Daily | Mike Nichols, 1931 – 2014

Mike Nichols

Mike Nichols

“I am writing with the very sad news that Diane’s husband, the incomparable Mike Nichols, passed away suddenly on Wednesday evening,” writes James Goldston, president of ABC News, in a memo to his staff this morning. Diane is, of course, former ABC World News anchor Diane Sawyer. Goldston:

In a triumphant career that spanned over six decades, Mike created some of the most iconic works of American film, television and theater—an astonishing canon ranging from The Graduate, Working Girl, and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf to Closer, Charlie Wilson’s War, Annie, Spamalot, The Birdcage, and Angels in America. He was a true visionary, winning the highest honors in the arts for his work as a director, writer, producer and comic and was one of a tiny few to win the EGOT—an Emmy, a Grammy, an Oscar and a Tony.

“Dryly urbane, Mr. Nichols had a gift for communicating with actors and a keen comic timing, which he honed early in his career as half of the popular sketch-comedy team Nichols and May,” writes Bruce Weber in the New York Times. “He accomplished what Orson Welles and Elia Kazan, but few if any other directors, have: He achieved popular and artistic success in both theater and film.”

Mark W. Estrin for Film Reference:

The son of a Russian-Jewish emigré who fled the Nazis for the U.S. with his family in the 1930s, lived in some poverty, and died when his son was 12, Mike Nichols has displayed the drive, energy, and Jewish-influenced sense of humor germane to his background. A man of cultivated sensibilities and eclectic taste, and an outstanding director of actors on both stage and screen, Nichols also developed an adroit film technique. Fond of foreground shooting, long takes, and distorting close-ups to intensify the sense of his characters’ entrapment, he also frequently employs overlapping sound and a spare, modernistic mise-en-scène (the latter at times reminiscent of Antonioni) to convey an aura of disorientation and sterility. In the underpraised and misunderstood Carnal Knowledge, Nichols uses whiteouts (also prominent in Catch-22) and Bergmanesque talking heads as structural and thematic devices to increase the viewer’s alienation from the two central characters, Jonathan and Sandy—visually (and in Jules Feiffer’s original screenplay) the most isolated and self-deluded of Nichols’s characters—and to ridicule notions of male sexual fantasy at the core of the film. Nichols made an awesome film directing debut in 1966 with Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, earning nine Oscar nominations with a deserved win for Elizabeth Taylor…. The films of Mike Nichols are guided by the eye and ear of a satirist whose professional gifts emerge from a style of liberal, improvisational comedy that originated in a Chicago theater club and developed into a performing partnership with Elaine May in the late 1950s and early 1960s.

“Until the mid-’70s, Nichols, like many of his peers, embraced the European ideal of the personal filmmaker,” wrote Lee Hill for Senses of Cinema in 2003:

Then around 1975, Nichols dropped out of the virtual reality of New Hollywood. For almost a decade, he directed plays or executive produced television or film projects. When he returned to feature filmmaking with Silkwood in 1983, a sea change had occurred in his work. Although Silkwood was an ostensibly ’60s film dealing with corporate corruption, political activism, class and gender, the film was, at its core, a character study about a woman and her friendships. Silkwood was also unadorned by the visual flourishes… that had made him such a quintessential ’60s director. The film would also be the last time until Primary Colors (1998) that Nichols would make a film about the kind of big ideas—politics, war, sex, death, alienation, etc.—that were de rigeur for a director of his stature and autonomy. That kind of seriousness would be satisfied through his theatre work, most notably David Rabe’s Hurlyburly, Tom Stoppard’s The Real Thing, Ariel Dorfman’s Death and The Maiden and Samuel Beckett’s Waiting For Godot. However, the films would focus almost exclusively on the politics of the personal: the process by which individuals and groups interact on a daily basis, the minutiae of the business of living, and the gap between domesticity and romance in relationships.

“‘I have never understood people dividing things into dramas and comedies,’ Nichols said in a 2004 interview with The Associated Press. ‘There are more laughs in Hamlet than many Broadway comedies.’ He was a wealthy, educated man who often mocked those just like him, never more memorably than in The Graduate, which shot Dustin Hoffman to fame in the 1967 story of an earnest young man rebelling against his elders’ expectations. Nichols himself would say that he identified with Hoffman’s awkward, perpetually flustered Benjamin Braddock. Mixing farce and Oedipal drama, Nichols managed to capture a generation’s discontent without ever mentioning Vietnam, civil rights or any other issues of the time.”

Steven Soderbergh with Mike Nichols, audio commentary on Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966)

From the Guardian‘s Peter Bradshaw: “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. In the 90s, Nichols showed how America and the world was beginning to turn away from the yuppie-ism, with his sombre film Regarding Henry, in which Harrison Ford—playing a super-smooth businessman not that far from the one he had played in Working Girl—suffers a brain injury and has to go through painful rehab…. Mike Nichols was a kitemark of intelligent mainstream Hollywood cinema—his directorial style was the sympathetic platform for smart writing and great acting performances.”

The Los Angeles TimesDennis McLellan talks with Peter Biskind, author of Easy Riders, Raging Bulls: How the Sex-Drugs-And-Rock ‘n’ Roll Generation Saved Hollywood, who tells him that “The Graduate and Bonnie and Clyde, which both came out in 1967, were really the first two ‘New Hollywood’ movies… Nichols had the smarts to cast Dustin Hoffman in a role that was really meant for Robert Redford, and that paved the way for the revolution in casting that occurred in the ’70s whereby actors who were essentially character actors like Hoffman, Pacino and De Niro—the ethnic actors—could become leading men and big movie stars.” McLellan: “In a 2012 interview with The Times prior to the opening of a Nichols-directed Broadway revival of Arthur Miller’s 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.'”

“In the January 2013 issue of Vanity Fair, Nichols re-united with May, who hadn’t given an interview in more than 40 years. Sam Kashner, with some of his questions provided by guest editor Judd Apatow, mostly sat back and watched the two old partners spar back and forth. It was May who asked Nichols the question, ‘What have you learned, Mike?'” Katey Rich has his answer. And, if you’ve got an hour and a half, you can listen to the conversation.

In 2012, as Nichols was preparing to direct a revival of Death of a Salesman—he’d go on to win his seventh Tony for direction—Jesse Green profiled him for New York. At one point, Nichols looked back on his early, early day in comedy: “We were terrible for a long time. Painful. We would literally run out the back door and jump in Lake Michigan after some shows to rid ourselves of the horror of what we’d just perpetrated. I still think of the night that some of the actors ran into the bar where the other actors were, and one of them said, ‘Come quick: Mike has a character!’ But we were, all the while, without knowing it, creating for ourselves a series of answers to what is a scene. And actually, only a few weeks ago in rehearsal, I remembered one of my rules from back then, which is that there are only three kinds of scenes: fights, seductions, and negotiations. Oh, and contradictions. As Elaine used to say, ‘When in doubt, seduce.'”

Steven Spielberg, via Hilary Lewis in the Hollywood Reporter: “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. This is a seismic loss.”

Cartoon Brew‘s Amid Amidi‘s posted “a series of very funny Jax and Narragansett beer commercials that he made around 1960.”

In 1999, the Film Society of Lincoln Center dedicated its Gala Tribute to Nichols. In “About Mike Nichols,” Richard T. Jameson wrote of The Graduate: “Students of film history and film style can cite milestones till the cows come home, but for the millions who never gave a thought to matters like camera placement or shot duration or the focal length of lenses, no other film in going-on-seven-decades had so decisively or deliciously made so many people notice the kinds of selection and design that can go into making the movie experience.”

And Gavin Smith interviewed Nichols for that same issue of Film Comment. “Improvising was a wonderful training, as it turned out, for theater and movies, because you learn so much about what the audience expects in terms of action and events. When you’re improvising, an audience basically is saying to you, Why are you telling me this? and you learn over the months—and in our case over the years—some answers to that question. ‘Because it’s funny’ is an answer, and if you don’t have that as an answer, you’re going to have to have a good, clear answer.” They also discuss The Graduate, Catch-22, Carnal Knowledge, Silkwood and Primary Colors. In 2011, Jason Reitman spoke with Nichols at the FSLC about Carnal Knowledge.

“Up until his death, Nichols was still working, again planning to work with HBO for a small screen adaption of Master Class, a play about Maria Callas,” notes Kate Erbland at the Dissolve. And the project would have reunited him with Meryl Streep.

From Slate‘s Aisha Harris: “In Mark Harris’s Pictures at a Revolution: Five Movies and the Birth of the New Hollywood, [Richard] Burton is quoted as saying of Nichols that he was one of only two men (Noël Coward being the other) who had ‘the capacity to change the world when they walk into a room. They are both as bland as butter and as brilliant as diamonds.'”

It’s been a hard year.

Collecting clips: Henry Barnes (Guardian) and Melissa Locker (Time). And Jeremy Egner‘s gathering tweeted tributes and NYT reviews.

For Vulture, Nick Schager writes up “8 Great Mike Nichols Movies (and 4 Wonderful Comedy Sketches).” Among them is Angels in America, the 2003 miniseries made for HBO and “Nichols’s true triumphant swan song. Scripted by Tony Kushner (adapting his own celebrated play) and ultimately earning 11 Emmy awards (including one for Nichols’s direction), it’s a saga at once grand and intimate, charting the intersecting fates of a group of New Yorkers in 1985 who are all touched, one way or another, by the burgeoning AIDS crisis. Marrying the realistic and the fantastic with hallucinatory elegance—the latter coming in the form of an angel who visits a man dying of the wretched disease—Nichols imbues his story with an epic sense of import by rigorously maintaining focus on the complex emotional circumstances of his many characters. As with his finest work, it’s alternately funny, tragic, and profound, and crafted with an unassuming, masterful measure of dexterity and grace that few, if any, will ever match.”

Ramin Setoodeh, who spoke with Nichols last year for Variety, notes that the director said he considered Angels in America to be “the crowning achievement of his career.”

Looking back on NPR’s interviews with Nichols, Eric Deggans notes that “in 1963, he agreed to direct a play by a TV joke writer. Neil Simon’s Barefoot in the Park became a blockbuster success. Suddenly, as Nichols told NPR, he realized directing was the job he was really meant to do: ‘To my surprise, where I never quite got how I was gonna be an actor—’cause I don’t think I’m suited to be an actor—I immediately realized that all this time I thought I was thinking about acting, I was really thinking about directing.'”

Meryl Streep via the AP: “An inspiration and joy to know, a director who cried when he laughed, a friend without whom, well, we can’t imagine our world, an indelible irreplaceable man.”

Filmmaker‘s Vadim Rizov has gone looking for “something beyond the usual The Graduate highlight reel that would illustrate what seems to me like his greatest directorial virtue: the ability to keep a tonal straight face when confronted with material whose comic or dramatic potential could quickly push matters way over the top. This Catch-22 clip serves the purpose: the famous speech explaining what Catch-22 actually is is dwarfed by the airfield it takes place on, with jets and vehicles surrounding Yossarian (Alan Arkin) and Doc Daneeka (Jack Gilford). The choreography, both human and mechanical, is immaculate and clearly extremely difficult to pull off, something like epic-era David Lean making a comedy.”

“When Mike Nichols bought the film rights to my novel Primary Colors, he said that what he liked most about the story was ‘there are no villains in it,'” writes Joe Klein for Time. “That was the way I saw it, too—a satiric look at a larger than life politician in the midst of the 1992 presidential campaign. Mike didn’t know that I had written it—I was still anonymous—and I’d never met him, but I felt safe. He wouldn’t turn the satire into burlesque. He would treat the characters with respect.”

Primary Colors was one of the most thoughtful and quietly complex political films of the 1990s, still influencing how we think about campaigns in general and Bill Clinton in particular,” writes Flavorwire‘s Jason Bailey. And, yes, “The Birdcage was just a goofy comedy, a remake of an old French farce, but it was a mainstream studio production stocked with movie stars—and, lest we forget what actually gets things done in Hollywood, it was a tremendously profitable effort, grossing $185 million worldwide on a $31 million budget and proving that stories about gay characters didn’t have to be relegated to the art house.”

“Some said he didn’t make personal movies, that he was most concerned with tickling the zeitgeist and having his cake and eating it too with slick, ‘smart’ hits,” writes Dan Callahan at “And that was true, to a certain extent. But there is real disquiet in The Graduate, and Nichols allowed and facilitated the brute strength of [Anne] Bancroft’s performance. The rhythms of her scenes with Hoffman often ‘work’ in a somewhat remorseless way that is also based on Nichols’s Broadway experience with Neil Simon plays, but there is terror in that movie under the songs and the color and the flattering of youth.”

Carnal Knowledge (1971) helped do for Jack Nicholson what The Graduate did for Bancroft,” writes the Telegraph‘s Robbie Collin, “but more often, the showpiece roles in a Nichols film tended to be female. Meryl Streep has rarely been better than as the nuclear-power whistleblower in Silkwood (1983), and the same goes for Emma Thompson and the superb HBO drama Wit (2001), which she adapted with Nichols from a play by Margaret Edson. To see Julia Roberts at the height of her powers in recent years, watch Charlie Wilson’s War—and before that, Closer. What unites these films is nothing more complex, or rarer, than a sharp and subtle intelligence, a flair for shooting dialogue, and a way of bringing out the best in actors who work best under a sure but gentle touch.”

The Telegraph also collects ten anecdotes, many of them told by Nichols himself—and sure enough, they’re pretty damn good.

David Ng in the LAT on Nichols’s career in theater: “An actor’s director if ever there was one, Nichols put performances front and center, avoiding any hint of a directorial stamp on his productions.” More from Charles McNulty: “Whenever Mike Nichols worked in the theater, it was inevitably an event, the focal point of the season—the show you simply had to get tickets to or be left in the conversational cold.”

For the Atlantic, Joe Reid writes about ten films that “represent the best of Nichols’s work; the source materials for each presented their own challenges, but Nichols made each of these films undeniably his own.”

Updates, 11/22: Al Pacino via Variety: “He was the greatest director, because what a director does is he gives you a feeling that you can do anything and creates an atmosphere on set that is so connected to pursuing whatever you’re doing and freedom and security all at the same time. He makes you feel like you’re taken care of. He frees you as an actor, because you feel somebody is there as the great censor. That breadth in his thinking, his talent.”

Emma Thompson via EW: “Working with him was like going to an eclectic, unorthodox, and highly original university. We would all get to wander about in the corridors and high ceilings of his mind—for free, mind you—each making different discoveries according to our tastes and aptitudes. Then, later, we would find that those discoveries applied to the rest of our lives.”

“Very few things in life or art remain constant for a half-century, but for me, Nichols’s particular brilliance was one of them,” writes Frank Rich, who’s been working on an HBO documentary on Nichols. “The shock of his sudden death, not to mention the grief, is just settling in. As it happened, Doug [McGrath] finished a cut of our film yesterday. The plan was to show it to Mike right after Thanksgiving. We were eager for him to see it most of all because he’d have countless ideas about how to improve it. In that, at least, we were like everyone who came before us—delirious over the prospect of being directed by Mike Nichols.”

Also at Vulture, the afore-mentioned Jesse Green: “Beneath his adopted American macho (fuck in all its forms was his favorite word) an undertow of European tragedy kept lapping. Out of these he fashioned a series of contradictions. Has any aesthete ever worn his carnation so invisibly? Has any comic player ever struggled to mask a darker vision? There was thus about Nichols a resignedness to difficulty, but also to pleasantness. They were both unavoidable.”

NYT theater critic Ben Brantley: “Of course, he possessed a strong commercial instinct in addition to many other invaluable tools necessary to a man of the theater: a bone-deep empathy for actors, a natural-born comedian’s sense of timing (honed during his fabled nightclub routines with Elaine May) and an awareness of the power of lowering the voice when everyone is waiting for a yell. But what he lent to the profession, above all, was luster, the kind of bright glamour that rivals the flashbulbs and klieg lights trained upon its possessors.”

“The Nichols filmography is extensive, and it represents more than forty years of work, but whether it actually represents the best of him—whether cinema, as it were, occupied more than a couple of octaves on the keyboard—is another matter.” The New Yorker‘s Anthony Lane: “As a director, what the hell do you do with Jack: fear him, envy him, follow his lead, let him loose, or try, however uselessly, to tamp him down? Hence the deep discomfort of Carnal Knowledge (1971)—the most bothersome movie that Nichols ever made, as well as the saddest, the most provoking, the most pretentious, and, despite all that (or because of it), the best.”

“The best scenes from Mike Nichols’s films are seductions, negotiations, and fights all at once,” writes Slate‘s Dana Stevens. “He delighted in moments of high theatricality, intricately blocked verbal showdowns between characters with multiple clashing agendas unknown to each other and sometimes to themselves. But he also excelled at framing such moments cinematically, making the camera movement and music and editing all matter as much as the (always excellent, often world-class) acting.”

“Films can reveal startling erotic truths about their characters, about us, without exposing so much as a breast or a butt,” writes Time‘s Richard Corliss. “In Nichols movies like Carnal Knowledge (1971), Heartburn (1986) and Closer (2004), what gets naked is a man’s or woman’s most urgent, reckless feelings and animosities.”

The New Republic‘s posted a 1967 review by the late Stanley Kauffmann: “Happy news, Mike Nichols’s second film, The Graduate, proves that he is a genuine film director—one to be admired and concerned about.”

Dustin Hoffman “turned out to be the movie’s greatest coup, ushering in a new kind of male actor in American films,” writes Ronald Bergan in the Guardian. “Yet Hoffman was later to say, ‘If there is any victory in the film, it is not mine. It has nothing to do with me. The film belongs to Mike Nichols. Nichols knew every color, texture and nuance he wanted and worked like hell to get it.'”

Tablet‘s posted an excerpt from Abigail Pogrebin‘s 2005 book Stars of David: Prominent Jews Talk About Being Jewish in which she noted that Nichols had told Hoffman that “Benjamin Braddock was ‘Jewish inside.’ When I ask Nichols what he might have meant by this, he says his answer can be found in a Thomas Mann story. ‘Did you ever read Tonio Kröger?’ he asks me. (I didn’t.) ‘It took place in Germany one hundred years ago and it was about the blond, blue-eyed people and the dark people. The dark people were the artists and the outcasts. And the blond, blue-eyed people were at the heart of the group and were the desired objects.’ I see where he’s going: Benjamin’s an outsider, so he’s metaphorically Jewish.”

“It was clear where his soft spots were,” writes Betsy Sharkey in the LAT. “You could generally find Nichols on the side of the disenfranchised, Working Girl; the whistle-blowers, Silkwood; the pacifists, Catch-22; the activists, Charlie Wilson’s War; the boundary pushers, Carnal Knowledge. If you had a righteous fight—and a sense of humor—there was no one better to enlist. Virtually every issue that has roiled us since the 1950s found a clear-eyed sounding board and a compassionate storyteller in Nichols.”

“An avid reader with a terrific, generalized curiosity (at one point he studied medicine), Nichols had a keen eye for literary material that could translate well to screen—as well as for the right screenwriters to aid him in that translation.” At Word & Film, Lisa Rosman discusses a few examples.

Stephen Galloway profiled Nichols in 2012 for the Hollywood Reporter; and David Fear spoke with him about The Graduate for Time Out New York.

Listening (6’42”). N

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