My TV Dinner
Every Friday The Social's digital correspondent, Jessica Allen, answers two questions we face every day. What should I eat? And what should I watch? The answer for one is frequently found in the other.
Jessica Allen continues her love affair with the movies of Mike Nichols
Jessica Allen watches the Mike Nichols PBS American Master documentary and eats smoked oysters
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Sometimes I imagine that there’s an episode of Sex and the City I’ve never seen and one day I accidentally stumble upon it and oh, sweet joy!
This will never happen. But there are plenty of Mike Nichols films I’ve yet to experience, which I discovered after a sneak-peek viewing of an upcoming PBS American Masters episode dedicated to the director that premieres Friday.
“After this is over I think we should watch The Fortune,” I suggested to Simon while we watched from the couch.
“I’ve never seen it.”
“I have,” he said, “but I couldn’t finish it — and you know how I feel about Warren Beatty.”
“He’s a comic genius. He can do no wrong,” he said. “Except here.”
“How about Carnal Knowledge then?”
“With Jack Nicholson? Always.”
“Do you think Mike Nichols is considered an ‘auteur’?” I asked.
“We do. I mean, you’ve written two columns on his movies [Primary Colors and The Birdcage] in less than a year,” Simon said. “But I don’t think everyone does. Maybe because we expect a recognizable visual language from auteurs but all of Nichols’ works are so unique. The consistency in his films is that there’s always a specific intelligence at work, which you come to appreciate when hearing him talk.”
Which, once we stopped talking, the documentary allowed. There was plenty on his early life: how Nichols had few friends until he enrolled at the University of Chicago (he met Susan Sontag standing in line, not to mention Elaine May, who directed the American Masters episode); how he dropped out to study with Lee Strasberg; and how he and May became improv sensations with their satirical routines that audiences, including critics, adored.
Then came stage directing, which earned Nichols two Tony Awards by the age of 34. Film followed. His first two, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf (’67) and The Graduate (’68), earned him best director Academy Award nominations. (The latter is the only film for which he won.)
From all accounts, Nichols’ sharp wit and protean knowledge made him someone you’d want around your dinner table, which reminded both me and Simon of my dad. Plus, they both get weepy when talking about Meryl Streep.
And they both love to eat: “Until he had his heart surgery and it changed his appetite, he was such a gourmet and gourmand,” Candice Bergen told Vanity Fair in an incredible oral history published last September. “He just loved food and would drive miles and miles for obscure fried-oyster places on [Martha’s] Vineyard, and then would drive from there to the best pizza place, and then would go home for lunch.”
Coincidentally, we snacked on canned smoked oysters and saltine crackers while we watched May’s American Masters tribute to her friend. They’re less bon vivant and more proletarian, to be certain — but former Gourmet editor-in-chief Ruth Reichl, who I interviewed about a year after Nichols passed away in 2014 at the age of 83, told me the director “was one of the happiest eaters I ever met.”
I think he would’ve approved.