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Remembering Mike Nichols

Remembering Mike Nichols

Mike Nichols began his career as half of Broadway’s most promising team with Elaine May. He then became one of the most talented directors in the theater, then one of the mavericks of New Hollywood (and the first to win an Oscar, for directing “The Graduate”), and finally one of the most dependable directors in film, television and theater from the 1980s to the 2010s. He was one of the dozen people to have won an EGOT (Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony), and he won his most recent Tony (a whopping ninth) as recent as 2012 for a revival of “Death of a Salesman” starring the late Philip Seymour Hoffman.

Nichols died today at 83 of cardiac arrest. Few directors can claim his remarkable longevity and versatility, not to mention his firm grasp of the zeitgeist. With his early comedies, “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf,” “The Graduate,” “Carnal Knowledge” and even the flawed but interesting “Catch-22,” Nichols spoke for a restless generation, voicing the pressing question of “Is this it?” in the most cutting way possible. Many a teenager has watched “The Graduate” and misunderstood the ending as a happy one, but anyone who rewatched it (or saw it next to “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” and “Carnal Knowledge”) saw its sublime sadness and bitterness, and the way it treated its melancholy but often insensitive and arrogant protagonist with the same brutal honesty that it did the people he was rebelling against.

Nichols’ films grew less acerbic as he aged, but no less incisive. He kept his finger on the pulse of America in the 80s, creating two of the most critically successful films about women of the decade: “Silkwood,” a thriller about a nuclear power plant whistleblower featuring one of Meryl Streep’s least affected and most effective performances, and “Working Girl,” a sharp but warm romantic-comedy about women rising in the business world. In the 90s, he made both the strong political satire “Primary Colors,” which gets at the heart of the Clinton era better than nearly any other movie, and “The Birdcage,” the terrific plea for acceptance in the form of a farce, featuring career highlights from Robin Williams, Nathan Lane, Hank Azaria, Dianne Wiest and Gene Hackman. 

Nichols had theater on his mind throughout the 2000s, even when he stepped behind the camera. His three best late-period films/miniseries, “Wit,” “Angels in America” and “Closer,” are all adaptations of Broadway shows, all brilliant showcases for their actors (Emma Thompson, Meryl Streep, Al Pacino, Geoffrey Wright, Natalie Portman, Clive Owen) and all among the most moving work he did. “Closer” in particular was a refreshing throwback to the kind of acerbic wit Nichols brought in the 60s and 70s, yet with an older man’s contemplation and sadness acting as a welcome counterbalance to the bile of Patrick Marber’s play.

Nichols had one of the longest and most fruitful careers of any director of his generation – this hardly covers his theater work, which includes first-rate productions of “Barefoot in the Park,” “The Odd Couple,” “The Apple Tree,” “Annie,” “The Real Thing,” “Hurlyburly,” “Spamalot,” “Death of a Salesman” and, most recently, a revival of Harold Pinter’s “Betrayal” starring Daniel Craig and Rachel Weisz. He leaves behind a rich body of work and legacy.

More thoughts from the web:

Peter Bradshaw, The Guardian

At the end of the 1980s, Mike Nichols made what for me is among the best of his movies, the rather underrated “Working Girl,” a terrifically buoyant and effervescent New York romantic comedy with Melanie Griffith as an ambitious secretary whose wicked boss (great work from Sigourney Weaver) pretends to mentor and just steals her business ideas. Nichols makes it all look very easy. Read more.

Matt Singer, ScreenCrush

His favorite film quote, according to an AFI tribute, was from ‘The Philadelphia Story’: “The time to make up your mind about people is never.” Nichols remained curious about people and about film and theater through his entire career, never staying too long in one genre (or, indeed, one artistic medium). Although his strongest works were comedies, he tried his hand at almost every kind of film. He made dramas, he made histories, he made concert docs. He even directed a horror movie (‘Wolf,’ with Jack Nicholson). That’s on top of the dozens of Broadway plays and musicals he directed and produced, everything from the original Broadway production of Neil Simon’s ‘The Odd Couple’ to the hugely successful revival of Harold Pinter’s ‘Betrayal,’ starring Daniel Craig and Rachel Weisz. He was simply one of the most versatile directors in history. Read more.

Kate Erbland, The Dissolve

In 1967, he directed “The Graduate,” the highest-grossing film of the year, and won that earned him an Oscar for Best Director. Nichols’ uniquely acerbic view of the world and finely tuned humor were on full display in the feature, and it remains perhaps the best example of his film work. Read more.

Bruce Weber, The New York Times 

Especially consistent was his wry and savvy sensibility regarding behavior, derived, in part, from his early success in nightclubs and on television with Ms. May. Their program of satirical sketches depicting one-on-one moments of social interaction eventually reached Broadway, where “An Evening With Mike Nichols and Elaine May” opened in October 1960 and ran for more than 300 performances; the recording of their show won a Grammy Award. Developed through improvisation, written with sly, verbal dexterity and performed with cannily calibrated comic timing, a sharp eye for the tiny, telling gesture and an often nasal vocal tone that both of them employed, their best known routines — a mother haranguing her scientist son for not calling her; teenagers on a date in the front seat of a car; an injured man and a doltish emergency room nurse; a telephone operator and a desperate caller in a phone booth — became classics of male-female miscommunication and social haplessness. Read more.

Dennis McLellan, The Los Angeles Times

 In a 2012 interview with The Times prior to the opening of the Nichols-directed Broadway revival of “Death of a Salesman,” the director, then 80, said: “I look back at those first plays I did and the first movies I did, and I only have one question, which is, ‘What was I so confident about? Where did I get that?’ It scares me because I’m not [confident] now at all. I’m anything but confident.” Directing, he said, “is mystifying. It’s a long skid on an icy road, and you do the best you can to stay on the road. … If you’re still here when you come out of the spin, it’s a relief. But you’ve got to have the terror if you’re going to do anything worthwhile.” Read more

Steven Spielberg

“This is a seismic loss. Mike was a friend, a muse, a mentor, one of America’s all time greatest film and stage directors, and one of the most generous people I have ever known.  For me, “The Graduate” was life altering—both as an experience at the movies as well as a master class about how to stage a scene.  Mike had a brilliant cinematic eye and uncanny hearing for keeping scenes ironic and real.  Actors never gave him less than their personal best—and then Mike would get from them even more.  And in a room full of people, Mike was always the center of gravity.”

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