When Mike Nichols' Early Films Hit Theaters for the First Time
What was said about 'Virginia Woolf,' 'The Graduate,' 'Catch-22' and 'The Fortune' when the films made their theatrical debuts
A rapturous review greeted 34-year-old Mike Nichols, who made his big-screen directorial debut with Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf. "The screen has never held a more shattering and indelible drama," read The Hollywood Reporter's June 1966 review, which deemed the title a "masterpiece" in its headline and praised the "stunning bow" of the young helmer.
Nichols followed up Woolf with an equally acclaimed title, The Graduate, and without the spotlight of Woolf stars Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, THR appraised the director's maturing style. "Nichols aims eye and ear to the hilarious inanities lurking in the commonplace, the bits of business and inflection which indict the bearer," the review read in Dec. 1967. Three years later, a divisive adaptation of Joseph Heller's wartime Catch-22 made its way to theaters. Nichols was then described as "a man of uncommon comic genius" who made "cynical and bitterly cold" film.
Below are excerpts of THR reviews from a selection of Nichols' earlier work, when critics and audiences were familiarizing themselves with a director who earned enduring acclaim before his passing at the age of 83 on Nov. 19.
The excerpts include his disappointing Warren Beatty-Jack Nicholson satire The Fortune in '75, a pairing with Meryl Streep, Nora Ephron and Cher in '83's Silkwood and commercial triumph with Melanie Griffith and Harrison Ford in '88's Working Girl. The original headlines are bolded.
'WHO'S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF?' IS A MOTION PICTURE MASTERPIECE
June 22, 1966 - The screen has never held a more shattering and indelible drama than Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Edward Albee's stage play was a masterpiece. The makers of this film have created from it a motion picture masterpiece. It will be nominated for every category it fits in next year's Academy Awards, and it deserves to win them all. It will tote up an equally impressive score at the boxoffice. Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is an instant film classic, and Warner Bros. deserves the highest credit for making it a movie without compromise.
Virginia Woolf is a drama that encompasses the whole relationship of man and woman; love and hate, tenderness and cruelty, sad and funny. Ernest Lehman, who produced the picture, also wrote the screenplay. Although it is a true screenplay, he has wisely preserved almost all the Albee language, using his own gifts at making it viable as film. A screenplay is not all dialogue, a hard fact to remember, but this is Lehman's most potent contribution.
Virginia Woolf is not a play that is hard to bring to life; it bursts with vitality. It is a hard play to kill, as a reviewer who has seen it in six or eight productions, from Broadway to Long Beach, can testify. Film is something else. And the greatest credit for the implacable engagement that the film creates for its audience must go to the director, Mike Nichols. Nichols makes a stunning film bow with Virginia Woolf.
[...] Bernard Shaw in his days as a drama critic, once remarked something to the effect that most shows reduced the critic to mere advertiser for entertainments of dubious value. But, occasionally, he said, there was a presentation that gave the critic the satisfaction of being the servant to a high art. That is the effect produced by Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
'GRADUATE' WILL BENEFIT FROM WORD-OF-MOUTH PLUGS
Dec. 18, 1967 - The Mike Nichols-Lawrence Turnman production of Charles Webb's The Graduate, a Joseph E. Levine presentation for Embassy pictures release, is a brutally funny look at contemporary youth, encrusted with status symbols and guilt for gilt rejecting the weights of privilege to rail against the tides of society they would rather reject than succumb to, rather question than attend to. Both tuned and attuned to its subject and on target for most of its course, this second film from director Nichols will benefit from enthusiastic word of mouth, winning a large audience and corresponding profits from both sides of the 30 year demarcation line.
In adapting the Webb novel of an honor graduate's summer of introspective rebellion and post-graduate matriculation in sex and love, in that order, Calder Willingham and Buck Henry have produced a generally undeviating translation, omitting several inherently cinematic episodes to concentrate on the graduate's relationship with wife of his father's business partner and their young daughter. The remarkably true ring of Webb's dialogue is preserved and augmented, the visual potential lifted to next power in absurdity.
[...] Nichols' style is both more conspicuous and fashionable than his sophisticated and subtly unobtrusive debut with Virginia Woolf. It is highly reminiscent of the work of Francis Ford Coppola in You're a Big Boy Now, which has a good deal in common with the present film. More importantly, the free-wheeling, switched on approach is generically suited to the subject and its telling. Only in the protracted and taxing highway paving does the direction mask in movement what is lacking in content and momentum. Throughout, Nichols aims eye and ear to the hilarious inanities lurking in the commonplace, the bits of business and inflection which indict the bearer, the logical progression from the possible outcome to its bizarre potential.
'CATCH-22' BRILLIANT BITS: CYNICAL AND BITTERLY COLD
June 5, 1970 - Sight unseen, it would have seemed that no film costing as much as the John Calley-Martin Ransohoff production of Joseph Heller's Catch-22, a Paramount presentation in association with Filmways, had as great a chance of profiting in spite of its profligacy. The director is Mike Nichols, a man of uncommon comic genius, a reasonable and practical man given to criticizing waste, a man of compassion. But the cost was sinful. The film is cynical and bitterly cold. Nichols has hit one out of three virtues. A year ago, as he began the final cut, as interest — bank and audience — mounted, he said that Catch-22 was an "anti-capitalist" film. At $20 million or so it is certainly one of the most highly capitalized in the history of motion pictures. It is a film of brilliant images, some breathtaking devices, the best technical appointments to be expected at the price, uniformly excellent performances, virtues the more distressing since the film is less than the sum of these parts, possibly the biggest, most hopeless, nihilistic picture ever to go out dependent upon the goodwill and support of the largest and most diverse audience available worldwide.
Its dependence upon dialogue and inflection severely reduces its appeal in foreign language markets, where it requires — at over two hours — either too much reading or more expensive and idiomatically shrewd translation and dubbing than is likely. With a little modish shuffling, Buck Henry's script is surprisingly faithful to the book in events, fidelity in this case not necessarily a virtue. Something far more subtle than transliteration was required. We are given, ultimately, only the madness of men, a highly stylized vision of corruption in which war is simply one of the most efficient exploitations. We are not given a balance to that madness, not man himself. Whether it meant to or not, the film of Catch-22 says that people are no damn good, that everything is a hype, that man can be corrupted for a cookie, that nothing is beneath his dignity and that none may rise above that low if the price is right, that man is irredeemable.
[...] Because it is not particularly an age of reason nor an age of hope, because of the film's impressive means and technical achievements, Catch-22 will be praised, will be patronized. It will gross a great deal, unable to profit if it makes as much as most of the special interest films of recent years. It needs more. It needs an audience spread it will not reach, that audience which will remain unmoved for want of character they can care about, whose fates inspire pity, whose existence is an alternative to madness, not merely a retreat.
MOVIE REVIEW: 'THE FORTUNE'
May 20, 1975 - It would take a stonier soul than mine not to be amused by great sections of Mike Nichol's first flat-out comedy since The Graduate. The wry and wacky vision of a marriage of convenience that is also a menage a trois which he presents in The Fortune adroitly combines moments of French bedroom farce with elements of Laurel and Hardy, and played with a parodistic style reminiscent of nothing so much as the Ron Rico ads.
At the same time, it would require a more generous spirit than mine to overlook the basic deficiencies in Adrien Joyce's screenplay that repeatedly hobble the romp. It is, for one thing, excessively talky, with extended dialogue passages that seem to be there for their own sake — not to advance the plot o[r] further delineate the characters. Indeed, the characters remain pretty much a blur throughout, shrewd at one moment, unimaginably stupid at the next. Even farce demands a certain consistency.
[...] It would be wrong to write off The Fortune as a major fiasco. Call it instead a major disappointment that such first-rate talents were wasted on a second rate script.
MOVIE REVIEW: 'SILKWOOD'
Nov. 17, 1983 - [...] Although Silkwood may be hampered at the box office by its lack of a dramatic climax, it will be more than compensated by word of mouth over Meryl Streep's amazing, plucky performance as Silkwood. Still, audiences who tend to lump subject matter together may reason that since programming is available on TV concerning potential nuclear-age horror (ABC's upcoming The Day After), why go to the theatre to see yet another nuclear-age-danger production? In any event, this worthy film deserves to be seen. Certainly, ABC Motion Pictures might just find a network amenable to airing this film at some point in the future as a movie of the week.
Reaffirming the wisdom of Jean Renoir, who once said, "The worst thing is that everybody has their reasons," Silkwood is no simplistic good guys vs. bad guys diatribe. Screenwriters Nora Ephron and Alice Arlen have etched with their earthy down-home scenes the story of a company town: Kerr-McGee has a large contract to deliver; its managers have a deadline to meet; its workers must supply the product. But here the product is nuclear fuel rods, and faulty fuel rods can cause a nuclear breeder reactor to explode, which could wipe out a few million people in the surrounding area.
Silkwood's strength is not in dealing with the abstract but the everyday. It is the story of simple people who work in a nuclear factor, people whose fear that they are being exposed to cancer-inducing plutonium gnaws at their every minute. Extraordinary portrayals of everyday people characterize the contribution of director Mike Nichols' talented diverse cast. Once again, Nichols justifies his past plaudits for bringing the best out of his players.
[...] The cast, most notably Streep, Kurt Russell as her lover/boyfriend and Cher as their dingy, puppylike roommate, crystallize our admiration and sympathy for people trying simply to earn a living and live their lives.
MOVIE REVIEW: 'WORKING GIRL'
Dec. 12, 1988 - At last — and it's long deserved — Melanie Griffith emerges as a full-blown star in Working Girl. Combining intuitive comic timing, a savvy instinct for the subtext and a sex quotient big enough to fuel a major city, Griffith totally captivates as Tess McGill, a guileless yet clever working girl who climbs from the secretarial pool into an executive office in this boisterous comedy-drama from 20th Century Fox.
The film, directed by Mike Nichols with the sharp satirical eye strangely missing from his recent work, is best when observing behavior within the class-conscious world of Manhattan's brokerage industry. Although it does wobble through a couple of rough plot shifts, the film could ride strong word of mouth and critical acclaim for Griffith into a holiday hit of Moonstruck proportions.
The story by Kevin Wade — a quantum leap in complexity and characterization over his off-Broadway hit Key Exchange — loosely crosses All About Eve with old Judy Holliday comedies. Griffith plays a Staten Island commuter who languishes in low-paying, pink-collar jobs whose key requisite is the physical agility to keep a desk between her and lecherous bosses. Her ambitions far outstrip her education so opportunity knocks elsewhere.
Then Griffin lands her first secretarial job with a female boss, lean and gorgeous Sigourney Weaver, who seemingly was born to70th floor executive suites. But more than gender marks the difference in work environment: Weaver viewers her assistant as aprotege and encourages her to think creatively.
A skiing accident keeps Weaver out of town for several weeks and allows Griffith access to her boss' office and town house. There she discovers Weaver's apparent betrayal of her trust. Rather than getting mad, she gets even. Masquerading as her boss' colleague, she sets in motion a high-risk business venture that brings into her life Harrison Ford, a hungry business broker from another firm, who needs a big deal to break out of a personal slump.
For a long while, Wade and Nichols spin this story into unexpected avenues. However this good fortune doesn't hold for the film's duration.