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There’s a curious paradox about Mike Nichols: The industry loves him, but critics are often lukewarm to one of the dominant filmmakers of the past four decades. Why?
On one level, the answer is simple: While Nichols has shown a mastery of craftsmanship and an almost unrivaled ability to draw the best from actors, his later films have avoided conveying the visual flair or easily defined worldview of a Quentin Tarantino or Martin Scorsese.
Directors like these seem to exist only for and through the camera; others, like Nichols, are somehow larger than the camera — and, arguably, the work itself. Speak to those who know Nichols and they veritably gush about his charm, intellect, vitality — noting that even now, at 78, he remains ferociously active, toiling away at a slew of new projects, from an adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s “Deep Water” to a remake of Kurosawa’s “High and Low” (written, of all people, by Chris Rock).
But it’s the very protean nature of Nichols’ work that makes him elusive.
Perhaps that’s the way Nichols wants it. When he returned to filmmaking with 1983’s “Silkwood,” after a seven-year hiatus, he eschewed the visual pyrotechnics that had marked some of his earlier pictures, as if he wished to make himself less visible, rather than more so. Perhaps, too, it’s because of the sheer range of his work, from the dark comedy of “The Graduate” to the intense drama of “Silkwood” to the broad comedy of “The Birdcage,” with long stints in stand-up, theater and television along the way.
Born Michael Igorevitch Peschkowsky, Nichols is rich in contradiction — a German Jew who redefined himself with the most quintessentially American of names; a groundbreaking performer (his sketches with Elaine May are legendary) who largely turned his back on performing; a man of urbane charm who admits to having had a breakdown of sorts in the 1980s.
Nichols left his native Germany as a child and moved to New York in 1939, at age 7. At the University of Chicago, he met May, with whom he started to create comedy. Soon the duo was performing some of the most original work onstage. But it was not until Nichols began directing — almost by accident in 1963 when he was asked to stage Neil Simon’s “Barefoot in the Park” — that he discovered himself.
Mike Nichols directing “The Graduate”
“In the first 15 minutes of the first day’s rehearsal,” he has said, “I understood that this was my job, that this was what I had been preparing to do without knowing it.”
When he burst onto the motion picture scene with “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” (1966) and then “The Graduate” (1967), his talent seemed staggering. When he followed those with “Catch-22” (1970) and “Carnal Knowledge” (1971), he was hailed by many, even if the movies didn’t have quite their predecessors’ success.
Then “Day of the Dolphin” (1973) and “The Fortune” (1975) stumbled, and Nichols vanished from the movies until “Silkwood.”
To Nichols himself, it might have seemed that his subsequent work was deliberately less flashy; to critics, it appeared as though he’d become more conventional. Skilled moviemaking like “Working Girl” (1988) and “Primary Colors” (1998) failed to restore his earlier standing.
But at the same time, Nichols was extending himself in all sorts of ways, producing gems like “Remains of the Day” (1993); tackling one of the most acclaimed miniseries on television, “Angels in America” (2003); and returning over and over to the theater — recently, with one of the most successful Broadway productions in years, “Spamalot.”
What these projects showed was a man whose breadth and scope knew no bounds. But that’s not the quality most prized in our times.
If the era of the generalist ever returns, Nichols will be recognized for everything that’s best about him; if we continue down a narrow path of specialization, he risks being underappreciated.
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