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Critic's Notebook: Todd McCarthy Reflects on the Film Career of Mike Nichols

Mike Nichols AFI Awards - H 2012
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Mike Nichols

THR’s chief film critic on the director’s hits and misses, his retreats to Broadway and his search for a sense of the man himself.

Read Mike Nichols' first-hand account of his life and career in the May 18 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

Mike Nichols is such a great talker, my first desire after reading The Hollywood Reporter’s current skipping-stone account of his theatrical directing career is to buy his own 20-disc recording of the autobiography he unfortunately hasn’t written yet.

My second desire is to see Death of a Salesman before it closes.

My third is to know: Who is Mike Nichols?

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As Meryl Streep attests, he always is “the smartest and most brilliant person in the room.” I spent a couple of hours with him many years ago, a memorable encounter that directly led to my first job in Hollywood — as assistant to his former partner, Elaine May. At the time, Nichols was preparing to direct the film version of The Last Tycoon, a project that eventually passed to his self-proclaimed idol, Elia Kazan, while Nichols moved on to The Fortune. This sequence of events didn’t work out well for either of them; it was the end for Kazan, and Nichols didn’t direct another dramatic feature for nearly a decade.

And therein lies the first mystery. Why did this golden boy, who had conquered improv, recording, cabaret and Broadway by his early 30s, won an Oscar for his second film and batted .750 in his first four times up to the plate -- with Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?,The Graduate and Carnal Knowledge all going for extra bases while Catch-22 was a deep fly out to left — suddenly flatline, lose "The Knack" (also the title of a play he successfully directed in the early 1960s) and retreat to Broadway?

First of all, he did it because he could. The theater was his original home; he had always flourished there and would continue to. I’ve seen eight of his stage productions, and I don’t think he ever missed a trick, even if the laughs sometimes seemed manufactured, the attitude glib. You could get cut by The Real Thing, it was so sharp.

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When Nichols came back to movies, he didn’t seem quite the same, his connection with the zeitgeist less secure. At first, on Silkwood, he was serious, cause-oriented; the film was fine, but so would it have been had Sydney Pollack, Mark Rydell or Martin Ritt directed it. Four or five were imprinted with his recognizable comic pizzazz, flair with actors and impudent wit: Postcards From the Edge, The Birdcage, Primary Colors, Closer and, most of all, Working Girl. At least I remember them thus; I’ve never been tempted to revisit these later films, unlike his first four, which I’ve seen multiple times (even Catch-22, in order to try to analyze where it went wrong).

There were in-betweeners and iffy projects, like Heartburn (celebrity lovers played by even bigger celebrities), Biloxi Blues (why did this one need Nichols when seemingly every other Neil Simon picture made do with Gene Saks, Arthur Hiller or Herbert Ross?), Wolf (really good at first in the publishing world, bad when it got hairy) and his most recent, Charlie Wilson’s War (sharp-minded, essentially miscast).

Then you have two abominations that provoke astonishment that they’re the work of anyone of even moderate taste, intelligence and talent, much less a figure of Nichols’ stature: Regarding Henry and What Planet Are You From? Virtually anything else the director might have chosen to make at the time would have been preferable to these botches.

Happily, he was able to decisively prove himself again in the 2000s with two play adaptations for HBO, first with Wit and then, overwhelmingly, with Angels in America, one of the greatest and most completely achieved adaptations ever from stage to screen and one of the two or three most satisfying things Nichols has ever done.

As massively talented as Mike Nichols is, and as youthful and alert as both his looks and work make him seem to be, what I miss is a sense of the man himself, of what he believes, of an attitude toward life other than always having a quick rejoinder at hand. With the possible exception of Carnal Knowledge, in no film do I feel he’s revealed himself, nor is he interested in exploring the mysteries of existence. Remarkably, of his 20 film works, all but Closer are about 20th century Americans, perhaps because Nichols knows how such people talk, which for him is of supreme importance.

Still, it’s always worth remembering that Nichols, nee Michael Igor Peschkowsky, for all his modernity and urban cool, is the last of the pre-World War II German-speaking immigrants to come to work in the American film industry, having escaped in the nick of time in April 1939. In this sense, as well as for his flair with insinuating humor and an abiding interest in what goes on behind closed doors, he is the last filmmaker in the line most illustriously defined by Ernst Lubitsch and Billy Wilder. Nichols has been as capable at milking laughs from his material as they were, is at least as good with actors, and is no more preoccupied by commercial success.

But with Lubitsch and Wilder, one felt that their films had been marinated in a view of the world, in a clear sense of human foibles and a deep understanding of the motives that drive people to behave the way they do. Lubitsch could be coy and Wilder mordant, even malicious, but they provided a sturdy, consistent frame through which to perceive the detailed pictures. Nichols provided the pictures but forgot the frame.

Nichols’ best films, in order:

ANGELS IN AMERICA (2003) Nichols’ distinct talents for stage and screen merge perfectly in this superlative adaptation of one of the great American epic plays. Jeffrey Wright and Al Pacino are out of this world in it.

CARNAL KNOWLEDGE (1971) With a terrific Jules Feiffer script (originally written as a play) and a bold visual style, this bracing study of men’s attitudes toward women is probably the director’s most probing, self-revelatory film.

THE GRADUATE (1967) Still funny and sharp-edged after all these years, it’s one of the great zeitgeist films of the ‘60s or any other era, caricatured, perhaps, but with truth and insight to support it. Dustin Hoffman and Anne Bancroft are simply sensational.

WHO’S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF? (1966) Richard Burton remains the standout in Nichols’ vibrant and vital adaptation of one of the seminal American plays, with Haskell Wexler’s mobile, unflattering black-and-white cinematography still a marvel.

WORKING GIRL (1988) This key female empowerment comedy is sheer enjoyment, plain and simple, with Nichols displaying his great skill with actors by making everyone in the variously talented cast look equally good.