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True Colors?

Mike Nichols -- who’s known both Jack Kennedy and Bill Clinton -- put all he has learned about sex and power politics into Primary Colors. John Travolta gave it his Clinto-esque best. So should Ken Starr call off his investigation?

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"We’re very weird about our president,” Mike Nichols said, with a certain weird prescience, as we sat in his 57th Street office a week before Lewinskygate blew up and spattered the land. “I was thinking about how much the problems of our puritanism are like a kid growing up -- you find out that the lady who was always with Dad when you visited wasn’t his secretary. And then you say, ‘That bastard! How could he do it to Mom?’ Then you get a little older and your own life gets lived, and you say, ‘Oh, Dad, I wish you were here so I could tell you I understand and I’m sorry I was such a little twit.’”

He smiled and raised his eyebrows, looking, all at once and startlingly, like a hopeful boy. Mike Nichols is 66 now, and it comes as something of a shock to see those familiar and eminently caricaturable features -- the Holbein nose, the small slitty eyes -- re-situated in the round face of a senior citizen. “A lot of people go through that,” he said, “and in some weird way, the country has to go through it. We’re the only place in civilization that makes this schism: ‘He’s a great man. He’s great with people. Unfortunately, he can’t keep his pants zipped.’ What if it’s the same thing? We have never asked that question. Why haven’t we asked this question?”

Nichols was explaining why he had decided, in February 1996, to put up $1.5 million of his own money, bidding against several Hollywood studios, for the movie rights to the novel Primary Colors. Nichols won the auction, not just because of the sum he offered but because, he said, “I had an advantage over a studio. I knew what I wanted to do with the book.” And because he alone among the bidders had the artistic focus to utter a single magic word about the project to Kathy Robbins, the literary agent of “Anonymous,” a.k.a. Joe Klein.

“I said, ‘It’s about honor,’” Nichols recalled. “In my view, that’s movies’ favorite subject. The movies I love most -- we love most -- are about honor. Lawrence of Arabia. It’s in all the buddy movies. It’s deep in the heart of almost any serious movie, because it’s always the issue at stake. Movies love friendship. They love unconsummated passion. They love nonsexual love. And somehow honor is always involved.”

And what did honor have to do with Primary Colors?

“It asks the question, where does honor lie now, now that things are as we know them to be?” Nichols said. “And what does it take to be president now? And who do we lose because of this gauntlet that they have to run? Who’s unable to run the gauntlet? And who survives the gauntlet? What have we done? What are we doing? It’s really the question that everybody is asking all the time. There is almost no other question.”

The events of the past month have, to put it mildly, borne out Nichols’s assertion. And now, in a few weeks, his movie adaptation of Primary Colors (its screenplay written by Elaine May) will premiere, in a national climate about which virtually the only guarantee seems to be that questions of presidential honor aren’t going to get any less pressing.

Mike Nichols, however, thinks Bill Clinton’s problems are less a matter of honor than of a certain fixation on the part of the president’s critics and the press.

“I think that there’s a complicated mixture of parental and sexual in our contemplation of the president,” he says. “Depending, of course, on the president. If he’s more parental, we’re more parental. If he’s younger and still in his sexual prime, then we’re more sexual in that response to him. And I think there’s all the pain of finding out that Daddy cheated on Mommy.


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