While Mike Nichols might not be the most visionary director (not like a Kubrick or Coppola or Scorsese for that matter), he was certainly integral to the American cinéma vérité movement of the late 1960s/early 70s. Similar to someone like Arthur Penn, Nichols was a man who got his start in theater and developed some fame as half of a comedic team with his oft collaborator Elaine May. They both became fixtures of the Hollywood scene during the Vietnam era and post Watergate America. And while I wouldn’t count Nichols as one of my favorite film makers, he has certainly made a handful of flicks that shouldn’t be deemed less than iconic: WHO’S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF?, THE GRADUATE, CARNAL KNOWLEDGE, CATCH -22, SILKWOOD and WORKING GIRL. But he did keep busy right up until his death at the young age of eighty-three.
Although his last film was 2007’s CHARLIE WILSON’S WAR, he continued to direct theater and was scheduled to oversee the revival of the Harold Pinter classic Betrayal with Daniel Craig and his wife Rachel Weitz. Alas, that was set to premiere later this year.* He was also in talks to direct the film adaption of Jonathan Tropper’s novel One Last Thing Before I Go. And – again, alas – that will not come to be, either.
*(I actually received a severe reminder from a journo friend of mine that Nichols’ production of Betrayal actually ran last year. Goes to show you how out of the loop I am with the NYC theater scene these days)
His grandfather was a leading anarchist. Apparently he was related to Albert Einstein. This man was married to Diane Sawyer, fer chrissake. So that should tell you something.
Mike Nichol’s strength rested in his canny ear for dialogue and characterization. A true “actor’s director” which is evident in the performances seen in films like GRADUATE and CARNAL KNOWLEDGE. His aesthetic was always simple: just place the camera on the performers and let them do their thing. But there’s also a level of realism that could be attributed to his work, especially his earlier stuff. The personal dynamics and wordplay presented among friends in CARNAL KNOWLEDGE is so smart yet so real it’s almost painful to witness. While he never seemed to find that groove after the 1980s, he did come up with some noticeably unique takes on otherwise oft revisited tropes like 1994’s WOLF (Nichol’s take on the werewolf genre) and the underrated comedy THE BIRD CAGE which in my opinion is just as amusing and well acted as the original French version.
And now if you will permit me, a little anecdote.
Many years ago I attended a production of THE SEAGULL directed by Mike Nichols. There is a popular theater company here in New York known as The Public and they are responsible for the Shakespeare In The Park staged every Summer in an outdoor venue known as the Delacourt Theater. It is unique for many reasons, the primary two being that 1) they tend to get high profile celebrities to appear in their shows and 2) it is free.
It can also be a real pain in the butt waiting for tickets because the larger the celebrity cast, the more popular the show tends to be. So here I was waiting with a companion. We had decided to take a chance by waiting in the standby line (instead of camping out overnight while attempting to guarantee a place where you definitely knew you could get in to see the play). Turned out we were third-to-last to receive any tickets remaining. As the usher handed them over, he said “these… these are GREAT seats!” It was rather cryptic. I assumed he meant front row, center or something like that. Who knows? But we make our way to our seats and, yeah, sure, they were fine. Dead center. Not front row. But right above where the actors would enter then exit from the stage. So, okay, they were pretty good seats. However…. this was a preview. Which in layman’s terms means a tech rehearsal delivered in front of an audience. This is how productions work out the kinks before the critics come in and lay down the word once the show premieres (unlike film, the success of a play is almost wholly dependent on good reviews). And who should sit down right beside me?
Mike Friggin’ Nichols.
I should further explain that this particular production starred Kevin Kline, Meryl Streep, John Goodman, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Christopher Walken and Natalie Portman. So, yeah, this was kind of a big deal.
Nichols is sitting next to me. And his assistant is sitting next to him. And throughout the performance I was given an opportunity to observe Mike Nichols as he quietly vocalized any issues, feedback, what have you to his assistant while he transcribed Nichols’ thoughts as notes on a page. And it was fascinating. But now we get to the most memorable part:
A young man comes on stage with an accordion. An actor in training just playing a bit role. Every day for the past month he had rehearsed this moment to step out of the wings, present himself to Kline, Streep, Goodman, Walken, Hoffman and Portman just to play the instrument while announcing “dinner is served!” I felt really happy for this guy. This was his big moment. A story he would be able to tell his children and his children’s children: I got to say “dinner is served” in front of the most amazing cast of actors ever collected on one stage!
So the actor does his bit. Then exits. After which Mike Nichols turns to his assistant and says “the kid isn’t working out. Let’s cut him.”
Tragic maybe. But this was a Mike Nichols production. A man who lived a very long life while taking notes and cutting actors. But in the end, he wound up directing fantastic performances for almost six decades. In theater, television and in film. And no character was out of his wheelhouse. From an unhappily married couple to sex obsessed pals, from Miami transvestites to a neighbor who whispers “plastics” in your ear… Mike Nichols guided them all.