Film historian Mark Harris' "Mike Nichols: A Life" exhaustively details Nichols' work on each production from start to finish.
While the testimony of actresses, actors, producers, playwrights and others grows repetitive, Harris makes Nichols' triumphs and disasters compelling.
On the set of each production, he's a dynamic captain either bringing his ship safely home or wrecking it on the rocks.
Nichols, who came to America from Nazi-ruled Germany as a young boy speaking no English, was a Gatsby-like, self-invented personality.
After a reaction to a childhood vaccine, he was unable to grow hair and donned wigs and false eyelashes until the end of his life. His immigrant experience gave him an uncanny insight into American life.
While self-conscious about his odd appearance, Nichols enjoyed unlikely success as a lady-killer. He stole two of his wives from Robert Graves and John Osborne, and squired Gloria Steinem, Jackie Kennedy Onassis, Lillian Hellman and Rose Styron.
Unlike many Hollywodd/theatrical mavens, he wasn't a serial sex abuser. Women collaborators from Meryl Streep to Julia Roberts, Natalie Portman and Emma Thompson testify to his empathy.
Portman says that Nichols was the only director who didn't make her "feel creepy" as a young actress. He mentored Nora Ephron in her film career.
Harris, a New York magazine writer and author of "Scenes From A Revolution: The Birth of a New Hollywood," gives an engaging account of how the aimless young Nichols moved from New York City to Chicago, where he met the equally adrift Elaine May.
They discovered an instant rapport, creating an improv comedy act that rocketed them to fame in the Camelot years of the Kennedy Administration. The duo ended up with a smash Broadway hit, "An Evening with Mike Nichols and Elaine May," before pressures of performing led them to quit at the height of their success.
After an brief separation, Nichols maintained a lifelong partnership with his brilliant, beautiful co-star. May directed several classic films and notorious bombs like "Ishatar" and gained renown as a script doctor and quirky actress. She also worked with Nichols on several projects, and they reprised their act several times.
Nichols after leaving the partnership landed immediate success directing Neil Simon's first hit, "Barefoot in the Park," with Robert Redford and Elizabeth Ashley, one of the few actresses who didn't wish to work with Nichols on new projects. Her husband, George Peppard, kept trying to sabotage the play. Nor did Redford seek to work with Nichols in the movies.
Insisting on the laughs coming naturally from the script rather than from the actors mugging for the audience, Nichols set a new standard for Broadway comedy.
Guiding Simon's "The Odd Couple" cemented Nichols' reputation for directing popular middle-class comedies. In making "The Odd Couple" a success, Nichols withstood the rancor of Walter Matthau and the fragility of the alcoholic Art Carney.
To counter his image as the master of superficial fare, Nichols later in his career took on more challenging plays, from Chekhov to Beckett, Miller and Stoppard. He apparently didn't care much for Shakespeare.
Although he had no knowledge of the technical side of movie-making, Nichols in his first at bat scored a major hit with the film version of Edward Albee's landmark play "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf," pushing Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor to scorching performances.
Then, he directed "The Graduate," considered one of Hollywood's most accomplished films. As with Elizabeth Taylor, he persuaded Anne Bancroft to play a much older woman.
Still in her late 30s, suffering from cramps, Bancroft delivered a convincing Mrs. Robinson, seducing the young college graduate Benjamin, played by the then unknown Dustin Hoffman, accused of sexual harassment by co-star Katharine Ross.
In retrospect, "The Graduate" doesn't seem as revolutionary as it did when it burst upon the scene. Considered satirically fatuous and insensitive at the time, the pompous businessman's advice to Benjamin to go into plastics turned out to predict the future.
After the well-publicized failure "Catch 22," Nichols rebounded with the Jack Nicholson/Art Garfunkel/Candice Bergen rendering of Jules Fieffer's "Carnal Knowledge." From then on, Nichols had a steady film career of moderate successes and box office failures. His Broadway career also rocked along. Yet he never reached the heights of his earlier work.
At the top of his fame, Nichols suffered a major collapse brought on by a failing marriage to Annabel-Davis Goff, depression and addiction to cocaine and halcion. Harris, in a searing interlude from the production dissections, examines Nichols' despair and recovery.
Cocaine is a constant presence on Nichols' sets, as was the case with other Hollywood productions of the era. While the work is often brilliant, a sense of waste underscores those years.
Nichols kept going through a range of successes and failures, leading an opulent New York City/Los Angeles lifestyle. Tutored on how to live while rich by Richard Avedon, Nichols enjoyed fine meals, travel to exotic places, and social appearances. Outside of the theater, his passion was raising Arabian horses. Avedon claims he had a sexual relationship with Nichols, but Harris expresses his skepticism.
Late in life, Nichols found joy and peace in a loving marriage to the TV news star Diane Sawyer. He finished with a smash of successes, most prominently the HBO production of "Angels in America," written by Harris' husband, Tony Kushner. Kushner is among those who give warm memories of Nichols, countering the withering criticism of others.
Nichols epitomized the Hollywood/Broadway legacy of white privilege, continually receiving new projects after failures that would have wrecked the careers of black and women directors.
In the exhaustive litany of actors and actresses who worked with Nichols, only one black is mentioned in the book: Morgan Freeman. He's maligned for lack of preparation in a failed production of Clifford Odets' "The Country Girl," which also starred Frances McDormand, one of the few actresses who didn't find bliss with Nichols.
Harris succeeds in restoring Nichols legacy, which had faded even before his death in 2014 at age 84. "The Graduate" was fresh and vital when it appeared in 1969, but falls short of movies like "The Godfather."
Unlike Woody Allen and Martin Scorsese, Nichols didn't contribute as a writer to screenplays, but built upon the scripts of others. In the theater, he polished the work of Simon, David Rabe, Tom Stoppard, Eric Idle and other playwrights.
And, May is credited as the main creative force in Nichols and May, in which he already played more of a director's role. But his improvisations displayed verbal inventiveness, and he showed strong acting talent in several roles.
At times giving a fractured portrait of Nichols, Harris at last reveals the depths of the showman's personality. Nichols' power to entertain comes through, in each of the nearly 600 pages.