When I heard the news that Mike Nichols had died, I thought to myself that I had seen a lot of his work. I was stunned to see, upon checking out his filmography, that I have seen all of his feature films, save one–What Planet Are You From?–and I’m sorry that I’m opening this tribute with that film, which may well be his worst.
But I’ve seen 17 of his 18 films, and one of his two TV adaptations, Angels in America (I haven’t seen Wit). Nichols was an important film director, but he had even better credentials on Broadway, where he won nine Tonys. I saw five of his productions: The Real Thing, Hurlyburly, Waiting for Godot, The Seagull, and Spamalot. Just in those five we can see the range of his talents. Oh, and I also once saw him drop off Christine Baranski at the Port Authority.
Nichols was born a Russian Jew in Berlin, and escaped the Nazis to America in early childhood. He came of age in the Chicago improv comedy scene, and with Elaine May created a night of sketches that wowed ’em on Broadway and also earned a Grammy for the record album (Nichols was one of the few EGOT winners–Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, and Tony). Many of the sketches are available on YouTube; you’d do yourself a favor to check them out.
He then went on to have the kind of Broadway directing career that someone could fantasize about: he started with Neil Simon’s early works, such as Barefoot in the Park and The Odd Couple, His Broadway career would stretch for over fifty years, encompassing not only those plays and the ones I mentioned, but the smash-hit musical Annie and his last, Death of a Salesman, with Philip Seymour Hoffman.
His foray into movies was just as audacious. The famous story about him is that he plucked Dustin Hoffman from obscurity to play Benjamin Braddock in The Graduate, but Nichols specialized in stars. Big stars. His first film, after all, was Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, with the two biggest stars on the planet–Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. He would go on to work with most of the major American stars–Nicholson, Beatty, Streep, Roberts, Hanks, Ford, Williams, Travolta, Pacino. He directed Jack Nicholson four times, and if those films are not among Nicholson’s (or Nichols’) best, they do show off Nicholson’s star power. Nichols’ production of lThe Seagull, which I saw in Central Park in 2001, had six past or future Oscar winners: Meryl Streep, Kevin Kline, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Natalie Portman, Christopher Walken, and Marcia Gay Harden. Nichols didn’t stint when it came to cast wattage.
But he knew how to use stars. The aberration of Dustin Hoffman in The Graduate (he turned down Robert Redford for the part because he thought Redford couldn’t play a loser) is kind of moot by this point, because Hoffman became a star instantly.
Nichols’ career certainly had ups and downs. After perhaps the best one-two punch debut in film history, with Virginia Woolf and The Graduate, Nichols tried the impossible in adapting Catch-22, which failed. The ’70s were pretty much a lost decade, with high profile misses including The Day of the Dolphin and The Fortune. The ’80s were a bit better, with Silkwood, Biloxi Blues, and Working Girl (his last Oscar nomination) and the ’90s were okay, with Postcards From the Edge, The Birdcage, and Primary Colors. Mixed in there were a few more big duds (Nichols never did do small, indie fare) like Wolf and Regarding Henry.
His last few films included the TV stuff, and Angels in America was brilliant, perhaps his best work aside from The Graduate. I liked his last two films, Closer and Charlie Wilson’s War, which again showed how well he could handle stars, whether established like Tom Hanks or Julia Roberts, or up and comers, like Portman and Clive Owen.
His films and stage productions were all over the map–comedy, dramedy, drama, farce. Will we really see someone who can, with elan, direct Uncle Vanya and Spamalot, and no one will even bat an eye? To me, though, his signature work was The Graduate. It is one of my top five films of all time and, in the revolutionary year of 1967, was one of those films that changed the history of cinema. This film appealed to young people, and while older critics sniffed at it, lines formed around the block. It was fresh, it was new, and it still is, 47 years later.
Mike Nichols lived a hell of a creative life. Anyone would be happy to have lived a tenth of it.