Mike Nichols is dead. What we lose in his death is a man of generosity, of incomparable intelligence and wit, of several dimensions. There were, after all, many sides present in all his work, sides of technical and emotional prowess. Working in the media of both film and theatre, it is, more than anything, Nichols’s compassion that shines through more than anything, his ability to connect with actors and produce, not performances, but embodiments, incarnations of lives past and present. How else can one account for the transformations realized under his watchful eye, the lustrous Elizabeth Taylor turned the chain-smoking, toxic, abusive Martha in “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf,” the brash and insolent Dustin Hoffman (the production of “Tootsie” was plagued by bouts of screaming between Hoffman and director Sydney Pollack) turned the shy, scared, humble college student, the boisterous, calamitous Robin Williams playing to perfection the frustrated yet nuanced compassion of Arman Goldman in “The Birdcage.”
It is tragic to think, then, that Nichols’s career in film, in directing, was in jeopardy, that it might have been sacrificed for the success he was having in the world of comedy. Nichols met Elaine May in Chicago while studying under the Compass Players. The two created a duo, Nichols and May, and had great success touring and on the talk show circuit. Their comedy album “An Evening With Mike Nichols and Elaine May” won a Grammy in 1962 for Best Comedy Album. Internal strife doomed the pairing, however, and they split soon after, and Nichols decided to try his hand at directing.
“Barefoot in the Park,” Nichols’s first directing credit, also earned him his first Tony Award, one of nine he would rack up over the next sixty years. 1965 saw him direct another smash hit comedy, “The Odd Couple.” It was this success that Nichols was able to parlay into a job in film, the directing of Edward Albee’s “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf,” a considerably heavier and more cynical work than Nichols had experience with. Audiences were shocked at the level of profanity and sex (at one point, a character is addressed quite casually as “Monkey Nipples.”) The film was met with praise and success, and is now considered to be a cinematic landmark.
What came next surpassed even “Virginia Woolf” in importance, The Graduate. The simple story of a recent college grad, stuck without a job or prospects, but by all means a bright, ambitious, capable young man, having an affair with an older woman and subsequently falling in love with her daughter became, with Nichols’s wistful touch and iconic choices in cinematography and score, a legendary achievement, earning him an Oscar for Best Director, and a totally deserved one at that. What might come across to some as minimalism taken to a detrimental extent, the cinematography marries perfectly to the tone of the film.
Take the opening credit sequence, for instance, which is played out entirely over one continuous shot, Benjamin riding the escalator across the airport, silent, unexpressive, “Sounds of Silence” creating an almost dreamlike atmosphere, perfect, untainted, that becomes all the more attractive, all the more tragic, as the film’s events unfold into the hysteria of the final scene. Benjamin realizes he’s been a fool; that he’s loved Elaine Robinson all along is a catalyzing epiphany. He drives to the church where her marriage ceremony to another man is already underway. Screaming, banging on the window at the very back of the room, he is a disheveled mess of a man hopelessly enamored. Elaine and Benjamin escape, barring the door of the church with a crucifix, preventing the pursuit of her parents, who are beside themselves, and understandably so. The couple board a bus, and how does this love story end? As it began: one continuous shot, two people sitting at the back of the bus as it lumbers down the street, their euphoria slowly turning to doubt, their triumphant faces falling, as they come to understand the risk they’ve taken, the consequences they might be forced to suffer. It is youthful indecision and haste personified, and it is a scene that alone makes Nichols deserving of all the awards in the world.
With his subsequent string of films—“Catch-22,” “Carnal Knowledge,” “Silkwood,” “Working Girl,” “Postcards from the Edge,” “The Birdcage,” and “Primary Colors”—Nichols tried his hand at several different palettes; comedy, to which he was no stranger, black comedy, drama, satire, memoir, were all great successes. This is the true mark of a great director, of a great artist: the versatility and intelligence, the understanding necessary to take from someone else’s vision one’s own while maintaining the so precariously balanced structure and development on which the film hinges. Nichols, Kubrick, Spielberg, Soderbergh—they possess the fearlessness without which a career can falter, can sink in the malaise of familiarity and become stuck, frozen in time.
Nichols’s work in the 2000s, however brief, is an extension of the yearning and wit present throughout his career. Two films, “Closer,” a romantic drama, and “Charlie Wilson’s War,” a political satire, are as effective and polished as his classics. For television Nichols also adapted “Angels in America,” Tony Kushner’s play chronicling the early days of the AIDS epidemic during the 1980s. The HBO miniseries features many performances of Nichols’s normal caliber, including Al Pacino, who, as Roy Cohn, the real life closeted gay New York lawyer, steals the show, surrendering himself to the material, playing a man who, unlike the power hungry Michael Corleone or the vicious and ruthless Tony Montana, is governed by fear, by shame, by a want, not of power, as he explains to his doctor, who has just diagnosed Roy with AIDS, but the influence it buys, how many people he can pin under his finger.
But just as Pacino’s turn here is another plaque to be displayed on Nichols’s mantel, so to are the hundreds of other performances, plays written and directed, comedy routines performed, anyone whose dream was brought to life, given new life, by the example he set. It is unfortunate that, in the pantheon of great filmmakers, the up-and-comers who arrived in the late sixties/early seventies, his name is hardly mentioned. Coppola, Scorsese, Spielberg, Lucas, DePalma—theses names endure. The real tragedy is that, while one likely knows or recognizes Scorsese without having seen his films or being a fan of movies, Nichols is lost to the casual filmgoer, a name eclipsed by the body of work we are so fortunate to have.
By Lucas Dispoto