After learning of the sad news today about Mike Nichols passing, I thought real hard about my beginnings of becoming a cinephile because there’s a short list of directors and filmmakers who I credit to me becoming so interested in film and cinema history and surely Nichols is on that list. Sure I always loved movies but they were all mostly action, horror and comedies. I barely gave dramas and other “grown-up” films much the time of day. If it didn’t have gore, super-heroes, explosions or a good prat fall I wasn’t much interested. Especially in films that were from my parents’ era. When I matured (just a little) I started to learn of the classics and I think the great gateway film for me was The Graduate. Still one of my favorite films, it was probably the first real popular counter-culture film. It pushed boundaries and raised eyebrows. Not just for the May-December love affair between Dustin Hoffman’s Ben Braddock and Anne Brancroft’s Mrs. Robinson but also for the aloofness and lackadaisical nature of recent college graduate Ben. Also not too many mainstream academy award-nominated features had scenes where our “hero” stops a marriage and attacks the congregation with a huge crucifix! Most of the 1960’s award-winning films were safe family-friendly musicals like the Sound of Music and Oliver! And this type of counter-culture new wave of filmmaking ushered in the greatest era of filmmaking in the 70s. It was funny, serious, cringe-worthy at times and romantic as well. All the qualities that make a great Mike Nichols film.
With Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Carnal Knowledge and Closer, Nichols really understood relationships between the sexes better than any other director, in my opinion. I saw Virginia Woolf a few years back for the first time and I have to say I was terrified at the marriage between Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor. I couldn’t believe this film was made in 1966 it was so crude in its portrayal of a self-destructive marriage. I also didn’t quite get the film completely. At the time I was only married for a short while. Maybe in 10-20 years the film will make much more sense to me (don’t tell my wife). Carnal Knowledge spoke volumes to me as a late teen in college trying to score, with my hormones out of control. Closer is also a very dark and honest look into the seedy underbelly of love, attraction and sex. I only saw that film once and have been reluctant to see it again because it hit a nerve with me.
I have to sadly admit that out of all Nichols filmography that I am sorely behind in seeing most of his work. I still haven’t seen Silkwood, Postcards From the Edge, Heartburn, Regarding Henry and his latest one Charlie Wilson’s War. I also haven’t yet seen his HBO mini-series, Angels in America. So I have some homework to do. The one film I’d like to mention that I cannot wait to see is 1973’s Day of the Dolphin with George C. Scott. It’s basically about speech-trained dolphins being used to carry out assassinations. Out of all of Nichols’ filmography, Day of the Dolphin is the odd one out. It just sounds so silly of a plot to be directed by the man who directs dramatic-comedies so well. Nichols did branch out a little genre-wise in the 90s with his werewolf horror film, Wolf with Jack Nicholson but that film had a lot of humor and romance as well. But the whole killer dolphin plot sounds like a gag, like when Dr. Evil requested sharks with laser-beams on their head. I just hope George C. Scott yells loudly and uncontrollably at the dolphins and I’ll love the movie.
Sadly, Nichols hasn’t directed too many films in the last decade but has been busy with theatrical plays and has been, not surprisingly, successful with that endeavor. I also just learned that he used to be in a comedy-duo in the 1960s with Elaine May and has had successful comedy albums with her. I never knew he had such a career in front of the camera! May also wrote the screenplays for Nichols’ great 1990’s movies, The Birdcage and Primary Colors.
So, I must look back fondly on Mike Nichols talent and his honest and funny films and for making me such a fan of the medium of filmmaking. Stanley Kubrick may have been integral to the art and precision of filmmaking for me but Nichols was on the other side of the coin showing me the heart and soul of that era of cinema.
And of course, Mike Nichols deserves a huge monument in his honor for giving all males this: