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The Essentials: The 5 Best Mike Nichols Movies

The Essentials: The 5 Best Mike Nichols Movies

As you’ve probably already heard, director Mike Nichols passed away last night. Our obituary is here, with a wealth of supplemental material to help you remember the man and just what a remarkable legacy he leaves. We also wanted to add our own thoughts on some of his greatest films.

Nichols was something of a polyglot, though perhaps not working across different genres so much as different moods, and polylgot doesn’t quite capture just how effortless he made the business of directing seem. Working mostly within a category that could be loosely defined as the mid-budget adult drama (exactly the kind of films that are getting squeezed out these days, between big blockbusters on the one side and tiny, low-budget indies on the other), Nichols found space to range from the broad comedy of “The Birdcage” (featuring a lovely turn from the late Robin Williams) to the solemnity of “Silkwood,” hitting all points in between, even some duff ones, like “The Day of the Dolphin.”

However, the throughlines remain no matter how disparate the films: a witty sort of intelligence, a quiet but rock solid visual confidence, and a total command of all the tools at his disposal, especially in regards to eliciting performances from actors. In fact Nichols directed 17 actors to Oscar nominations (and Meryl Streep twice) and himself picked up four directing nominations, winning once for “The Graduate.” Not only that, he also received two directing Emmys—for “Angels in America,” and “Wit”—a Grammy for Best Comedy Album, and six directing Tonys, making him an EGOT several times over.

Nichols leaves a decent-sized directorial filmography of 22 titles spanning just over four decades (the fun, fast-paced “Charlie Wilson’s War” was his last completed film, featuring a great performance from the late Philip Seymour Hoffman—anyone else really starting to hate this goddamn year?) but, though he died at the age of 83, there was still a sense that there might be more to come. Indeed, as recently as June, we reported that he was due to take the reins on a Maria Callas biopic that would have marked his fourth collaboration with Meryl Streep, and just last year he was rumored to be attached to the JJ Abrams-produced “One Last Thing Before I Go.”

Those titles sadly are now relegated to the realms of what-if for Nichols, but he’s left us a great deal of terrific work to remember him by nonetheless. Here are the five films that most define all the facets of his appeal for us, but there are many more we could have chosen, so please feel free to add your own picks, or your favorite anecdotes or quotes from Nichols long career, to the comments section below.

“Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” (1966)
To mark this touchpoint adaptation of Edward Albee’s 1962 play down as Nichols’ debut is a little misleading as he’d been a huge success as a theater director for years before (especially with a series of Neil Simon plays). Prior that he was one-half of a comedy duo with the brilliant Elaine May (our retrospective on May is here). But even that cannot detract from just what an amazing job Nichols did his first time at bat in cinema. There are layers here for which he was not responsible, most notably the casting of real-life, notoriously tempestuous couple Elizabeth Taylor (who gained 30lb for the role and played much older than she was) and Richard Burton as the film’s adversarial spouses (also, as my typo just had it “souses”), adding an inescapably metatextual layer to the proceedings. The performances that Nichols coaxed from them are career high points for both, and the subtle way he mines their interaction to bring forth even more subtext about grief, aging, and the recriminations of long-term coupledom, is almost absurdly sophisticated. Simply one of the greatest, most terrifying portrayals of a crumbling marriage ever committed to film (and here are a few more), Nichols really arrived on the scene fully-formed as a film director, and his trademark unobtrusive intelligence, and his way with performances, are given early expression here. Instantly adjusting his approach to work within the language of cinema rather than the theater, he, and screenwriting great Ernest Lehmann, maximized the use of new locations and even small twists (the other couple, George and Honey, drunkenly discussing Honey’s pregnancy is an invention for the film), while remaining overall extremely faithful to the spirit of the play. As a result, ‘Virginia Woolf’ moves like a whippet, skating across the scabrous surface of this rotting marriage, and hinting just enough, between gasps of painful laughter, to allow us to imagine the monsters that lurk beneath. As active as our imaginations might be, however, the final reveal never fails to shock as the bile boils away to leave nothing but tragedy behind. Nominated in every single category (13) for which it was eligible at the Oscars (including Director and Picture), the film won five: Actress (Taylor), Supporting Actress (Sandy Dennis), B/W Cinematography (Haskell Wexler), Costume Design and Art Direction, but even more importantly it established Nichols’ credentials with Hollywood, so he could go on to make his sophomore masterpiece.

“The Graduate” (1967)
Nichols’ best-known, best-loved movie was only his second film, coming hot on the heels of “Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf?” However, that film didn’t have even a fraction of the impact that “The Graduate” did or continues to have to this day. The plot’s the kind of stuff now that dominates festivals like Sundance and Tribeca: Benjamin Braddock (Dustin Hoffman, in his star-making role) is a recent college graduate with no clue what he wants to do with his future, who begins an affair with Mrs. Robinson (Anne Bancroft), an older friend of his parents, only to fall for the woman’s daughter Elaine (Katharine Ross). But arriving in 1967, just as the traditional studio system dominated by roadshow musicals and Biblical epics, the superhero movies of their day, was collapsing, and New Hollywood was taking over, the film was like a fireworks display going off, with Nichols and Hoffman adopted as the mascots of disaffected youth. Benjamin represents a generation’s rejection of their parent’s values, their sexual liberation, and their fears of an uncertain future, and became a beloved character and model for countless angst-y screenwriters, as a result. But to talk about the film only in terms of its impact on pop culture is to do it a disservice, because it’s damn near perfectly executed. The specificity of the California setting; the sharp Calder Willingham and Buck Henry script; that classic Simon & Garfunkel soundtrack; Nichols’ increasingly brilliant visual eye and innate sense of visual rhythm; that iconically, neurotically sexy lead turn from Hoffman; Ross’ irresistibly wide-eyed, fiery, flirtatious counterpoint; the sad ache under Bancroft’s bravura; that wildly romantic finale followed by the even more perfect coda on the bus—it’s a film that, 47-years on, keeps on giving.

“Carnal Knowledge” (1971)
From the start of his career to the very end, from ‘Virginia Woolf‘ to “Closer,” Nichols (who was married four times himself) always had a particular and close interest in the raw truth of love and sex between men and women. As the title suggests, “Carnal Knowledge” is almost entirely about that subject, and the resulting picture is one of the more undervalued of the filmmaker’s career. Penned by Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist Jules Feiffer, the film tracks college pals Jonathan (Jack Nicholson) and Sandy (Art Garfunkel), and their complex relationship with women over a 25-year span from the late 40s to the early 70sCandice Bergen and Ann-Margret being the most prominent of their would-be conquests. The film’s something of an early precursor to someone like Neil LaBute, digging in and exposing the misogyny of its never-grew-up, thinking-with-their-dicks subjects, boys with lots of talk and not a lot of walk, pursuing their ideal women without being prepared to deal with them as human beings once they land them. Nichols’ canny eye for casting pays off hugely here: Bergen and Ann-Margret are about as good as they ever were, while Garfunkel, not an obvious choice, is perfectly utilized as the deeply insecure beta of the central pair. In their first collaboration, Nicholson couldn’t be better: the director has clearly worked out the actor’s borderline animalistic charm (which the pair would capitalize on further a couple of decades later with “Wolf“), but also the neediness that lurks beneath it. Firmly ahead of the curve, the film struck a real nerve at the time: a theater owner in Albany, Georgia was prosecuted and convicted for “distributing obscene material” after showing the movie, with the case making its way to the Supreme Court before it was overturned. These days, you can get away with what Nichols and Feiffer do here on basic cable, and yet “Carnal Knowledge” remains more shocking than the much more explicit “Closer” (a definite close cousin in the director’s filmography) did 30-years later.

“Working Girl” (1988)
Nichols was nominated for Best Director at the Oscars four times over, winning once, for “The Graduate.” But while film buffs may know that his first nomination came for his debut, ‘Virginia Woolf,’ and his third for the serious-minded nuclear whistleblower film “Silkwood,” which was his first teaming with Meryl Streep (whom he’d direct to two of her 18 acting nominations), it’s still perhaps a surprise where his fourth came fromromantic comedy “Working Girl,” starring Harrison Ford, Melanie Griffith, and Sigourney Weaver. A surprise, that is, until you watch the movie. It’s a terrifically funny, sexy, and wise film that manages to be a frothy entertainment, a social comment on women in the workplace in the late 80s, a class dissection, and a deeply affectionate character portrait all in one go. Mind you, precious little of that affection is lavished on Weaver’s villainous, two-faced, two-timing boss Katherine, but the actress has such an exuberantly good time with the role that it’s hard to get too hung up on the woman vs. woman subtext, especially when it has the (for the time) pretty subversive effect of making Harrison Ford essentially the trophy. Not only that, but the other supporting roles are a joy, particularly Alec Baldwin as the rat fink ex, and Joan Cusack as the earthy best friend who sets her sights low and her hair very, very high. Best of all, though, is the genuine chemistry rustled up between Griffith and Ford, and the immensely satisfying arc by which the Cinderella story plays through, with Tess’ (Griffiths) own smarts, resourcefulness, and, well, balls, taking the role of the Fairy Godmother. Even then, Nichols can’t resist that kinda brilliant, ever-so-slightly deflating last shot as we discover that for all Tess has achieved, she’s still a tiny cog in the machinery of the “New Jerusalem” that Carly Simon is wailing about over the end credits. Most of all, though, it’s a terrific example of what made Nichols, not just an admirable director, but a lovable one too. No one is claiming that “Working Girl” is a piece of high art, but while Nichols undoubtedly had the talent and intelligence to be able to work in that register, and occasionally did, he never looked down on the idea of entertainment. Instead he brought his brain and humor and personality to bear on projects that might on paper seem beneath him, and elevated them to much more than they ever could’ve been otherwise. When you’re done honoring Mike Nichols by watching “The Graduate” again, do yourself the favor of taking another look at the great, bighearted and way-smarter-than-it-should-be “Working Girl.”

“Primary Colors” (1998)
Almost everything in Nichols’ late-period filmography (bar perhaps the saccharine “Regarding Henry” and curiously broad Garry Shandling misfire “What Planet Are You From?“) had something to recommend it, from the manic, soulful farce of “The Birdcage” to the savage, bruising Clive Owen performance in “Closer” to one of Philip Seymour Hoffman‘s finest hours in “Charlie Wilson’s War.” Excluding his masterful HBO work, the director’s greatest achievement in his last decade of screen work was his adaptation of Joe Klein‘s anonymously-published, thinly-veiled Clinton satire “Primary Colors,” a film that was middlingly received at the time, but has grown in stature since. Reuniting Nichols for a final time, professionally (they remained friends, as this recent Vanity Fair joint interview indicates) with comedy partner Elaine May, who wrote the screenplay, it tells the story of an idealistic young politico (Adrian Lester, terrific, and who should have got more big work off this) who joins the presidential campaign of charismatic governor Jack Stanton (John Travolta, in one of his best turns), and becomes embroiled in both his personal and professional lives, particularly with the governor’s Hillary-esque wife Susan (Emma Thompson). There’s a proto-“West Wing” verisimilitude to the film’s portrait of the campaign trail, but this is a much more cynical look at American politics. The supposed idealism and sincerity of the Stantons soon proves to be somewhat tarnished, and yet the film remains interestingly ambivalent. There’s a price to be paid in politics, but perhaps it’s worth it in exchange for winning and being able to actually make change. Nichols makes fine use of a stellar supporting cast, including a hilarious James Carville-esque Billy Bob Thornton, a lovely Maura Tierney, and best of all, the heartbreakingly great Kathy Bates as a radical associate of the Stantons who’s hurt more than most by their imperfections. It’s an atypically smart and complex movie about contemporary politics, funny and sad simultaneously, and a firmly Nichols-esque picture from start to finish.

Also Worth Watching: There were very many other titles we love and/or admire within Nichols’ filmography. Chief among those not listed above is “Angels in America,” which we excluded on the arbitrary grounds that it was a long-form TV event (352 minutes in total) rather than a theatrical release, but as a piece of narrative fiction it ranks right up there with anything he ever did. A sprawling, immensely moving adaptation of Tony Kushner’s stage show about AIDS in the 1980s, it largely prefigured the kind of prestige television we’ve come to expect these days, and with contemporary shows like ”The Sopranos,” ”Six Feet Under,” and “The Wire,” contributed to the reassessment of TV, and HBO specifically, as a genuine rival to cinema (the director had previously teamed with Emma Thompson on the prestige cable network for the moving ‘Wit“). Then, of course, there are Nichols’ three Meryl Streep movies, two of which got her Oscar nodsSilkwood” and “Postcards from the Edge,” while “Heartburn” is a slighter work, but still an enjoyable pairing of Streep and Jack Nicholson. More recently, Nichols proved he still had more gas in the tank with “Charlie Wilson’s War,” now officially his last film, and if “Closer” overall missed for us, it was certainly an immensely stylish, well-directed miss. Elsewhere Nichols also directed a well-loved adaptation of “Catch-22,” though that book is such a peerless classic we just have never been able to fully embrace the screen version.

It’s a sad day for us film buffs, so feel free to mark the occasion by calling out your favorite Nichols film below, especially if it’s one not featured above. Come on, we know there are major “Regarding Henry” fans out there somewhere? – Jessica Kiang, Oliver Lyttelton

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