Friday, November 21, 2014


Mike Nichols has died.  A major film director, but I often wonder if that was his greatest talent.

He attended the University of Chicago in the 1950s and later got involved with the Compass Players, who'd morph into Second City.  He teamed up with fellow performer Elaine May, and together they conquered the comedy world, making a hit on TV, Broadway and in recordings.

They were at the center of the new comedy arising then, along with Lenny Bruce, Shelly Berman, Bob Newhart and soon after Woody Allen and Bill Cosby. Nichols and May represented a wit and sophistication rarely seen before in popular entertainment. But the team split up and Nichols looked for something else.  He started directing and realized this was his métier.

He may have been better at directing for the stage than anything else. I can't say for sure, only having seen his production of Spamalot--the Tony-winning musical that needed his hand to become Broadway-ready--but when one looks at the plays that started his career, it's stunning how he started at the top.  Above all, he helped establish Neil Simon with the blockbusters Barefoot In The Park, The Odd Couple, Plaza Suite and The Prisoner Of Second Avenue (you may think it was all Simon's scripts, but read the playwright's memoirs and you'll see what a difference Nichols made), but also did Murray Schisgal's Luv and the Bock/Harnick musical The Apple Tree.

Later notable stage productions include Streamers, The Real Thing, The Gin Game and Hurlyburly.  He also became a significant producer, presenting unknown Whoopi Goldberg on Broadway and bringing in the musical Annie.

But he's best known to us for his work in film.  I don't know if any other director who began with such a one-two punch, making a couple of films that were both critically admired and huge hits.

In 1966, there was Who's Afraid Of Virginia Woolf?, the controversial Broadway show which he faithfully adapted (which probably couldn't have been done on screen a few years earlier).  I don't think he adds much to the play itself, but he doesn't mess it up, which is something.  Then, in 1967, came one of the best films of the era, and one of the biggest hits in the history of movies, The Graduate.  True, a lot of it comes from the amazing performances of Dustin Hoffman and Anne Bancroft, and the Buck Henry screenplay closely following the Charles Webb novel, but I'm not sure if anyone else could have pulled it together.  I find some of his directorial affectations the least interesting stuff in the film, yet Nichols, attuned to the comedic feel of the times (without, ironically, being that political), was a the right man for the job, and created a classic.

He never really hit the same heights again in his lengthy film career.  He followed up those two works with a huge flop--a heavy adaptation of the novel Catch-22.  The lighter, smaller MASH, released the same year, caught the insanity of war a lot better and was the hit Catch-22 wanted to be.  After that came Carnal Knowledge, an unusually-shaped film with an openness about sex that challenged the censorship of the time--but the Jules Feiffer script has not aged well.

After that came two out-and-out flops, the sci-fi drama The Day Of The Dolphin and the farce The Fortune.  Nichols was working with big stars, such as George C. Scott, Warren Beatty and Jack Nicholson, and trying different genres, but he seemed to be floundering in the 70s.

The 80s saw at least a bit of a return to form, with better-formed and more successful films such as Silkwood, Heartburn, Biloxi Blues (Nichols' only Neil Simon film, and one of the better big-screen adaptations of the playwright's stage work) and Working Girl.  Maybe Nichols wasn't swinging for the fences quite so much, but he wasn't striking out either.

He started the 90s with a bunch of misfires--Postcards From The Edge, Regarding Henry and Wolf, before creating one of his biggest hits and best comedies, The Birdcage.  After that, Primary Colors--some like it, but I consider it a missed opportunity--and the major flop What Planet Are You From?.

In the 2000s, he adapated some plays for TV--Wit and Angels In America.  Not unlike Virginia Woolf, I'd say he didn't add much to them, but respected the material enough not to screw them up.  His final films were minor--Closer and Charlie Wilson's War--but a reminder that he still could put out something respectable.

Over his career, he won the EGOT--an Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony--and in his final years, collected all the lifetime achievement awards--National Medal Of Arts, AFI, Kennedy Center, etc.  But he never retired.  For instance, in the last few years, he directed Philip Seymour Hoffman in Death Of A Salesman and Daniel Craig and Rachel Weisz in Betrayal.

When Nichols was young, he discovered what he wanted to do--direct. And, lucky man, that's what he got to do, at the highest level, for the rest of his life.


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