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Review: HBO’s Mike Nichols doc puts sharp focus on early work

Editor Sam O’Steen (left) and Mike Nichols working on “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?,” 1965.
Editor Sam O’Steen (left) and Mike Nichols working on “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?,” 1965. Bob Willoughby/mptvimages.com/courtesy of HBO

Before tuning in to “Becoming Mike Nichols,” the new documentary debuting Monday on HBO (9 p.m.), film fans may wonder if it’s worth watching if they already saw the “American Masters” documentary on Nichols that aired a few weeks ago on PBS.

My answer would be: absolutely.

The films (both worth watching) share major commonalities, of course. Both are built around extensive interviews with the award-winning director; both focus on Nichols’ professional life; both pay very little attention to his personal life, apart from his coming to America as a German immigrant child in the 1930s; and both films are about the same length, each lasting roughly an hour.

But where the “American Masters” doc (directed by Nichols’ comedy partner Elaine May) took a broad look at Nichols’ career in comedy, theater, film and television, the HBO doc hones in on four major works — and the added depth pays off.

The focus of the interviews in the HBO film, conducted by theater director Jack O’Brien (one in front of an audience and one without), are Nichols’ comedy career with May; his work on two Neil Simon plays — “Barefoot in the Park” and “The Odd Couple”; and his two early, major films — “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” and “The Graduate.”

Nichols reveals enough behind-the-scenes nuggets — about Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, about Walter Matthau, about his own process — to keep even this casual film fan riveted. I would imagine it all to be even more gripping for true students of cinema.

Also striking about the Douglas McGrath-directed film is the fact that the interviews took place just a few months before Nichols died suddenly in November 2014. There’s always something a bit haunting in seeing a person so funny and smart and vibrant on film, knowing they would soon be gone.

Perhaps that specter of mortality lends a bit more weight to the documentary, but even without that knowledge, there’s little doubt in my mind that I could listen to Mike Nichols talk about virtually anything — his life, his work, what he ate for dinner — for hours.

In fact, that’s my only complaint about “Becoming Mike Nichols”: I’d love to spend more time with him.

Watch

“Becoming Mike Nichols” airs at 9 p.m. Monday on HBO.

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