Remembering Mike Nichols

Mike Nichols has passed away at the age of 83, and among other things, a list of accomplishments will define his legacy. He is one of twelve individuals to receive an EGOT: he got Emmys for directing Wit and Angels in America, his Grammy for a comedy album he recorded with his longtime collaborator Elaine May, his Oscar for The Graduate, and several Tony awards for directing theater (most recently, he won a Tony for his 2012 production of Death of a Salesman, which starred Andrew Garfield as Biff). Nichols received nine Tony awards over the years, either for direction or Best Play, and he worked up until his death. Nichols is survived by the journalist Diane Sawyer, his fourth wife. The two married in 1988.

Awards statues, however, only skim the surface of what made Nichols unique. He was the last living Hollywood filmmaker to emigrate from Europe prior to World War 2 (the esteemed list includes Fritz Lang, Ernst Lubitsch, and Billy Wilder, among others). Nichols, who was born Mikhail Igor Peschkowsky, arrived in New York City in 1939 at age 8, only knew two phrases in English. He assimilated quickly, and after a successful Broadway comedy career, the highlight of which were the Nichols and May performances, he made his film directing debut with Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, which starred the real off-screen couple Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. Even though he was twenty-five years old at the time, Woolf represents Nichols’ connection to Golden Age Hollywood, and his career would be marked by regular collaborations with members of the A-list.

His follow-up film was The Graduate, which was subversive and controversial for its time. Nichols’ masterstroke was to cast Dustin Hoffman, who by all accounts was an unconventional leading man, in a role defined by angst and sexual experimentation. The Graduate was initially hailed as a terrific satire, one that found in sympathy in Hoffman’s character Benjamin, although nowadays Benjamin comes off as a narcissistic loser. The film’s final shot was seen as defiant, and now the victory is a hollow affirmation of garden variety Boomer anti-Establishment views. That’s part of Nichols’ genius: his films reflect a deep understanding of human nature, and they have such deep maturity that it takes years for his audience to catch up (for most filmmakers, it’s usually the other way around).

Nichols did not have a distinct visual style. Instead, he was an actor’s director, and they would return to him because he would create complex characters whose conscience would rage against a brutal, sometimes overwhelming external force. This force would take the form of sexual entanglements (Carnal Knowledge, Closer), intolerance (The Birdcage, Angels in America), and even politics (Primary Colors, Charlie Wilson’s War). Actors loved working with Mike Nichols. While doing press for Closer, for example, Natalie Portman would repeatedly profess her undying love for the director, and it always sounded genuine. Whether it’s Jack Nicholson, Emma Thompson, or Julia Roberts, actors would return to Nichols for one collaboration after another.

Nichols was probably the last film director who could make a theatrical adaptation seem cinematic and vibrant. His films were consistently hilarious, full of comic set-pieces and incredible one-liners, but they could also be devastating. Not only was he willing to explore unseemly aspects of human nature – there are moments of Carnal Knowledge and Closer that land like a gut punch – but he knew how to build toward a moving emotional climax. I’m a relatively stoic movie-goer. There are only two times where a movie has made me burst into sobs, and both times were in films directed by Mike Nichols. He was a director who understood us better than we understood ourselves, but had the patience and respect for us so that he would entertain us first. Lurking underneath the bubbly laughs, however, is not a lesson, exactly, but more of an acknowledgment. Nichols saw the best and worst of us, and his films were (mostly) optimistic that the good impulses would prevail. There will never be another director like him.