assembling yourself

I’m slowly nibbling my way through Mark Harris’s new book, Mike Nichols: A Life, an account of the late film director’s life and career.

There’s a whole slew of things I didn’t know about Nichols, from the circumstances of his childhood as a Jew fleeing Germany in the late 30s to the heights of his success as a sketch comic with Elaine May. (And that’s before he’s even made it to the movies…)

But what’s struck me more than anything else about this book is the way Harris portrays Nichols as so broken, a man putting himself together each morning before going out to face the world. Harris writes:

“The self that he would painstakingly compose every morning before the bathroom mirror–‘It takes me three hours to become Mike Nichols every day,’ he later told actor George Segal–was a struggler, a striver, someone who had to put great daily effort into making himself just passable enough to blend in.”

This notion of assembling oneself–putting on a performance for the world–has been popping up for me a lot recently. I’m in the throes of research for a project on Marvel Comics, so I can’t read this passage about Nichols without being reminded of Stan Lee, yet another creative who crafted a refined version of himself for the sake of appealing to the world. Interesting as well that both men relied so heavily on toupees as a vital piece of their performance. (Abraham Riesman’s True Believer: The Rise and Fall of Stan Lee is another biography you don’t want to miss.)

And all this comes as I’m revisiting Mad Men once again, another reflection on the nature of crafting a role at odds with the person playing it.

Once again, if you pay attention, everything speaks to everything else.