Legendary Film and Theater Director of The Graduate Passed Away
by Jason Koenigsberg
Mike Nichols, who directed some of the best films of the past 50 years passed away at age 83. He had just as much success on stage and television throughout his career.
Nichols won the Best Director Academy Award for his second feature film, 1967’s The Graduate, Emmy’s and Golden Globes for the 2003 HBO Miniseries Angels in America and multiple Tony Awards including one for 2005’s Spamalot and even winning a Tony for Best Direction of a Play as recently as 2012 for Death of a Salesman.
Mr. Nichols started out his career as a theater director and transitioned very easily to a successful film career after his directorial debut Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966). Starring Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, both would be nominated for Academy Awards with Taylor winning Best Actress, one of the films five Oscars. Nichols earned a nomination for best director for a film he adapted from a stage play. Quite impressive for a first time in the directors chair.
His first movie seemed like the perfect film for a theater director to transition into cinema. Nichols next film would be a huge departure from his theater roots and way out of his comfort zone. His sophomore effort The Graduate released a year later was a culture-changing phenomenon. Nichols hit a grand slam with his second at bat from the behind the camera and would help define a country in transition with one of the best and most relevant pictures of the 1960’s.
In my opinion, the best film made in the 1960’s followed closely by Bonnie and Clyde, The Graduate is a great film because of how visually stimulating it is. Of course it is a masterwork of acting by Anne Bancroft as Mrs. Robinson and Dustin Hoffman as the naïve Benjamin Braddock in his film debut. Plus the soundtrack by Simon and Garfunkel remains just as iconic as the picture itself, but we have to give a lot of credit to the director who crafted some of the most memorable and iconic framing in cinema history. The unforgettable shot of Hoffman through the leg with the stocking on, the diver suit isolated under water, Mrs. Robinson soaking wet and alone against the giant plain wall, and of course the disruption of the wedding, an ending which has been referenced and spoofed a myriad of times.
The 70’s were not as kind to Mike Nichols although Carnal Knowledge (1971) was an interesting and provocative drama about love and relationships, themes that he would revisit and improve upon much later in his career.
In 1988 he made one of the timeliest pictures about women in the workplace with Working Girl. A really good time capsule of what it was like for females trying to succeed in male dominated business culture, featured great performances from Harrison Ford, Melanie Griffith and Sigourney Weaver.
The following years he would direct respectable dramas, an adaptation of Carrie Fisher’s semi-autobiographical novel Postcards From the Edge (1990) and Harrison Ford in one of his most tender performances in Regarding Henry (1991).
Mr. Nichols career would have a real resurgence from this point on in both quality and box office success. In 1994 he directed Wolf with Jack Nicholson as a werewolf alongside Michelle Pfeiffer, which I greatly admired and begged me to ask, how come nobody thought to make Jack Nicholson a werewolf before? It was a match of perfect casting with great directing and the result was a horror drama with a higher degree of class and sophistication.
Next he would direct the box office comedy smash The Birdcage (1996) once again taking a stage play and making it work spectacularly on the big screen. Featuring some of the most memorable performances from its all-star cast including Robin Williams, Nathan Lane, Gene Hackman and Dianne Wiest it is his most quotable and beloved film since The Graduate. More importantly, the mainstream success of The Birdcage probably advanced gay rights into the American culture by portraying its homosexual characters as real people with real feelings facing very stressful and hilarious situations.
The way Nichols captured the 60’s with The Graduate and the 80’s with Working Girl he would illustrate America in the 90’s with the humorous and very poignant Primary Colors (1998). This simultaneously captures all the cynicism and optimism our country was going through during the Bill Clinton era. A time before 9/11 when the economy was great and the worst news stories were about a presidents extramarital affairs, this is another one of Mike Nichols best visual films with how he frames key moments. The performances alone make this picture a must see with John Travolta, Emma Thompson and Billy Bob Thornton doing their best embodiments of Bill Clinton, Hillary Clinton and James Carville respectively. Kathy Bates would earn an Oscar nomination as a foul-mouthed lesbian campaign manager. It was one of many films to suffer at the box office due to the Titanic phenomenon but Primary Colors really is one of his most intelligent and entertaining pictures.
Nichols would go on to direct What Planet Are You From? (2000), a commercial failure but I consider it to be a buried treasure of a film that never found its audience. This is one of the great stupid movies for smart people. If you get a chance I highly recommend this randomly raunchy and oddly sentimental comedy.
After this Nichols would make three of his best works ever, two of them being HBO originals. He directed Emma Thompson as a dying cancer patient in Wit (2001) and then directed Al Pacino, Meryl Streep and Emma Thompson (again) to some of the best performances of their careers (in the past 2 decades at least) in the heavy and deep 2003 miniseries Angels in America, a powerful and ingenious tour de force. It’s one of his very best artistic triumphs.
The following year he would adapt another play into a film that I consider to be his final great motion picture, Closer. Featuring Oscar worthy turns from its four main leads Julia Roberts, Jude Law, Natalie Portman and Clive Owen (the last two would be nominated in the supporting categories and both would unfairly go home empty handed), this succeeded where Carnal Knowledge appeared dated. The frank sexual dialogue in the script was shocking but was very heartrending in its depictions of sex, loneliness, secrets and relationships, Closer is an honest portrayal of the dating in the twenty-first century, it is as fresh and relevant as it was ten years ago.
Although not always consistent, Mike Nichols directed some of the very best films of the last half-century. From the definitive picture of the 1960’s with The Graduate to the dark and depressingly honest look at the nature of the human heart in Closer, he is a filmmaker who’s talent will be missed on stage, cinema and television.