Tuesday, July 11

The Directors: Mike Nichols

The movies were fortunate to have had Mike Nichols want to come aboard as a director.  He had established himself as part of a sharp-edged comedy team and would ultimately be one of the most awarded directors on Broadway.  But you know what? He thought he had something to offer to the movies and as it turned out, he was so right. With just his first and second films, he gave Hollywood a face-lift.  Some would say it was needed, some would offer it wasn't.  He is a director whose films I made sure I saw (with one exception) and I was almost always rewarded with a great time.

Nichols assembled some of the best people as well... actors, writers, cinematographers and craftspeople... and they wanted to work with him as well.  A goodly number of actors did some of their best work in his films.  They say he had a unique way of talking with and handling actors which likely came about from his own days as a performer and an actor.  I like to take actors to a place where they open a vein, he said. That's the job.  The key is that I make it safe for them to open the vein.

Urbane and witty, he was an immigrant who came to have his own unique grasp of American culture. Whether he was directing a comedy or a drama (and he excelled at both), he was usually drawn to exploring family life and shining a light on the complexities of male-female relationships. Some of his actors said he was a great observer.

He was born Mikhail Igor Peschkowsky in Berlin, Germany, in 1931, the son of a doctor and his wife.  She was a German Jew and when the Nazis were arresting Jews in 1939, Mikhail and his younger brother were quickly shipped off to New York City.  

At four, Nichols had a reaction to a shot for whooping cough that caused him to lose all his hair and he wore pieces for the rest of his life.  His father became a successful Manhattan physician and the family lived in close view of Central Park.  Nichols, who became a naturalized citizen in 1944, claimed he never had a single friend in America until he attended the University of Chicago.

While there he joined the staff of a local radio station and became an announcer and then a writer and host of a folk music program. He first saw Elaine May in a play but then ran into her a bit later at a subway station and they not only hit it off but had a brief romance.  They became original members of Chicago's Second City which soon led to a comedy partnership in 1958.  They famously appeared in their own Broadway show and did a fair amount of television but they broke up in 1961 because they no longer got along so well.  The truth is they got back together and split up again several times but it was never the same.

Mugging with Elaine May

From there he began directing plays on Broadway, becoming best-known for his collaborations with Neil Simon.  After much success, he again thought it was time to move on and decided that he would give the movies a try.  He didn't so much make an actual move in that direction as much as he told others it was something he would like to try.  Of course, one thing led to another.     

Nichols owes his movie directing career, it seems, to Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton who got wind that Nichols wanted to direct a feature film.  (Nichols and Burton had been friends since their Broadway days.)  The Burtons were already attached to Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966) and insisted, against the wishes of Warner Bros., that Nichols be given his first opportunity.

There were times that Nichols must have questioned his wisdom about directing a movie because the studio gave him one headache after another on all sorts of issues (they were likely both nervous and controlling with a first-time director, especially on this project) and the Burtons were never easy to work with.

Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf is, hands down, one of the most terrifying examinations of a decaying marriage ever brought to the screen and George and Martha are two of the most twisted, hateful, argumentative, alcohol-fueled couples one could ever hope to not meet.  She thrives on emasculating him and he responds by bringing her to her knees over the loss of their son.  

Edward Albee's award-winning, crowd-pleasing play was of a scabrous nature and the notion of bringing it to the screen with the language intact was a risky move (part of the studio's nervousness, no doubt).  Though I have been known to throw out an expletive from to time, I will never forget hearing that language on the big screen.  Movies had come a long way.  Technically, we need to thank or demonize Albee, but it is Nichols and WB who get the lion's share of mention.

The film was nominated for every Academy Award it was eligible for, 13 in all.  Nichols was nominated for best director and all four stars (including Sandy Dennis and George Segal) were nominated with Taylor and Dennis winning.  I hold that both Taylor and Burton never turned in performances better than these and that's saying a mouthful considering both have some magnificent work on their résumés.  

And while we were all still reeling from the experience of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf, Nichols then brings us The Graduate (1967), a film that would come to define the time (with an awful lot of help from Simon and Garfunkle).  It concerns a recent college graduate with nothing to do except sleep with a predatory, married friend of his parents.  He, in turn, falls in love with her daughter which makes the mother crazy. The film's final cryptic scene, as memorable as any scene can be, has our hero banging on church windows as his intended is being married to someone else, then wildly swinging a cross at folks who are trying to keep him from getting to her.  Ultimately they run off, laughing their asses off on a Santa Barbara city bus.

The film has always remained a cultural phenomenon as it came about just as the 1960s allowed us to think of American society as we never had before.  That may not have been anyone's intention or suspicion when it was being made but it certainly has become that way.  Every decade seems to have a movie or two that represents it and The Graduate and equally Bonnie and Clyde and Easy Rider are certainly ones that belong to the 60s.  No one ever looked at the generation gap as one did in this film.  And in real life, young people were separating from their parents as much and as fast as they could.  Most of us wanted life as we knew it to be derailed and this film became the anthem for so many.

With Dustin Hoffman & Anne Bancroft on the set of The Graduate

Nichols won a very deserved Oscar (his only) for directing The Graduate but oddly-- and I mean very oddly-- he is the only one who won.  It remains to this day the director's best-known and best-loved movie.

The first of Nichols' movies that I didn't particularly like was Catch-22 (1970). Ostensibly it was about a soldier who feigns mental instability as a way of getting out of flying any more missions but it was or tried to be a great deal more. I didn't read the popular book but I have always understood that folks who loved the book hated the movie.  I always thought it was a jumbled mess, trying so hard to say too much and ended up looking rather unfocused.  

Nichols' love affair with love and with male-female relationships was at its most exhilarating for me and its rawest in Carnal Knowledge (1971).  It depicted the lives of two, longtime friends and the very different paths those lives took when it came to women.  It was an audacious film... again with language, certainly with misogyny and the rather forthright discussions of sex made some wince.  It certainly went out of its way to show the difference between men whose brains are lodged in their craniums and those whose brains are in their tighty-whities. It was probably a bad first-date flick.

After asking his cast to please not smoke any weed on set because he feared it would dull their performances (it does?), he elicited dynamite performances from them. Nichols and Nicholson, I would imagine, had some differences of opinion but then all great directors and stars probably do.  Art Garfunkle was an unusual but perfectly right choice for the more decent but confused friend and Candice Bergen nailed the good girl part.  But for me the true revelation was Ann-Margret, as Nicholson's put-upon girlfriend, who previous to this film was never very good in most any movie she made. Nichols' miracle handling of actors was never more evident than with her, turning the Swedish sexpot into a bona fide actress. And she's never lost it.  Thanks, Mike. 

Nichols fell into his first real movie director slump with The Day of the Dolphin  (1973) and The Fortune (1975).  I thought he was way out of his league with the former, basically a sci-fi drama.  He appeared to try too hard, it seemed to me, and it had little of his notable style.  I did think it contained some visually-stunning scenes with dolphins but was another story that was rather all over the place.  The kidnapped heiress tale, The Fortune (1975), despite the obvious talents of Nicholson and his pal Warren B and a delightful Stockard Channing performance, just didn't turn out the laughs that were hoped for.

With Silkwood (1983), Nichols returned to classy film-making and worked with Meryl Streep in the first of their four films together. (It's been said they are distant relatives.)  Karen Silkwood was a real person who was likely murdered for her whistle-blowing activism in exposing safety violations at a plutonium processing plant.  It wasn't a feel-good movie but it did have a vital message to deliver and contained three wonderful performances... from Streep, Cher and Kurt Russell.  Nichols was acknowledged with another Oscar nomination.

Both Streep and Nicholson joined the director for Heartburn (1986), based on Nora Ephron's book and life of the breakup of her marriage to All the President's Men coauthor, Carl Bernstein.  It is a comedy with a great deal of pathos.  It seems it was a bit underrated if not under-appreciated but for me and due to these actors and Nichols, I wouldn't have missed it.

I supposed Nichols felt he had to do something written by Neil Simon, especially considering he directed so many of Simon's plays.  I was never a fan of the writer's work but because I was a fan of Nichols, I saw Biloxi Blues (1988).  I wish I hadn't.

I always found Nichols to be a gifted director of women and women's stories as well. Working Girl (1988) is a female empowerment movie deliciously disguised as a screwball comedy and a fun revenge one at that.  One of the best cast members, aside from Harrison Ford, Melanie Griffith, Sigourney Weaver and the fabulous Joan Cusack, is the city of Manhattan, of which Nichols lovingly pays tribute.  And he snatched another Oscar nomination.

With fourth wife Diane Sawyer

Nichols got his own working girl in 1988. After three divorces he married TV newswoman Diane Sawyer and would remain married to her for the rest of his life.

Carrie Fisher wrote a novel about addiction and her relationship with her mother, Debbie Reynolds, and Nichols turned it into a bruising black comedy, Postcards from the Edge (1990).  I expect there's a whole crowd out there that regards this as the favorite Nichols film and I get it.  Streep and Shirley MacLaine were nothing short of sensational as the bickering mother-daughter and I got another wonderful movie about Hollywood. It didn't hurt that a supporting cast featured Gene Hackman, Richard Dreyfuss, Annette Bening, Rob Reiner and Dennis Quaid.

You have probably gathered that Nichols enjoyed working with quite a few actors over again and they must have felt the same. Ford and Bening were both back, this time for Regarding Henry (1993), a tale of an attorney who survives a shooting to find he has no memory. Among the director's least-known films, this is my favorite.  Some claimed it is too saccharine but I immensely enjoyed Ford in this one... he actually had to act.  Thanks, Mike.

Wolf (1994) did not fare all that well but I always considered it a rather stylish werewolf story.  I'm not sure we needed another one and again, it seems an odd choice for Nichols in some ways.  Then again, I don't miss Jack Nicholson movies.

The Birdcage (1996) could have been less than it was in another director's hands, but the always sensitive Nichols turned it into a poignant glimpse into family.  Robin Williams, Nathan Lane, Hackman and an entire cast rose to the occasion to bring a marathon laugh riot to an admiring public.  Funny lines from this one continue to populate my life.

I found myself liking Primary Colors (1998) more than I thought I would.  A veiled look at Bill and Hillary Clinton and what it took to get elected back in the day, the film contained remarkable performances from Emma Thompson and John Travolta.  The screenplay was adapted, interestingly, by Elaine May.

What Planet Are You From? (2000) is the worse misfire the esteemed director ever had.  The title alone doesn't bode well for success and Garry Shandling in the lead, no less, was probably not a smart move.  It is the one Nichols' film I never saw.

In 2003 he helmed the highly-honored TV AIDS minseries, Angels in America, which starred Al Pacino, Streep and Thompson. Nichols said it was the best thing he ever did.

He finished up his career with two Julia Roberts movies. What a brave man he is. Oh settle down, I kid Julia.

I never doubted why Nichols would have been interested in doing Closer (2004).  It's another very stylish piece, it explores male-female relationships or perhaps more appropriately, it could be called gender wars. It's a hard-line examination of two couples whose relationships aren't working and both men end up in physical relationships with the other woman.  I think it could easily have been called Carnal Knowledge, Revisited and Updated.  All the characters are quite articulate so the words are like poetry at times. There's so much to take in in this screenplay that I felt it needed a second viewing while still in the theaters.  Roberts and Jude Law are very good as the leads but it is Natalie Portman and Clive Owen one remembers.

Nichols' tidy direction (of another unusual subject for him) and Aaron Sorkin's gutsy writing helped push Charlie Wilson's War (2007) into a movie I enjoyed... certainly more than I thought I would.  It's based upon the real-life exploits of a Texas senator who had covert dealings in Afghanistan where his efforts assisted rebels in their war against the Soviets.  It made for some interesting times for the senator and for a good movie. Roberts went blonde to play a flamboyant hostess and Philip Seymour Hoffman enjoyed one of his shining moments.  It turned out to be Nichols' last big-screen effort. 

He had always been interested in Arabian horses.  For some 35 years he owned a horse farm in Connecticut and often imported the horses from Poland.

He had not worked in seven years and I can recall only occasionally hearing about him.  If he had retired, I don't recall hearing about that either. 

Mike Nichols died at age 83 of a heart attack in 2014.  I felt a genuine sadness.

He was one of only a handful of people who achieved the so-called EGOT status... that is an Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony.  More specifically, make that four Emmys and nine Tonys.  While we're at it, he's won three BAFTAS and a Golden Globe.  Additionally, there's the National Medal of Arts in 2001, the Kennedy Center Honors in 2003 and the American Film Institute Life Achievement award in 2010.  This was one important American director.

Next posting:
A good 70s film

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