The late Philip Seymour Hoffman once called him “one of the great artists of the 20th century.” And even that praise barely scratches the surface of the accomplishments of Mike Nichols, the comedian, writer, director, and producer, both of the big and small screen, who passed away today at the age of 83.
Born in Germany, and coming to America as a child in the late 1930s with his parents who were fleeing the Nazis, it didn’t take long for Nichols to get bitten by the showbiz bug. It was at the University of Chicago that he met Elaine May, and the pair in short order became comedy legends. Quick wits, skilled improvisers, and flat out hilarious performers, the duo’s nightclub act soon turned into three best-selling albums (winning one Grammy), and a Broadway show. But that bright flame of collaboration faltered quickly, with May and Nichols splitting to take on their own projects, but they reunited over the years for various appearances and films (May would co-write “The Birdcage” and “Primary Colors,” which Nichols would direct).
Indeed, it was in film that Nichols found another outlet for his boundless talent. The range of his work speaks for itself — his debut feature was the fiery “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?,” a movie still studied to this day, and one that even Nichols himself continued to unpack and ponder. “Do you know my theory about ‘Virginia Woolf,’ which I think I only developed lately?” he told Vanity Fair last year. “It may be the only play — certainly the only play I can think of, including Shakespeare — in which every single thing that happens is in the present; even the beautiful reminiscences of the past are traps being set in the present, sprung in the present, having violent effect in the present. It’s why you can’t hurt it. It always, always works. It’s now. It’s the one thing plays have the hardest time with.” A powerful observation from the 8-time Tony Award winner.
And from that film, Nichols moved easily back and forth between drama and comedy, or sometimes mixed both as he would in his seminal sophomore film “The Graduate.” Paragraphs and entire features could be written about the role of this movie in American cinema, or even the culture of a generation. “The Graduate” is some of the finest 106 minutes you’ll spend with a film.
Directing films until his last feature “Charlie Wilson’s War” in 2007, Nichols investigated with seriousness and humor a wide range of interests in American life, managing both a light touch and mature focus when the material required it. With films as wide-ranging as “Catch-22,” “Carnal Knowledge,” “Closer,” “Working Girl,” “Silkwood,” “Biloxi Blues,” HBO‘s landmark “Angels in America” and more under his belt, Nichols explored American life down a variety of avenues, with many of his pictures still deeply resonant, wildly entertaining, or both, years and years after they arrived. And that’s not to mention his extensive list of stage productions, where Nichols also worked his unique touch.
A member of the rare EGOT club — winning Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony awards — one could measure Nichols’ success with statistics. But it’s the work that will always stand ahead of the well deserved plaudits and industry recognition. Nichols spent four decades telling stories, tales that made both our sides and hearts ache, and he’s made us ache again today, because we’ve lost a legend.