Mike Nichols

-from contributing editor, Andy Ray

The other day I awoke to the news that longtime motion picture director Mike Nichols had passed away at the age of 83. The knock against Nichols was always that, as a director, he never developed a signature style; that he often directed Hollywood fluff, softened for the masses. To an extent, that criticism is fair. But it wasn’t always so.

Nichols began his career in the early 1960’s, pairing with another future director, Elaine May, as the most cerebral comedy duo of the day. Later, Nichols turned his talents to directing for stage, screen, and television. His Diane Sawyer with Husband, Mike Nicholsfirst four motion pictures were four of the greatest and most important films in history. Imagine this: For his 1966 debut, he chose to film a screen adaptation of Edward Albee’s erudite play, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf,  starring the accomplished on-again/off-again husband & wife duo of Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. Filmed in stark black & white, Virginia Woolf exposed an intelligent, intoxicating marriage, deteriorating before our eyes in an alcoholic spiral of deceit and rage. Taylor won the Best Actress Oscar that year; Burton should have won Best Actor. The two were dynamite, if somewhat difficult to watch, and Nichols instantly earned a spot amongst the great directors of the day.

His second feature was perhaps the most important movie of the baby boomers.  The Graduate literally changed Hollywood. Prior to 1967, studios were always in search of the “next big hit.” After The Graduate,  studios were in search of the next great film – the next “game changer,” if you will.  A young, vibrant Dustin Hoffman cemented his place among the great actors of our time with a virtuoso performance as a confused and directionless college graduate searching for love and meaning in a rapidly changing world.  Seduced by a friend of his parents, he eventually falls for her daughter, in a story that lays bare the restlessness of a generation tired of war, discrimination, and rigid social mores. Shot in a close-up European New Wave style,  The Graduate prominently featured the music of Simon & Garfunkel, the pop/folk duo whose masterful, poetic wordsmith, Paul Simon, had already assumed the unofficial position of Spokesperson of an Entire Generation. The music, cinematography, and screenplay of  The Graduate negated every Hollywood and social norm of the day.  It still packs a punch, almost a half century later.

In 1970, while most of the country was oohing and aahing over Robert Altman’s anti-war black comedy, M*A*S*H, I believed that a far greater statement was made by Mike Nichols brilliant adaptation of Joseph Heller’s caustic novel, Catch-22. Due to its length and stream-of-consciousness structure, many considered Catch-22 un-filmable – both before and after the film’s release. Yet I was mesmerized by its unflinching portrait of a group of young men caught in a desperate situation from which there was no escape – again, a metaphor for the times.  Young Alan Arkin gave the best performance of his life as a crazy fighter pilot (who, in fact, may have been the only sane character in the film) in an all-star cast including some of the great actors and comedians of the day.

Bob Newhart was never better on the big screen, as the nervous and over-promoted Major Major. Jon Voigt played against type as the meticulous Lieutenant Milo Minderbinder. And Martin Balsam’s Colonel Cathcart was downright frightening as the ungrateful yet absent-minded platoon leader. Orson Welles, of all people, gave the funniest performance of his career as a visiting general sent to “fire up the troops” in a scene which ranks with the “War Room” scene in Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove as the darkest laugh-out-loud bit of satire ever filmed.

Vastly underrated at the time, Catch-22 demands at least a second, and more likely a third, viewing.  It’s filled with a witty dialogue of double-speak, shot in extreme close-up with no establishing shots, and (get this) is not told in chronological order. No, the episodic scenes in Catch-22 are connected via thought process. In other words, a particular situation might remind one character of something that happened in the past, or might foreshadow an event which happens in the future. The screenplay immediately jumps to that loosely-connected scene.  So, Tarantino fans rejoice – 24 years before Pulp Fiction,  Mike Nichols was jumping backward and forward in time in a picture every bit as entertaining and heady.

As if these first three projects weren’t ambitious enough, Nichols capped the early portion of his career in 1971 with what I consider to be his greatest achievement – a film adaptation of Jules Pfeiffer’s brilliant screenplay, Carnal Knowledge. Starring the most vibrant screen actor of the day, young Jack Nicholson, Carnal Knowledge follows the sexual lives of two men (the other played by singer and friend Art Garfunkel) from college to middle-age. Not only did this picture deal more frankly with its subject matter than any film up to that time, it dealt only with its subject matter. In other words, very little mention was made of any other aspect of the lives of the two leads – their careers, their families, their neighbors. Neither of them had a “best friend at work” or a “favorite neighbor” – at least that we were aware of.  No, Carnal Knowledge was a movie about sex, and only about sex.  In what I still consider to be his greatest performance, Nicholson’s performance laid bare the vicious manner in which some men treat women.  Parts of Carnal Knowledge are difficult to watch. Yet not once does the screenplay talk down to its audience, nor (and this is very important) does it use its subject matter to titillate.  Again, shot in extreme close-up, Carnal Knowledge is told in chronological order, but jumps through time without warning and without titles to advise us as to the new time period.  We’re expected to be smart enough to follow the script by ourselves.

And that’s what I love about these first four Mike Nichols films. They are brilliant and cerebral, and they task us with matching wits with Nichols and his characters. Oh, if only more Hollywood directors would give my intelligence the credit it is due. Unfortunately, as I watch any of these four movies, I have a hard time believing any would be made today. I can’t see a studio, save for possibly an ambitious indie, green-lighting any of these large-scale, witty, acerbic, perceptive, highbrow projects in this day and age of risk-aversion.

Unfortunately, Nichols was unable (or unwilling) to keep up the cleverness and wisdom of his early career. To wit, his next project was the very ordinary George C. Scott vehicle, Day of the Dolphin.  Sure, Nichols had hits. I personally loved Melanie Griffith in the 1988 comedy Working Girl (which featured that great Carly Simon song, “Let the River Run”). I loved John Travolta’s spot-on impersonation of President Bill Clinton in 1998’s entertaining Primary Colors. But that’s just it. Most of Nichols’ films were entertaining. Simply entertaining.

But if you want to see a young genius at work, please watch Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, The Graduate, Catch-22, (which you’ll have to view at least twice), and Carnal Knowledge. Then you’ll realize Hollywood has truly lost one of the greats.

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