Mike Nichols, I Admired You Before I Even Knew You

About three years ago I wanted to write about the various, lasting directorial débuts in movie history, not just in my lifetime, but before I was even born. And what impact those first films had, how it shaped their careers, what it told us about the director, and where they may be going. Unlike many bloggers or movie critics or anybody who is anybody with a view on movies, I don’t appear to be an expert of movie history. I am certainly not, and have much more to learn. I do know, though, how I feel about movies, and I know what I like. And I tend to just let my mind and my heart do the talking. I don’t, then, claim to be an expert on Mike Nichols, the director who sadly died three years ago today aged 83. But an admirer, absolutely.

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My early memories of who Mike Nichols was came from when I was a boy. A boy young enough to not really give a second thought to the significance of a movie’s director. Movies like Working Girl, Silkwood, Postcards from the Edge, Heartburn. I guess that far back I was beginning to realize the importance of the likes of Meryl Streep and Jack Nicholson too. And that was partly thanks to Nichols. I just did not know it then. Not to mention becoming an instant fan of Carly Simon when I first heard “Coming Around Again” in Heartburn, as well as the closing credits version citing “Itsy Bitsy Spider”. He obviously worked with Simon again with the song “Let The River Run” from Working Girl, with similar consequences on my growing love for movies and music. Had you asked me back then, maybe nine or ten years old, who Mike Nichols was, I wouldn’t have the first clue. But he was already having a profound impact on me.

When you get a bit older you start to appreciate the people behind the camera, the directors. You discover in time that Mike Nichols is the guy who made Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, that ferocious, gruff, blackly funny play adaptation with Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, two greats of their time in hurricane-force form. A movie whose reputation was not at all hurt by Burton and Taylor’s famous real-life marriage. And then The Graduate, that movie were Anne Bancroft seduces Dustin Hoffman. The same movie were he interrupts the wedding at the end and runs off with the bride. Wow. Now that is an impact on cinematic history, not just me. And soon you realize that Mike Nichols was someone brilliant. He had been the whole time.

Elaine May & Mike Nichols, AN EVENING WITH NICHOLS & MAY,  Golden Theater, 10/8/60

Nichols was already somebody known, somebody established, in the world of entertainment before his first venture into the movies in 1966. He performed broadcast comedy too, most famously with Elaine May. They made many, many people laugh, and won a Grammy Award in 1962. In a huge way too Nichols took to the theater – where his work won many Tony Awards, including for directing, over many decades. He was well on the way to be one of the elite few to join the EGOT club (Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, Tony) when he won the Best Director Oscar in 1967 for The Graduate. Just his second movie, and his second Director nomination. His first effort, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, was nominated in pretty much every category going, including all four of the cast (Burton, Taylor, George Segal, Sandy Dennis). That totals 20 Oscar nominations for his first two movies. An truly incredible, impressionable achievement.

Nichols was an extremely theatrical film director, I know that sounds obvious, but it is worth the mention nonetheless. One of the reasons Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf is so compelling is because it oozes classic theater more than most movies in history. Nichols’ films have strayed from that at times, and that only shows his diversity and talent as a film director. Add the remake The Birdcage to that list, and Primary Colors. And what turns out to be his final movie, Charlie Wilson’s War. A film also featuring the brilliant and also passed, Philip Seymour Hoffman. The year 2014 was unforgiving, with Robin Williams too.

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Just look at his penultimate movie Closer, also based on a play. The foursome cast members are essentially in a play on the big screen. I know a few people could not digest Closer, a lot of people perhaps, but there is no denying the accomplished direction and performances of its cast members – in particular Golden Globe winners Clive Owen and Natalie Portman. This is nowhere near the high esteem of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, sure, but you can see the same characteristics and style shining through all those years later.

And you just can not talk about Nichols without mentioned those Emmys he eventually won in television. Firstly the adaptation Wit with Emma Thompson in 2001. If you have not seen that yet, look it up and find time for it. Then a couple of years later a marvelous production I personally consider one of the finest television achievements ever, not just in the great career of Mike Nichols. Angels in America, at six hours (broadcast in two thee-hour nights here in the UK) is astonishing, astounding, right across the board.

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Nichol’s impeccable direction aside, from the illuminating Tony Kushner play, it has top-rate performances from one of the most diverse and talented cast in years of television. Including some of them playing more than one part – notably Jeffrey Wright and that Meryl Streep. Angels In America also had a terrific score from Thomas Newman. It tackled with audacious, bittersweet method, the delicate themes of homosexuality and AIDS given full dramatic attention, not to mention strong social struggles of those characters during the eighties and the Reagan era. So this was really heavyweight television. I love and idolize this miniseries, or whatever you want to call it, in every way possible. A phenomenal achievement that demonstrates all that is emotive and captivating about the visual medium – whether it be theater, television or the movies.

And that is Mike Nichols, right there. That is what he could do. That is what he did. That is what he was great at. And that is why so many love and admire him. An incomparable career spanning fifty plus years, spreading across comedy performance, television, cinema, and of course the theater. It takes a sad loss such as this, such as Robin Williams, Philip Seymour Hoffman, to really, deeply allow yourself to be immersed in such an astonishing life entertaining us even further than before. It is immeasurable. And long may Nichols and co. continue to affect us for another fifty years or more at least.

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4 thoughts on “Mike Nichols, I Admired You Before I Even Knew You

  1. I’ll take film writing like this – personal, from the heart – over any other style, any day. Well done tribute, Robin. WAOVW and The Graduate are benchmarks in American cinema, and Angels was the first effort by anyone to break the glass wall between film and TV work, putting both media on equal terms. Also, I never realized until I started doing Genre Blast how many bona fide classics were first feature efforts. That would make a great series here.