants to keep this particular secret from. “Don’t tell my wife I’m smoking,” he says, lighting up the first of many cigarettes. “I officially quit two years ago. But with the movie coming out, having to do all this press and promotion, I’ve been backsliding.”

For Nichols, secrets are integral to the creative process. Asked how he and screenwriter Elaine May plotted out “Primary Colors,” due this Friday from Universal Pictures, he explains, “What we really did was endlessly discuss its secrets--the levels and levels and undercurrents of this story.”


Most of the 66-year-old director’s movies are about secrets, in particular the messy concealments that come from sexual conflict. A scroll through his credits finds amorous discord everywhere: The marital gamesmanship of “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” A college-aged boy’s clandestine affair with his girlfriend’s mother--the legendary Mrs. Robinson--in “The Graduate.” The erotic twists and turns of “Carnal Knowledge.” Love and betrayal in “Heartburn.” And the many-layered sexual identity shifts in “The Birdcage.”

So it’s hardly surprising that “Primary Colors” appealed to Nichols. The best-selling novel focused on the exploits of Jack Stanton, a womanizing Southern governor whose presidential bid is punctuated by bimbo eruptions, marital spats and hardball spin control.

For Nichols, the story’s web of seduction and betrayal offered a perfect subject for a film--a satiric morality tale about political sex and sexual politics. When Nichols bought the book, it even had its own secret--an author who went by the pen name of Anonymous. Months would pass before he was unmasked as Joe Klein, who’d covered Clinton’s first presidential campaign for New York magazine.

Making his pitch to buy “Primary Colors,” Nichols wooed Klein’s literary agent, Kathy Robbins, by saying he was drawn to the novel because it was about honor. When Robbins relayed this pitch to Klein (then still publicly denying his authorship of the book), he told her Nichols was right. “Primary Colors” was about exactly that: honor. There were other bidders willing to match Nichols’ $1.5 million offer, but Klein chose Nichols.

And why not? With Nichols, you feel as if you’re traveling first class. Even in rumpled black slacks and a houndstooth jacket, he looks like a man in an Armani tux. Warm, courtly and a wonderful raconteur, adorning his anecdotes with quotes from Oscar Wilde, Woody Allen and longtime pal E.L. Doctorow, he has the soothing air of a psychiatrist who understands his patients far better than they understand themselves.

“Mike’s probably the smartest guy I’ve ever met in my life,” says Billy Bob Thornton, who plays a grits ‘n’ gravy political consultant in “Primary Colors” modeled after James Carville. “One minute he’ll be talking about Russian theater in the 1930s, the next about some philosophical debate. When we had rehearsals before shooting the film, it was like a therapy session. One night I asked Diane Sawyer, ‘Do you ever find yourself nodding your head and agreeing with him all the time because you have no idea what he’s talking about?’ ”

Like so many successful film directors, Nichols is a great salesman. When wooing Klein, he talked about honor. But now, with “Primary Colors” arriving on the heels of a new presidential sex scandal, Nichols sees the film from a different angle.

“This isn’t a movie about politics,” he says firmly. “It’s a movie about our problems dealing with the sexuality of our leaders. Why is everyone allowed to ask the president if he’s had a sexual relationship? You can’t ask me that, or ask your friends that. But we judge politicians differently. We expect politicians to be the superego. They’re supposed to control every circumstance and control themselves, even though everything this country has taught us is that sexuality is beyond control--that’s the whole point of sex, isn’t it?”

He casually raises an eyebrow. “Do you know the woman in England who is the subject of most men’s erotic dreams?” The answer isn’t Helena Bonham Carter or Minnie Driver or even Emma Thompson, although Nichols liked Thompson’s work so much that he hired her, British accent and all, to play Susan Stanton, the governor’s strong-willed, Hillary-esque wife.

“It’s the queen,” Nichols explains. “What could be a clearer statement about the intimacy of our erotic fantasies? In America, we’re the same way with the president. It’s something Puritan America is very unrealistic about, that excess and empathy can reside in the same person.”

Nichols fishes for another cigarette. “You know, on my horse farm, I have a lot of well-behaved horses. But the stallion everyone wants is the one you can’t control around the mares. It goes with the vitality of leadership.”

Just after the Monica Lewinsky scandal broke, John Travolta was on location in downtown Los Angeles, shooting scenes from the upcoming film “A Civil Action.” Early one morning he walked over to producer Scott Rudin to ask his opinion: The scandal seemed like a bad break for Bill Clinton. But what about “Primary Colors”? Travolta asked. Would it help the film or hurt it?

Travolta wasn’t the only one worried. At Universal Pictures, studio head Casey Silver was on the phone with Nichols the morning after the scandal made headlines. Silver insists the uproar had no impact on the film’s release. “I’ve read about all these hand-wringing sessions we’ve supposedly had, which is just ridiculous,” says Silver, who paid Nichols $5 million to produce and direct the film, as well as reimbursing him for the book rights. “We already knew the movie tested well before the scandal. I called Mike and said, ‘Hey, I think we should stay the course.’ And he agreed. It was unanimous. You sell what you’ve got, and when what you’ve got is good, you stand tall.”

On the other hand, it’s possible moviegoers might avoid the film, feeling satiated by weeks of headlong media coverage. “Truthfully nobody knows,” says Nichols. “I see encouraging signs. Never have so many friends begged me to get them into a screening. I was in an elevator when someone badgered me, saying ‘I’ve got to see it! I just can’t wait.’ ”

For Nichols, the most encouraging sign was that his all-important “definitely recommend” preview scores, which he says were high to begin with, went up another 10 points at the screening held after the Lewinsky scandal broke. “The sympathy for Emma went up,” he says. “In fact, all our women scores were higher, especially for older women which, tragically, means women over the age of 25.”

Nichols has trimmed several scenes from the film. But he insists the cuts were made based on preview audience feedback, not at the behest of any Clinton emissaries. “Those are complete fantasies,” he says. “I keep reading these stories that say, ‘It was reported that Mike Nichols made cuts after a phone call from . . . ‘ But nobody checks to see if the ‘report’ is accurate. These days, a tabloid prints a story, and by the third time it’s printed, suddenly it’s true!”

So he hasn’t had any pressure from the White House at all? “Not at all,” he replies, a tad grumpily. “I have final cut on this picture, which means nobody can change anything, not even the president.”

Nonetheless, the “Primary Colors” creative team is top-heavy with unabashed Clinton admirers. Nichols and Elaine May performed at a 1992 Hollywood fund-raiser for the Clinton campaign. Nichols and Sawyer frequently socialize with the Clintons at summer gatherings on Martha’s Vineyard. Being from Arkansas, Thornton has known Clinton for years--when Thornton’s house burned down, he got a condolence card from the president. He freely admits asking for Clinton’s blessing via mutual friend--and Clinton crony--Harry Thomason before he took the part. “If he’d had a problem with it, I wouldn’t have done it,” Thornton says.

Travolta has not only met Clinton, but received an unsolicited offer of presidential help in the religious persecution battle between the German government and the Church of Scientology. After U.S. diplomats raised the issue, Travolta was briefed on the outcome by no less than national security advisor Sandy Berger.

Conservative columnists had a field day, speculating that Clinton’s actions were more about influencing Travolta’s portrayal of the president in “Primary Colors” than any sudden sensitivity toward Scientology. It’s a weak argument--the movie was practically finished by the time Travolta met with Clinton.

“We never spoke about the film,” Travolta says. “It’s ridiculous to correlate the two issues. He has a lot more important things to think about.”

But Travolta, like Nichols, is pretty starry-eyed on the topic of Bill Clinton. “I just feel that he’s completely genuine,” says Travolta. “He really impressed me. He’s smart and caring and he’s a great communicator. He always hits the right note when he expresses himself.”

Before filming began, Travolta watched Clinton speeches and documentary films. “For me, I was playing Jack Stanton, a great character who’s Southern and gray and overweight,” he says. “But I know there’s a lot of Clinton there. He was the blueprint for the illusion.”

Maybe that’s what gives “Primary Colors” such a voyeuristic charge--it’s hard to say where Clinton ends and Jack Stanton picks up. Like the president, Stanton is a man with insatiable appetites. He’s always grabbing folks’ elbows, inhaling doughnuts, talking politics. When he hears a hard-luck story, his eyes well up with tears. Call him the ultimate political narcissist--he’s moved by his own emotions.

Before Travolta took the part, Nichols had offered the role to Tom Hanks, who he’d known since sharing a honeymoon--by chance--with their wives in St.-Barthelemy. (Nichols’ marriage to Sawyer is his fourth.) When Hanks dropped out of the part, citing scheduling difficulties, there was considerable speculation that he’d bailed out in deference to Clinton. “I think a bigger reason was that Tom just couldn’t identify with the character’s promiscuity,” says Nichols. “He didn’t know how to play a man who was like that.”

Nichols is no political junkie--the first thing he cut from the book was its inside-the-Beltway campaign material. But he’s endlessly drawn to promiscuity, and how it drives men like Stanton--and Bill Clinton. For Nichols, it’s one of life’s primal secrets, dating back to a childhood experience that seems to have fueled his fascination with sexual misadventures.

“I have a Freudian response,” he says when asked about the romantic entanglements in his movies. “I’ve never talked about this before, but when I was a boy of 5 or 6 in Berlin, I had a gym teacher who’d give me rides from school on the front of his motorcycle. And I remember with awful clarity, a scene with my gym teacher and my mother, and realizing they were lovers. She was a beautiful woman, and I remember her quarreling with him, and he ripped a necklace off her and threw it out a window and she went running after it.”

Nichols shuts his eyes for a moment, as if using his directorial skills to organize these chaotic images into a coherent narrative. “So my earliest memories are of my parents and their secret relationships. I suppose I’ve spent a large part of my life trying to sort it out. And when you do, an awful thing happens. Because along with the sorrow, you get a kind of a kick out of it too. And even when you’ve sorted out the painful stuff, the kick remains.”

After seeing Nichols weep uncontrollably on the set of his movie, Emma Thompson has come to the conclusion that men are more sentimental than women--especially when the woman in question is Elaine May.

“We’d been doing a particularly emotional scene,” Thompson recalls. “And Mike would be standing behind the video monitor, these huge tears rolling down his cheeks. And Elaine would be right behind him, staring balefully at the monitor. And when the scene was over, Mike would be wiping his eyes and Elaine would say, quite impassively, ‘For the next take, I think [the actors] should move slightly to the left.’ ”

Of all the relationships in Nichols’ films, none are more complex than his real-life partnership with May. They met in the early 1950s at the University of Chicago. Born in Germany, Nichols had come to America as a childhood war refugee. May worked as a child actor in the Yiddish theater, where her father, Jack Berlin, was a prominent director.

Together, they helped form the Compass Players, an improv comedy group that was the forerunner of Second City. In 1957, Nichols and May moved to New York and launched what became the defining comedy act of their time. They were New Frontier pop royalty: playing to packed houses on Broadway, performing at JFK’s legendary 45th birthday (where Marilyn Monroe sang “Happy Birthday” in a clinging, flesh-colored gown). Their routines, crackling with edgy, neurotic wit, would influence Woody Allen, James Brooks and countless comic minds to come. As Nichols’ old friend, Sony Pictures chief John Calley, once put it: “Mike and Elaine were so intimidating--they were a combination of Robin Williams and Dostoevsky.”

When the duo split up in 1961, Nichols became a Broadway theater director, where he did many of Neil Simon’s early plays. He broke into film in 1966 with an adaptation of “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” A year later came “The Graduate,” which helped usher in a new era of youth-oriented movies.

Nichols was a golden boy--nominated for an Oscar for his first film, winning with his second. May made her film directing debut in 1970 with “A New Leaf.” She later worked with Warren Beatty on “Heaven Can Wait” and the now-notorious “Ishtar,” before settling into a successful career as a top Hollywood script doctor.

It took years for the two to reconcile. For Nichols, the icebreaker came when he ran into May at a party, and later overheard her say to her then-husband, “See, I told you Michael was wonderful.” Nichols began using May to punch up his scripts, which you could say were penned by May stand-ins--razor-sharp comic wordsmiths like Carol Eastman, Nora Ephron and Carrie Fisher. “Elaine would always come in and save my ass,” Nichols says. “On ‘Heartburn,’ she came in and just by talking to Nora, got her to come up with the best line in the movie, where her character says, of men, ‘You want fidelity, marry a swan.’ ”

May’s first screenwriting credit for Nichols was 1996’s “Birdcage,” the biggest box-office hit of his career. Nichols sees May and himself as a strange set of inner twins. “She has all my references,” he says. “She’s the person to whom I have to explain nothing. In the ‘50s, we were two hot, headstrong adolescents. Now we’re two infinitely courteous, almost Japanese diplomats.”

While making “Primary Colors,” they lived in adjoining houses and drove to the set together each morning. “It’s like I told Elaine once, we haven’t said anything personal to each other in 30 years,” Nichols explains. “No confidences, no truths. That’s our relationship after our relationship. We never confide in one another or speak about the people we’ve loved. We know so much about each other that we don’t have to talk about it at all.”

When starting a script, the two first map out a rough outline of their story, then May goes off and writes. Before filming begins, Nichols oversees several weeks of rehearsal which have the air of a group therapy session. “I tell slightly embarrassing stories about myself to get us to a more intimate place, so we can say anything to each other, as trusted friends,” he says. “It’s a way of getting the unconscious into acting. We never complete a scene in rehearsal. We do it part of the way, then leave it alone and let the unconscious do the work.”

On the set, the Nichols and May dynamic was as complicated as ever. Travolta says that when he couldn’t get his way with Nichols, he would recruit May as his ally. “Mike and I are two indulged, big babies, so if I couldn’t convince him of something, I thought, ‘I’ll go to Mom,’ ” he recalls. “Once she’d agreed with me, I’d tell Mike, ‘Elaine said I could do this.’ And Mike would go, ‘She did? Elaine! Is this true?’ ”

Travolta laughs. “They have an incredible bond. You know, if Elaine was in Paris and couldn’t figure out what to wear to dinner, Mike would fly out from New York and help her pick out the shoes.”

May was on the set every day with a lap-top computer, ready to rewrite. Thompson says her favorite line in the film was one May came up with on the spur of the moment. An emissary from New York is visiting the Stantons in Arkansas. Eager to talk turkey with the governor, he says to Susan Stanton, “You don’t mind us talking business?” Catching his patronizing tone, Susan coolly responds: “No, no. How else will I learn?”

However, for Nichols it’s an image, not a line of dialogue, that crystallizes the theme of the film. Midway through the film, the Stanton camp is in a crisis, one precipitated by the governor’s excess libido. His aides huddle into the night, nervously debating solutions. And where is Stanton? At a Krispy Kreme doughnut shop, patiently listening to the night manager pour out his troubles--feeling his pain.

“It’s the first thing I saw in the movie,” says Nichols. “To me it’s like a dream. It gets at the heart of Jack Stanton. That’s where his nature takes him in a crisis.”

So what are we to make of Jack Stanton? Should we trust someone who believes, much like Bill Clinton, that no matter how cynical his actions on the campaign trail, he’ll do the right thing once he gets into office? It seems like a steep price to pay: to do good things as president you have to do bad things to get the job.

“That’s the central question of the movie,” says Nichols. “What do you lose when you drop things on the way up? I’m still shocked when I hear Jack Stanton say that Abraham Lincoln was a whore too. But it’s true--that’s how you get elected. You can only reveal who you really are by what you do after you get elected.”

For Nichols, politicians are like everybody else--they’re entitled to keep their secrets. Perhaps that’s why it’s so difficult to figure out what keeps Jack and Susan Stanton together. What kind of understanding do they have? In all of “Primary Colors,” you never see them alone together--there’s always a scrum of campaign aides in the room. The moment they are by themselves, Nichols cuts the scene, leaving everything to our imagination.

Perhaps it’s another one of Mike Nichols’ secrets. Emma Thompson says she was struck by the sense that, with Nichols, something is always hidden.

“When I think of Mike, I’m reminded of an acting lesson I learned years ago,” she says. “You always have to walk on stage with a secret, something the audience doesn’t know about. It’s a great thing, because it magnifies you. It makes you more interesting, even if you never figure out what the secret really is.”