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Despite its setting at Sony’s cavernous Stage 15, the 38th AFI Life Achievement Award dinner honoring Mike Nichols came off as something of an intimate family affair — that is if your family includes some of the smartest writers and actors of the past 40 years.
Although at first pretending to be miffed that Nichols once had said that Julia Roberts, Meryl Streep and his wife Diane Sawyer were “the three women I love,” Nora Ephron, who wrote such Nichols films as “Silkwood” and “Heartburn,” might as well have been speaking for the tight-knit group when she said, “All of us could be a Bunuel movie — a pack of people who owe Mike everything and are therefore doomed to give him awards.”
Michael Douglas, last year’s recipient of the AFI honor, welcomed guests to Thursday night’s dinner, hailing Nichols as “not just a great writer and director — he’s a comedy legend.”
Howard Stringer, who in addition to his day job as head of Sony serves as chair of the AFI Board of Trustees, saluted Nichols as “a man who was never afraid of Virginia Woolf — or Elizabeth Taylor.”
But it fell to Nichols’ former improv partner, the always droll Elaine May, to lay down the comic premise for the evening when she noted that Nichols, who was born Michael Igorevitch Peschkowsky and fled with his family from Hitler’s Germany to New York when he was 9, is a cousin of Albert Einstein.
“Albert Einstein was a very sad man when he died because he hadn’t achieved a Combined Field Theory, and that’s gotta be depressing,” she deadpanned. “But if he’s watching tonight, he’s got to be immensely happy that he’s Mike Nichols’ cousin.”
Tom Hanks, who starred in Nichols’ “Charlie Wilson’s War,” picked up on the cue, noting, “Albert Einstein is now the second most interesting person in the Peschkowsky family.” Later in the evening, Shirley MacLaine, who appeared in “Postcards From the Edge,” couldn’t resist joking, “I have been speaking with Albert Einstein, and he’s extremely proud of you.”
Amid the earnest words offered up by many of those who have worked with Nichols — Dustin Hoffman, Warren Beatty, Annette Bening, Candice Bergen, Natalie Portman, Cher, Harrison Ford, Calista Flockhart, Aaron Sorkin, Emma Thompson and Mary-Louise Parker — Robin Williams provided the raucous comic relief.
Cracked the star of “The Birdcage,” “It’s rumored that you even had final cut at your own circumcision.”
Kevin Spacey, whose first film appearance was a brief walk-on as a subway mugger in “Heartburn,” offered up impressions, including one of Jack Nicholson, sitting just a few tables away.
Art Garfunkel and Paul Simon made a surprise appearance, performing “Mrs. Robinson,” as memories of Nichols’ generation-defining “The Graduate” took over the room. Eric Idle donned angel’s wings to lead a sing-along chorus of “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life” from “Spamalot,” which Nichols directed on Broadway.
The night was bookended by two of the director’s favorite women: Roberts was among the opening speakers, complimenting Nichols as “the most encouraging person that I’ve ever met.”
Before presenting him with the award, Streep delivered a long encomium. Recalling how Nichols once took her aside on the set of “Silkwood” and compared directing to making love “because you never know if you’re doing it right or as well as the other guy,” Streep said, “I found that insecurity so completely disarming.”
“You’re one of our era’s essential artists, Mike,” she concluded.
During his acceptance speech, Nichols offered up a long list of writers, actors and film craftsmen with whom he has worked, offering a special mention to producer and studio executive John Calley.
Summing it up, he said, “I thank my film family and my own family.”
As part of the evening, which will be broadcast June 26 by TV Land, the AFI presented its 20th annual Franklin J. Schaffner Alumni Medal to cinematographer Janusz Kaminski, who attended the institute from 1987-88.
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