I make my living as a film critic but I remain first and foremost a fan, so when I get to meet people I admire it’s a treat. This past week I had two such experiences: first, at the American Film Institute’s Life Achievement Award dinner for Mike Nichols, and then at the Actors Fund of America’s annual Tony Awards viewing party. On evenings like these my wife and I look at each other, shake our heads in amazement, and ask ourselves, “How did we wind up here?”
The AFI dinner gave true meaning to the term “star-studded.” It seemed as if every A-list player in Hollywood and New York wanted to be there to pay personal respects to the director. After we heard Julia Roberts, Warren Beatty, Meryl Streep, Tom Hanks, Jack Nicholson, Nora Ephron, Dustin Hoffman, Shirley MacLaine, Cher, Kevin Spacey, Candice Bergen,
Harrison Ford, Mary-Louise Parker, Robin Williams, Natalie Portman and others say practically the same thing—that he’s not only kind, generous, and supportive as a director but a faithful friend and trusted advisor—it became obvious that Nichols occupies a special place in their lives, far beyond that of mere filmmaker.
You’ll get to see highlights of the event when TV Land broadcasts an edited version of the affair on June 26. I suspect viewers will be spared some of the stranger, more rambling tributes—Nicholson seemed to be visiting from another planet—but I hope no one cuts a moment out of Elaine May’s speech at the outset of the evening. I grew up on Nichols and May and still cherish their comedy routines; now she’s given me another memory to savor. She was so original, so clever and funny that no one could follow her. I’m not exaggerating: the next few speakers, who are normally affable and charming in this kind of setting, stumbled in the wake of her brilliant turn.
And even in a room full of movers and shakers, I daresay no one was blasé when a voice announced, “Ladies and gentlemen, Simon and Garfunkel,” and the duo came out singing “Here’s to You, Mrs. Robinson,” from Nichols’ ageless classic The Graduate.
After a number of sincere, if repetitive, speeches Robin Williams appeared, at just the right moment, and scored a bull’s-eye with a perfect blend of one-liners and memories of making The Birdcage. He described how meaningful it was to hear the director laughing behind the camera—and how hard it was to silence him so he wouldn’t ruin a take.
Icing on the cake was provided by the only woman in the room who might be Elaine May’s equal, Emma Thompson. She not only delivered a rousingly funny routine about feeling guilty about receiving so much praise—a trait she claims to share with the guest of honor—but brought the house down with an ad-libbed complaint about the number of people who’d burned their mouths on the very hot main dish served at dinner.
At the after-party, most of the stars lingered to palaver with Nichols and his wife, Diane Sawyer, and enjoy the brisk night air on the Sony Pictures studio lot. I’m shy about approaching someone unless I actually have something to say, so I felt emboldened to pay my respects to Mr. Nichols and tell him that my all-time favorite DVD commentary is his conversation with fellow director Steven Soderbergh on Catch-22. He thanked me but confessed that he’d never listened to it. (If you haven’t heard it, it’s fascinating: some 35 years after making the film he expresses amazement at his own hubris at the time—insisting that he only shoot between 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. on location in Mexico to maintain a consistent light, to cite one example.) After a pleasant chat with Eric Idle, whose Monty Python’s Spamalot was directed by Nichols on Broadway, and the great Robin Williams, my wife and I called it a night. Quite a night.
On Sunday we went to the Skirball Center in Los Angeles for what has become a tradition, a Tony Awards viewing party that not only benefits the charitable Actors Fund of America but honors Broadway performers who now live and work in L.A. The turnout at this event is daunting because there are so many familiar faces…not the marquee names that dotted the AFI evening, but wonderful, talented people who’ve entertained me for years. To name just a few: Betty Garrett, Ken Howard, Michele Lee, Doris Roberts, Theodore Bikel, Charlotte Rae, Anne Jeffreys, Lawrence Pressman, James Karen and on and on. While most of America knows these people from their work on television or films, they all started in the theater and performed on Broadway. (I’ll never forget seeing Ken Howard as Thomas Jefferson in the original production of 1776; I’m so glad he and his fellow cast members got to preserve their work in the movie version.) When a special collage of film clips paying tribute to the late Lynn Redgrave was shown, it was clear that a great many people sitting there had known and worked with her. She, too, spent time on Broadway—and devoted her time and energy to benevolent causes like the Actors Fund.
The multiple Tony-award winning performer, director and choreographer Tommy Tune was a delightful host, providing patter and introducing guests during commercial breaks in the broadcast, but the main purpose of the evening was honoring the Fund’s own president, the gifted musical performer Brian Stokes Mitchell, who has served—on a volunteer basis—for seven years. (If you ever have a chance to see him perform in person, grab it; and if you haven’t seen him opposite Reba McIntire in South Pacific in Concert from Carnegie Hall, originally broadcast on PBS in 2006, wait no longer. South Pacific in Concert from Carnegie Hall
Les Perkins provided a terrific montage of film and video clips to remind us of Mitchell’s wide-ranging, eclectic career long before he made it to Broadway.
The nicest surprise of the evening was in learning that the woman selected to present Mitchell with his Julie Harris Award, Annette Bening, went to high school with him in San Diego. What’s more, she told us, they performed a dance routine together which he choreographed! In accepting his award, the self-effacing Mitchell told us what it was like to be a Tony nominee and how difficult it is to grasp what’s going on—and put on a good face for the television camera. The first time he was nominated (for Ragtime) he realized, as an impatient usher was shooing him and his wife down the long, long aisle at Radio City Music Hall with the lights just going down, that he didn’t have a program—a keepsake he desperately wanted. The usher told him she didn’t have any more, and he said, “But I’ve got to have a program!” At that, a voice in the dark called out, “Here, I’ve got an extra—take mine.” The voice belonged to Annette Bening, whom he hadn’t seen since high school.
You couldn’t make up a story like that. And you probably wouldn’t hear it anywhere but at a gathering such as this. I feel grateful to have been there.
To see some juicy AFI photos from the evening click HERE.