Home > Film & stuff > In Memory of Mike Nichols (1931-2014)

In Memory of Mike Nichols (1931-2014)

Mike Nichols became one of my favorite filmmakers right around the time I started college. I’d always loved several of his movies before then — The BirdcageRegarding Henry and Wolf were childhood favorites of mine — but Nichols’ work really took on new meaning for me later on. The impetus was — brace for a cliche — The Graduate. I’d hate myself for writing it if it wasn’t so goddamn true.

It doesn’t get much more trite than a college freshman relating to The Graduate, but that’s the story. I’d actually seen the movie several years earlier, easily pre-high school, so it’s not like I wasn’t familiar with it or its cultural impact. My first round with The Graduate all those years back just wasn’t anything special. I liked it. I found it funny and I thought Anne Bancroft’s performance was amazing, but that’s about where it stopped. My re-watch, however, was a different story. I watched as a young (but not THAT young) Dustin Hoffman as Ben Braddock moved his way uncomfortably through a party at his parents’ house, fielding empty questions about his future from people who don’t particularly care. They all think they have answers for the young man, of course (“plastics” is obviously the most memorable and hilarious). I think that might be a curse of old age: It brings wisdom for some, but shallow, inane observations about the secrets of life from others.

I was hooked on this story of a young man with the world in front of him but not quite understanding what the hell to do with it all. But this is the beauty and trickery that Nichols pulls off masterfully — that angle never really changes. The film is set up as a bit of a counter culture, rage-against-upper-middle-class, youth vs. old guard sort of thing, but what happens in the end? Do Ben and Elaine ride off blissfully on a bus into the sunset together? Well, maybe in the eyes of people who romanticized the idea of ’60s youth fighting back against their parents, the government, or whomever. But the concerned faces of those two naive twentysomethings give away what’s really going on. They don’t know what the hell they’re doing, just like Ben didn’t know when the film began. How cruel is that?

I can’t tell you how much that kind of cynicism pleases me, and Mike Nichols had it in spades, which is why I loved his work so dearly. Not everything he made was perfect, not even close, but the incisive looks he took at people and relationships with his filmmaking will be sorely missed. Not many movies about grownups are actually made for grownups anymore, but those are the types of films he spent his career making, thankfully. I’d recommend taking a chance on just about everything he ever made because they all have something to offer. For instance, Heartburn is not on the top of my list, but watching Jack Nicholson and Meryl Streep go toe-to-toe is pure joy. Working Girl is about as dated as an ’80s movie can possibly be, but, hey, it might be THE quintessential ’80s movie, depending on your criteria. I was watching it the other day on TV, and all the wit and charm vastly outweigh the shoulder pads and soaring music.

The screenplays for his best films were so often stellar that I guess he never felt the need to “show off” as a director. I’m not sure Nichols had a visual flair distinctly his own, but that’s not a negative in the least. It’s well known how good he was with actors and how much actors loved him. He put these talented people in front of the camera with a wonderful script and let them go to town. Considering his prolific theater career, this makes sense. Words are always so valued in Nichols’ movies, so why distract from them with “tricks”? No tracking shots or ornate zooms necessary when you have two or three people having the most interesting argument or revelation you’ve ever heard.

So below are, in my not-so-humble opinion, Mike Nichols Essentials. A couple are genuine classics and a couple might hold a little too much sentimental value for me, but they’re my favorites and I have watched them over and over again. I’ve already mentioned The Graduate enough, so it’s time to add on to the list…

  • Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?: It’s obvious, sure, but this is easily one of those take-to-a-deserted-island kind of movies. It’s damn near a half-century old at this point, but the dialogue and performances in this are timeless. It’s easily Elizabeth Taylor’s best performance and probably Richard Burton’s, too. It’s so uncomfortable to watch, not to mention suspenseful. The scathing insults back and forth between the two of them are brutal. It’s a devastatingly sad and cynical look at a marriage that’s already been put through the ringer, but there’s no telling where these two are going to end up by the end. Once it wraps up, however, you realize it never could have ended another way for these two.
  • Closer: This is like the aforementioned Woolf in a modern day setting. I don’t know what drew Nichols to the material, but I have to assume the similarities factored in somewhat. It’s about sex and relationships and maybe even a little bit of love, but there’s nothing cutesy or fun about it. This movie is violent, but not in a physical way. The script is as blistering as can be. Clive Owen’s words in particular are so cutting. Watching him battle with Julia Roberts was one of the most intense theater experiences I ever had. Once again, Nichols brought out the absolute best in his cast and managed to make one of the most underrated dramas of the past decade. It’s a painful watch. This line tattooed itself in my mind the first time I heard it: “Have you ever seen a human heart? It looks like a fist wrapped in blood. Go fuck yourself!” In other words, I’d recommend you avoid it if your relationship has hit a rough patch.
  • Carnal Knowledge: What a pairing, Nicholson and Nichols. This was the first of four collaborations together, and it’s definitely their best. It didn’t find a huge audience at the time and it was a bit misunderstood critically, which is a shame. It’s gained much more of a following in the decades to come and I think it’s one of the quintessential films of the 1970s, right alongside anything from Lumet, Coppola, Allen or Scorsese. Nicholson and Art Garfunkel (don’t worry, he doesn’t ruin the movie) are really just a couple of scumbags and it’s a tough story to take at times. Their male insecurities are so cringe-inducing. It’s another hard, honest look at the way men and women treat each other. Have you noticed a theme so far?
  • Wolf: Well, this breaks with the theme a bit. Sexual politics plays a part in this one, but it’s mostly a vastly underrated satire. This horror-comedy hybrid is the last time Nichols and Nicholson joined forces, and it’s a hell of a ride. Jack’s a somewhat emasculated man working in the cutthroat world of publishing when he’s bitten by a wolf and gains some much needed powers. His command of language is on full display here. The dialogue is a great blend of juicy and urbane. He mainly gets to play off Michelle Pfeiffer who more than holds her own. James Spader gets to play a real creep, which should always be the case. This was my favorite when I was 9 years old and I still go back and watch it at least once a year. It’s truly funny and legitimately suspenseful, which is a tough line to walk when making this kind of film. It hasn’t quite found the cult following I’ve hoped for these last 20 years, but I’m holding out hope.
  • The Birdcage: For a man who started in comedy, Nichols made a lot of dark films. Like I said earlier, cynicism really permeates his work, including a lot of his comedies. This one, however, is all joy. Robin Williams, another sad loss in 2014, gives a remarkable performance here. It’s a comedy through and through, but his heartfelt and restrained acting is nuanced and pitch perfect. Nathan Lane gets to be much more grand here, but even he never slips into caricature in spite of the fact he’s playing a middle-age drag queen. Gene Hackman, Dianne Wiest, Hank Azaria — goddammit, Mike Nichols knew what to do with talented people. Not a lot of people look at Hackman and say, “He’s a hoot!” What a cast. This movie should be required viewing for anyone who wants to make comedies for a living. I put it up there as one of the funniest films ever made.

Well, there you have it. Go watch some of these good movies, or some of his others — Primary Colors, Angels in AmericaCatch-22, etc. It’s tough to miss with Mike Nichols. I don’t know if he always felt the same way, but history should be much less hard on him than he ever was on himself.

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