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Watch: The Best of Mike Nichols and Interview Videos

Watch: The Best of Mike Nichols and Interview Videos

Mike Nichols, who left us unexpectedly on Thursday at age 83, was that rare great director who excelled at every medium: the stage (he won nine Tonys, including Tom Stoppard’s “The Real Thing,”  the recent revival of “Death of a Salesman” and Monty Python’s “Spamalot”), television (“Wit,” “Angels in America”) and Hollywood movies (“The Graduate” and “Silkwood” to name a few). That’s the thing. He is a reminder of how far we have come from the days when the studios churned out –routinely–multiple dramas and comedies and many other genres aimed at adults. 

He started out with some of his best work: “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” and “The Graduate,” but kept his quality high within the system, and stars yearned to work him him because he brought out their best with wit and verve. He never lost touch with zeitgeist. That was his gift. (The New York Times obit here, Carrie Rickey here, his movies on streaming here.)

Here are some must-see Mike Nichols movies and television, and check out some of his great interviews that reveal his process, here and below. “Selma” director Ava DuVernay was one of many filmmakers who studied his working methods, she revealed on Twitter: “A few words on Mike Nichols. One of the best to ever do it. I’ve studied his work at length. Especially his rehearsal theories + techniques.”

Angels in America” (2003). This epic HBO opus—a “Gay Fantasia on National Themes,” as the subtitle of Tony Kushner’s original play reads—remains one of the most staggeringly powerful American miniseries ever. The almost embarrassingly amazing cast, including Al Pacino, Meryl Streep, Emma Thompson, Mary-Louise Parker, Jeffrey Wright, Justin Kirk, Ben Shenkman and Patrick Wilson, deliver across-the-board towering, career-best performances as ordinary people whose ideals and competing faiths are upended by the arrival of the AIDS epidemic in New York. “Angels” is both a masterclass in how to bring a complicated play from stage to screen, and in how to shape, and direct, the perfect ensemble. In one of his final interviews, Nichols likened the making of “Angels” to being in heaven. –Ryan Lattanzio

“Carnal Knowledge”
(1971) 4 stars: “Affection is contempt upside down,” Jonathan (Jack Nicholson) explains to Bobbie (Ann-Margret) in “Carnal Knowledge,” the tragicomedy that capped Nichols’ meteoric rise into the first rank of American filmmakers. Following Jonathan and his college roommate, Sandy (Art Garfunkel), through a quarter century of conflicting emotions, as each seeks and then sabotages a series of romantic attachments, Nichols, working from a script by Jules Feiffer, hones in on the tough guise that curdles the protagonists’ relationships with women from the start. Sandy idealizes virgins and Jonathan is attracted to whores, but from the opposing poles of society’s most common misogynist binary, both arrive at the same impotent destination. “Affairs can’t dissolve in a good way, there’s always got to be poison,” Jonathan laments, unable to grasp that the bitter draught is toxic masculinity itself. – Matt Brennan 

“Closer” (2004) Based on the play by Patrick Marber, the bruising, erotic “Closer” reprises the premise of “Carnal Knowledge” — our preference for the fantasy of desire over the reality of intimacy — and proceeds to flay it bloody. Nichols elicits superb performances from his quartet of actors (Jude Law, Clive Owen, Natalie Portman, and Julia Roberts), in part by situating their jagged array of sexual arrangements amid modern London’s clean lines. The result is a pared-down, rather terrifying portrait of cruelty that disguises itself as love; the film’s most brilliant interlude, a lengthy, savage dispute between Anna (Roberts) and Larry (Owen), is a mesmerizing verbal knife fight. “Now that’s the spirit,” Larry says as the argument reaches its climax. “Thank you. Thank you for your honesty. Now fuck off and die.” – Matt Brennan

“The Graduate” (1967) took Charles Webb’s 1963 novel to an iconic new level, thanks to an hilarious script by Calder Willingham and Buck Henry, and Nichols’ bravery in casting TV actor Dustin Hoffman in his first lead film role at age 30 as Benjamin Braddock, trapped in post-college ennui, floating aimlessly in a pool, running away from his parents’ well-meaning friends (“plastics!”) and having an affair with Anne Bancroft’s Mrs. Robinson (immortalized by Simon & Garfunkel) as well as her daughter Elaine (Katharine Ross). “Elaine!” This film resonated at the time and feels fresh to this day, influencing scads of movies to come (see “Garden State”).- Anne Thompson

Postcards from the Edge” (1990) Nichols adapts Carrie Fisher’s viciously funny pseudo-memoir about middling screen actress Suzanne Vale (Meryl Streep, Oscar-nominated) who hits rock bottom and ends up in rehab, and then back at home with her mother (Shirley MacLaine), an epic boozer herself. Suzanne stumbles her way through one shit show after another, a string of bad dates and the painful self-awareness that’s par for the profession. But in the spirit of Fisher’s “novel,” Nichols finds toxic humor in over-the-top personal crises, while giving two knockout actresses two majorly iconic movie roles. –Ryan Lattanzio

“Primary Colors” (1998) In his satirical excavation of the Clinton years, adapted from reporter Joe Klein’s thinly veiled novelization of the 1992 presidential campaign, Nichols turns his acerbic wit to the scandal-obsessed rubbernecking that defines American politics. As Bubba-like Governor Jack Stanton (John Travolta) and his tenacious wife, Susan (Emma Thompson), navigate the Democratic primaries, the film suggests that dirty tricks, indiscretions, and stump speeches are simply constituent elements in an elaborate work of performance art, as fabricated as Stanton mistress Cashmere McCloud’s secret tapes. Indeed, the real genius of “Primary Colors” is to deploy comedy to unearth the pathos of damaged idealism: in the profound disillusionment of Stanton operative Libby Holden (Kathy Bates), Nichols encapsulates the long unwinding of the American left, and the final sacrifice of principle at the altar of pragmatism. – Matt Brennan

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” (1966) “What a dump!” Nichols exploded onto the Hollywood scene with this Edward Albee adaptation, one of the cruelest, kinkiest, most subversive studio movies ever made. Censorship, police seizure and the 60s equivalent of the “X” rating didn’t temper the power of this quartet psychodrama in which Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton, George Segal and Sandy Dennis cast witty, wicked and endlessly quotable aspersions on one another. All were Oscar-nominated, with five wins including Taylor and Dennis, and Haskell Wexler’s beautiful B&W cinematography.  –Ryan Lattanzio

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