Mike Nichols, I Admired You Before I Knew You

Unlike many bloggers or movie critics or anybody who is anybody with a view on movies, I don’t appear to be an expert of movie history. I am certainly not, and have much more to learn. I do know, though, how I feel about movies, and I know what I like. Sure, when I write I have to do my fair share of research – like anybody else. But when I write here I tend to just let my mind and my heart do the talking.

I wanted to write about the various directorial débuts in movie history, not just in my lifetime, but before I was even born. And what impact those first films had, how it shaped their careers, what it told us about the director and where they may be going. I don’t, then, claim to be an expert on Mike Nichols, the director who sadly died this week aged 83. And in respect and honour of the man and the artist, I start my début talk with him. Of course I do. But he was a whole lot more than his début feature film.


My early memories of who Mike Nichols was came from when I was a boy. A boy young enough to not really give a second thought to the significance of a movie’s director. Movies like Working Girl, Silkwood, Postcards from the Edge. And Heartburn. I guess that far back I was beginning to realise the importance of the likes of Meryl Streep and Jack Nicholson too. And that was partly thanks to Nichols. I just did not know it then. Not to mention becoming an instant fan of Carly Simon when I first heard “Coming Around Again” in Heartburn, as well as the closing credits version citing “Itsy Bitsy Spider”. He obviously worked with Simon again with the song “Let The River Run” from Working Girl, with similar consequences on my love for movies and music. Had you asked me back then, maybe nine or ten years old, who Mike Nichols was, I wouldn’t have the first clue. But he was already impacting me.


When you get a bit older you start to appreciate the people behind the camera, the directors. You discover in time that Mike Nichols is the guy who made Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, that ferocious, gruff, blackly funny play adaptation with Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, two greats of their time in hurricane-force form. A movie who’s reputation was not at all hurt by Burton and Taylor’s famous real-life marriage. And then The Graduate, that movie were Anne Bancroft attempts to seduce Dustin Hoffman. The same movie were he interrupts the wedding at the end and runs off with the bride. Wow. Now that is an impact on cinema history, not just me. And soon you realise that Mike Nichols was brilliant. He had been the whole time.


Add the remake The Birdcage to that list, and Primary Colors. And what turns out to be his final movie, Charlie Wilson’s War. A film also featuring the brilliant and also passed, Philip Seymour Hoffman. That must guarantee a scene clip from that movie in respect of both losses at next year’s Academy Awards. And Robin Williams in The Birdcage. They are, in fact, going to have their work cut out trying to edit down all the superb work on offer from those we have lost this year.

Mike Nichols was already somebody known, somebody established, in the world of entertainment before his début movie in 1966. He performed comedy too, most famously with Elaine May, they made many, many people laugh, and they won a Grammy Award in 1962 {the video at the foot of the page is well worth the hour}. In a huge way too Nichols took to the theatre – where his work won many Tony Awards, including for directing, over many decades. He was well on the way to be one of the elite few to join the EGOT club {Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, Tony} when he won the Best Director Oscar in 1967 for The Graduate. Just his second movie, and second Director nomination. His first effort, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, was nominated in pretty much every category going, including all four of the cast {Burton, Taylor, George Segal, Sandy Dennis}. That totals 20 Oscar nominations for his first two movies. An truly incredible achievement.


Nichols then was an extremely theatrical film director. I know that sounds obvious, and always likely has, but it is worth the mention nonetheless. One of the reasons Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf is so compelling is because it looks like classic theatre more than most movies in history. Nichol’s films have strayed from that at times, and that only shows his diversity and talent as a film director. Just look at his penultimate movie Closer, also based on a play. The four main cast members are essentially in a play on the big screen. I know a few people could not digest Closer, but there is no denying the accomplished direction and performances of its cast members – in particular Clive Owen and Natalie Portman, the two at the time you would perhaps have not expected such excellence from. This is nowhere near the high esteem of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, but you can see the same characteristics and style shining through.
And you just can not talk about Nichols without mentioned those Emmys he eventually won. Firstly the adaptation Wit with Emma Thompson in 2001. If you have not seen that yet, look it up and find time for it. Then a couple of years later a marvellous production I personally consider one of the finest television achievements ever, not just in the great career of Mike Nichols. Angels in America, at six hours {broadcast in two thee-hour nights here in the UK} is astonishing right across the board.

Nichol’s impeccable direction aside, from the illuminating Tony Kushner play, it has top-rate performances from one of the most diverse and talented cast in years of television. Including some of them playing more than one part – notably standing out were Jeffrey Wright and that Meryl Streep. Angels In America also had a terrific score from Thomas Newman. It also had delicate themes of homosexuality and AIDS given full dramatic attention, not to mention strong social struggles of the characters during the eighties and the Reagan era. So this was really heavyweight television. I love and idolise this miniseries, or whatever you want to call it, in every way possible. A phenomenal achievement that demonstrates all that is emotive and captivating about the visual medium – whether it be theatre, television or the movies.

And that is Mike Nichols, right there. That is what he could do. That is what he did. That is what he was great at. And that is why so many love and admire him. An incomparable career spanning fifty plus years, spreading across comedy performance, television, cinema, and of course the theatre. It takes a sad loss such as this, such as Robin Williams, to really, deeply allow yourself to be immersed in such an astonishing life entertaining us. And feel like we should have done more previously, and should right now. And long we may do so for another fifty years or more at least.


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