Incontrovertible directorial legend of film, television, and theatre, Mike Nichols, has died at the age of 83. This was a director who had to his name an Academy Award, four Emmy Awards, nine Tony Awards, a Golden Globe and the AFI Lifetime Achievement Award in 2010, among numerous others.
The pioneering director was born in Berlin in 1931, and fled with his family to the United States at the age of seven to escape Nazi persecution. It was then and there that his father decided to change the family name, and Michael Igor Peschkowsky became ‘Mike Nichols’. He recounted once that when he came to America, he knew only two phrases in English: “I don’t speak English”, and “please don’t kiss me”. Nobody would have guessed that this young boy was set to shape the future of cinema history.
After a string of successful theatre productions, Nichols first raised eyebrows on a large scale in 1966 when he directed the deliciously controversial film adaptation of Edward Albee’s absurdist play, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?. The picture saw real life spouses Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton explode onto the screen in a series of menacingly scathing attacks on each other through which they ultimately destroyed any blissful preconception of married life. The film was perfect for Nichols to make his mark.
The director famously had to control the feuding marital couple both on screen and off, and the result was the revitalisation of Taylor and Burton’s careers – both of whom had wallowed in a series of critical and commercial failures for some time until then.
Nichols was rewarded with an Academy Award nomination for Best Director, and earned himself a solid reputation and the credibility for complete control over his next project. As it so happened, that next project would change everything.
When studio executives were planning a little film called The Graduate, they wanted Robert Redford for the lead, but Nichols put his foot down. He believed Redford would not be believable as someone awkward with women and wanted instead to cast an actor he had seen in an off-Broadway show named Dustin Hoffman. The small, Jewish and conventionally average-looking Hoffman signaled the beginning of a new breed of male actor in American cinema, and he turned out to be one of the film’s greatest assets. Nichols famously captured a generation in The Graduate, with its waif student lead, post-war angst and controversially casual portrayal of extramarital sex, not to mention its quirky Simon and Garfunkel soundtrack. Nichols seemed to speak out for middle-class college students and his audaciously hilarious depiction of the alienation of young Benjamin Braddock was both playful and poignant.
A brief rut followed the success of The Graduate, in which Nichols made less successful pictures such as Catch-22 (1969), Carnal Knowledge (1971), and The Fortune (1975). Despite their critical and commercial failings, however, Nichols still brought to the screen an ineffable sense of control and vision. He was a director of unique and bold taste, nobody could deny that. He returned to Broadway for the next few years and picked up a host of Tony Awards, before returning to the screen again with a near return to form with Silkwood (1983). Nichols’ own financial problems at this time were soon amended by his marriage to star TV anchor, Diane Sawyer, and then came his big comeback with the critically acclaimed and feel-good feminist ‘flick’, Working Girl (1988), with Melanie Griffiths as a downtrodden employee who triumphs over her boss, played by Sigourney Weaver. It was a beacon of hope and deep satisfaction for millions of women, and indeed men, trapped as working-class drudges against seemingly insurmountable odds.
The 90s saw Nichols succeed again with Postcards from the Edge (1991) starring Meryl Streep and Shirley MacLaine, and the hysterically camp The Birdcage (1996) with Robin Williams. 2003 brought Nichols his most acclaimed television success with Angels in America, adapted from Tony Kushner’s play, and is arguably responsible for the recent flux of big names and big budgets to the world of the television screen. It starred Al Pacino, Meryl Streep and Emma Thompson, as well as a multitude of other distinguished actors, and earned Nichols two Primetime Emmy Award wins. The following year, Nichols demonstrated his dual gift for the stage and screen again by adapting Patrick Marber’s Closer for the big screen, featuring Julia Roberts, Jude Law, Natalie Portman and Clive Owen. The film was noted for its merciless portrayal of relationships, harkening back to Nichols’ earlier work (such as Virginia Woolf). His cinematic swansong came in 2007 with the concretely provocative political comedy-drama, Charlie Wilson’s War, reuniting him with Julia Roberts and also starring Tom Hanks and the late great Philip Seymour Hoffman. In 2012, Nichols worked again with Philip Seymour Hoffman in both of their final Broadway endeavours in a lauded production of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman. A fitting last victory for a director who was never afraid of taking risks, who worked with some of the best talent in the business, and helmed some of the most enduring and important theatrical productions and motion pictures of the last fifty years.
PHOTO/ Rossano aka Bud Care