When Mike Nichols passed away late last year, his stature as a film director was understandably widely noted and celebrated. And yet there was curious disconnect about the focus on his work. His reputation as one of the most significant American film directors of the past 50 years was almost entirely based on the early batch of films he made during the 1960s and early 1970s.
Films like “The Graduate” and “Carnal Knowledge” were celebrated as groundbreaking and being a breath of fresh air to a stale US film industry in the 1960s. Even a film like “Catch-22” – seen as a failure upon initial release – has had its reputation grow over the years to be now considered one of his finest films.
One would presume that Nichols directorial career ended in the mid-1970s. And yet (after a prolonged absence) he had a largely successful career from 1983 to 2007 both critically and commercially. The perception seemed to be whereas Nichols of the 1966-1971era was a daring risktaker, the Nichols of 1983-2007 made largely conventional, mainstream films that while often pleasing, weren’t particularly noteworthy or daring.
A way to examine this assumption is to look at one of his later era films, specifically 1990’s “Postcards From The Edge”. Based on Carrie Fisher’s semi-autobiographical novel (she also wrote the screenplay), the film is the story of Suzanne Vale (Meryl Streep), an actress whose career and life are on the verge of self-destruction due to drug addiction. In addition, she has to conduct her recovery under the care of her overbearing, self-involved mother Doris (Shirley Maclaine). How can Suzanne handle all this and the pitfalls of Hollywood to get her life back on track?
Probably the film’s greatest achievement is that without histrionics or sensationalism what a horrendous place the Hollywood film industry is for any public figure dealing with personal demons as Suzanne is. The scenes where she has to deal with producers, directors and lovers (some well-meaning, some not) are a great encapsulation of how a person’s self-esteem can be chipped away so relentlessly that drugs can be seen as the only respite.
The mother/daughter relationship is promoted and presented as the central feature of the film (and the source of Suzanne’s discontent) but in fact this is a bit of a McGuffin. Indeed the film quite deftly shows that Doris is as much a victim of the film industry as Suzanne has been and does genuinely care for her. The downside of this McGuffin aspect is that as entertaining as the mother/daughter interactions and confrontations are, they feel like a bit of a irrelevance in the context of the film.
Considering her reputation, it’s of little surprise that Streep in the central role gives a quality performance; but the type of quality is surprising. In a career full of appearing in so many ‘worthy’ films and heavy characterisations, it’s refreshing to see her give such a relaxed, natural performance. She avoids the clichés of her role to create such a selfish, troubled but talented and likable persona that it’s pleasing to see she got an Oscar nomination out of it.
Also making a notable impression (in an atypically small supporting role) is Gene Hackman as a movie director. Of all the characters who interact with Suzanne, he is shown to be the most ruthless and yet the most compassionate towards her. It’s a delicate balance and Hackman carries it off with aplomb.
And what about Nichols’ direction? Certainly by today’s standards, his style feels understated (refreshingly so) with lots of long takes, little use of music to heighten scenes and a generally non-intrusive style. And several nicely observed scenes result.
And yet… for all the fine all-round work “Postcards From The Edge” feels like it should be a better film than it is. There is a sense that the film settles for making minor insights on the film industry and drug addiction and doesn’t want to be as bold and ambitious as it could be. This is especially the case with the last 15 minutes of the film where the plot is wrapped up too comfortably and the final scenes feels more positive than it should be.
And some of the blame for that goes down to Nichols. He puts in a generally skilled effort on direction but it feels a little impersonal. You feel as if he had the capability of pushing harder to raise the film up a level or two but by this stage of his career didn’t have the desire to do that.
This is not to say “Postcards From The Edge” is a failure. It’s an entertaining and adroitly done. But it leaves no lasting impression and it seems symbolic of this section of Nichols career; making good but forgettable films that could have been great.