I’ll never forget meeting you opening night of Cloud 9. I did not know you were in the audience, thank god. I was so in awe of you and had always dreamed about working with you. At the party after the show, you stopped me as I walked by your table and said something so complimentary I was taken aback. Literally. I fell over the chair behind me. I remember nothing of the evening after that.
A week or so later, a woman called. “This is Colleen, Mike Nichols’ secretary. He would like to know if you would help him out with a reading he is doing of a screenplay called Silkwood.”
I nearly choked on the intake of my breath and tried to cover my reaction with a casual, “Sure.”
“It’s going to be very informal because it’s mainly for the authors Nora Ephron and Alice Arlen. Meryl Streep will be reading her role. Kurt Russel will be reading his. Someone will be reading the men’s parts, and you’ll be reading all the other women’s roles.”
All the other women’s roles?! I could barely get out, “Oh. Okay.”
The phone call over, I ran up and down my hallway screaming wildly.
When I got the script, I thumbed through pages covered in red underlining–all the parts I was going to read including Cher’s. I panicked. Oh god oh god oh god.
I did not sleep the night before the reading. At the studio, young, beautiful Meryl Streep grabbed me and said, “I’m really scared.”
“I’m terrified,” I responded, grateful for her openness.
We sat down to the table for the reading. You were sitting at the end of the table. I was at the corner to your right. When I said my first line, you laughed. I don’t know if it was funny, but your easy laugh relaxed me completely. You had the most joyful, open laugh. How I loved to make you laugh. I think one of the most thrilling moments of my life was when you came to a reading of my play, Intelligent Design and laughed and laughed.
At the end of the Silkwood reading, Nora and Alice joined in saying something like, “We’ll have to find her a part, Mike.” Although there wasn’t really a suitable role, you offered me Gilda Schultz. She was written to be younger and kinda saucy and sexy. I was so excited to get to play her.
Magically, my impossible fantasy of working with the Great Mike Nichols was suddenly coming true! So, at 46, an age when most American actresses are being shoved out to pasture, I arrived in Dallas to begin my short and limited movie career. My costumes were flattering. Even at my age, I thought the costumes and makeup made me look pretty good.
The day before the first day of shooting, I was told to meet with you. When I entered the room, Nora, Alice, the producer, the costumer, and you were all sitting in a semi circle. I was certain I was about to be fired because your faces looked so grim. You told me gently that the concept for my character was being completely changed. Ann Roth then took me into a fitting room. My sexy, pretty clothes were eliminated. I was dressed in ugly polyester outfits. Then, the hair stylist cut my hair into a terrible, unflattering style. I was told I would wear no make up at all, and it would even be removed if I was caught cheating. (I had never gone without makeup publicly ever, let alone on film.) The change was shocking.
The next day, the first day of shooting, over 200 people were on the set: crew, cast, extras to shoot a locker scene. I was depressed and angry. I hated the way I looked and couldn’t wrap my mind around my new character. I tried to hide my fury and disappointment by staying in a corner. I decided to just grit my teeth and get through the day. I stayed out of sight as best I could, but somehow, even in the midst of all that first day chaos, you noticed me.
At a break an assistant said you wanted to see me. I didn’t want to see you. I didn’t want to talk to you, but I went because I had to.
You took me aside and spoke without your usual warmth. “Katherine,” you said. “I can take anything but sullen. I can’t take sullen.”
“Sullen” was the exact, right word. I hated being nailed as that, but I never forgot it. Years later, when I wrote Intelligent Design, I gave that cutting insult to the character of God when he complained about Eve: “She’s very sullen. I hate that sullen shit.” The word is funny to me now, but back then, it wasn’t.
My heart sank. I was caught.There was nothing I could do but tell the truth. “Oh, Mike,” I said. “It’s just that when I look in the mirror all I see is my mother.” Given the history with my mother, the last thing I wanted to be was her.
“Well,” you said. “Maybe it’s time you rejected your mother.”
I was so shocked by that I burst out laughing. What a politically incorrect thing to say! Not, I should “forgive” her or come to terms with her. According to you, it would be okay to reject her. I doubled over and nearly peed my pants laughing.
“Good. All I want is that aliveness again that I know is in you.”
The rest of the film went fine. We had no more problems. In fact, once, during the course of the shoot, you asked me a question no director before or since has ever asked: “How do you want to do this scene, Katherine?” It was such an astonishing question. It made me feel deeply respected. It implied that you assumed I had given it some thought. I hadn’t.
I made something up on the spot. “Um, well, given I was supposed to be sick, I thought I’d start in the toilet stall and then head over to that sink and wash my face while I talk with Meryl.”
“Fine,” you said. “We’ll do it that way” and told someone in the crew to make sure that the sink I had pointed to was ready with running water. It certainly wasn’t an inspired suggestion, but you liked it, and we did the scene in one shot.
When I was asked to teach acting, my only intention was to try to teach the way you directed–to see the light in people, to treat each and every person with the kind of respect you gave me. You taught me to not focus on what doesn’t work but to empower and strengthen what does work in people.
There is so much more I could write about, but I’m tired and have a headache from crying. My eyes hurt. The fire in the fireplace is dying down.
I’ve felt your presence all day today. I was only on the periphery of your world—an asteroid to your sun. Still, your love and light shone on me as brightly as it did on all those who were fortunate to be closer to you. You loved so many people so wholeheartedly. I cannot imagine the demands that were made on you because of that. Everyone wanted to be close to your genius and your love. I cannot imagine the needs and requests that must have come to you from all those who wanted to be with you or wanted something from you—and not just from peers but from wannabees and crazies. Even I, an asteroid, dared to ask you for a quote for my book The Four Principles. When you emailed it to me with such generous praise, I cried.
Perhaps you were able to love so fully and fearlessly because you knew never to sacrifice yourself—knowing that sacrifice would damage that love. Maybe you just loved and loved until your enormous, generous heart gave out. I don’t know. You taught me in ways I am not even conscious of, You taught me to love better.
I’m crying again. It’s as if I can hear your voice saying, “Well, for all you know, Katherine, I’m sitting right in the chair across from you enjoying the fire. I can be everywhere now—with everyone I love. I am with Diane. I am with Elaine. I am with my children and my beloved grandchildren. I am everywhere now, and best of all, I don’t have to be any place I don’t want to be.”
Whether that is true or not, I know you are in my heart and will remain there as long as I live. When the body dies, love does not. Love lives on. Thank you, Mike, from the bottom of my soul and the fullness of my heart.