As an eight-year old boy traveling from Europe to America with his younger brother, Mike Nichols would grow up to more than live the American Dream. He became a Tony and Oscar winning director, and Grammy recipient for his comedy records. Nichols had the kind of life that an immigrant boy could only imagine in a fairytale.
There are many good sources on Nichols, one of the best is Mike Nichols: A Life by Mark Harris. This is a deeply researched and detailed book. Harris’ book was quite helpful in my own research.
Mike Nichols had several successful careers. First as an improvisational comedian, as part of Nichols & May. They played clubs, and appeared on television, in commercials and on Broadway. Like Martin & Lewis, Stiller & Meara, Burns & Carlin, Martin & Rowan, comedy duos were all the rage in those days.</
After Nichols split with Elaine May, his interest in directing quickly led him back to Broadway. As a performer, he was always interested in staging, timing and overall presentation.
Nichols directed the Broadway plays Barefoot in the Park (1963), Luv (1964) and The Odd Couple (1965) in succession, earning a Tony Award for each.
He then added films to his resume by directing Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolff? (1966), a surprise box office and critical hit, earning Nichols a Best Directing Oscar nomination. In his first film he directed Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton in a film about heavy drinking and verbal jousting (not just off screen). Not bad for a debut.
Then came The Graduate (1967) and a Best Director Oscar. This was a groundbreaking film in many ways. Films never looked or sounded the same after The Graduate. Nichols had not yet directed his first film when he signed to direct The Graduate. It was his strength of his theater work that had Hollywood knocking.
The story of The Graduate is the subject of one of my past blogs. Sadly, Nichols would never top or replicate the impact of The Graduate.
He returned to Broadway to direct Neil Simon’s Plaza Suite (1968) which awarded him another Tony. This would be a familiar pattern of bouncing between Hollywood and New York. Nichols directed numerous Simon plays, mainly early in his career.
The man could do no wrong. Well, not exactly. Nichols then entered a wobbly phase of his career with more missteps than hits, but had some of his great successes fixing other people’s projects.
The decade of the 1970s brought Nichols back to earth. He would look back on this period and try to figure out what happened.
On television, Nichols lent his skills to helping develop the series Family. On Broadway, directed The Prisoner of Second Avenue (1971), winning another Tony, and he retooled Annie (1977), which rewarded him with millions of dollars, and directed The Gin Game (1977).
Outside of the controversial Carnal Knowledge (1971), his early 1970s films were Catch-22 (1970), The Day of the Dolphin (1973) and The Fortune (1975), none of them critical or commercical hits.
Nichols turned down many good films, including: The Exorcist, Melvin and Howard, Chinatown, The Jerk, Heaven Can Wait, Animal House, Looking For Mr. Goodbar.
Nichols spent the last half of the 1970s focused on Broadway, his biggest success was Streamers (1976). Film projects fell apart, a new phenomenon for Nichols. For the rest of his career, Nichols would struggle to find projects that created enough interest and that could go the distance. He had a film cancelled after shooting began, a very expensive realization that the film and cast did not work. In his career, there would be many cases where in discussions or script/play development the project would collapse or he would lose interest. Nichols did reunited with May in a short-lived play.
In the 1980s, he directed just five films, again spending a great deal of time in the theater. His first film of the decade was Gilda Live (1980) a film of Radner’s one-person Broadway show.
Then came Silkwood (1983) the thriller about Karen Silkwood, the plutonium factory worker who is terrorized after bring forward complaints about questionable safety practices at the facility. A surprise hit, given the subject controversial subject matter. Silkwood was also the first collaboration with Meryl Streep. Streep and Emma Thompson would be his “go to” actors going forward.
Silkwood also helped Nichols regain his mojo, so until his next must-do film arrived, Broadway would provide him with several hits. These were: My One and Only (1983), The Real Thing (winning him another Tony) (1983), Hurlyburly (1984) and The Spook Show (1984).
His next three films were Heartburn (1986), reuniting him with Jack Nicholson and Streep in the caustic comedy/drama, the fictionalized account of Nora Ephron and Carl Bernstein’s off-the-rails marriage. Ephron had co-written Silkwood and Nichols anxiously awaited her to publish Heartburn. Filming began and then it stopped. The original lead male actor was fired and Nicholson stepped in. Meryl Streep was playing the Ephron character and was immediately concerned that Nicholson’s large personality would imbalance the story. The resulting film collected more notoriety than box office receipts.
In between bringing challenging films and plays to fruition, Nichols’ mother died, he had a heart attack, his third marriage was ending, he was abusing drugs, Heartburn bombed and he wondered what other obstacle life would throw at him.
Then, Nichols directed Neil Simon’s Biloxi Blues (1988), his army remembrance comedy, and finally the film he was waiting for, Working Girl (1988).
Both he and the studio believed in the Cinderella story of Working Girl, they waited a year to begin it, while Nichols directed Biloxi Blues and got his life together. Both films made money, but neither were bonafide hits.
In 1988, after finishing Working Girl, he and Diane Sawyer married. His fourth, her first. They would be together until his death.
The 1990s found Nichols on solid ground. He chose his films carefully. Postcards From the Edge (1990) was a ready-made commercial hit. Carrie Fisher’s best seller and adapted screenplay gave Nichols can’t miss material. An all-star cast ensured this would be a huge box office success, only it was not. Nichols’ films seemed to generate publicity, but it never turned into massive box office business.
Regarding Henry (1991) reunited Nichols with Harrison Ford from Working Girl. The film was very lightweight material, a tearjerker and popcorn film. It was also the first screenplay by J.J. Abrams. The film paled in comparison to Nichols best work. This wasn’t the hit that Nichols wanted. Nichols was making very expensive above the line budget films; meaning big star salaries and location expenses. The films had to generate big box office to just break even.
Back to Broadway, he directed Death and the Maiden. Then he announced that as he headed into homestretch of his career, he found focus on films, not theater. He saw his own mortality as friends around him were dying of AIDS.
Wolf (1994) brought Nicholson and Nichols back together in a werewolf story. Not a terrible film, just a silly effort to breathe life into a horror story with sharp social commentary and making Nicholson’s character a real sexual animal. Again, another very expensive film that underperformed.
The Birdcage (1996) is Nichols last important film. Not on the order of The Graduate, but Nichols’s next highest grossing film. A wild comedy of outrageous performances that have the ring of truth. Adapted from La Cage aux Folles. This was Nichols at his best.
Primary Colors (1998) is loosely based on the Bill Clinton presidential campaign. Nichols plays traffic cop to all the characters and intersecting conflicts. There’s a lot of gloss, but little substance and no new insight into a campaign. Sadly, it opened just after the Monica Lewinski story broke, which killed the box office.
What Planet Are You From? (2000) is one of the oddest projects for Nichols. A misfire like The Fortune, it struggles for laughs from an all-star cast that includes Garry Standling, Annette Benning, Ben Kingsley, John Goodman and Greg Kinnear. Shandling, who had his successful cable shows, conceived this as a small, offbeat film. Enter Nichols and overnight the film changed into a huge budgeted film with massive expectations. A war developed between Nichols and Shandling, and the little, quirky film reportedly lost the studio $90M. Personally, I found a lot fun, silliness really, in this harmless little film. Enough said.
Next up was Wit (2001), an HBO film, which went so well he did Angels in America (2003), an HBO six-part series based on the Pulitzer Pride-winning play. Nichols excelled with rich characters whose lives cross-cross while dealing with a variety of personal and health issues. The series won many awards including 11 Emmy Awards, including two for Nichols.
Closer (2004) was an adaptation of the play of the same name. An interconnected series of characters. Strong performances by Julia Roberts, Clive Owen, Jude Law and Natalie Portman. Nichols brings out great emotions from his actors in a story that may ring true but can be sad to watch. The film was very successful and nominated for numerous awards. This film reminded me of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolff? in emotional temperature.
Nichols had been approached by Eric Idle of Monty Python to help stage what would become Spamalot. Forget about not returning to Broadway, he could not turn down this project. Nichols did what he did best, he edited and shaped the show, and established the pacing. It ran on Broadway for four years.
Charlie Wilson’s War (2007) turned out to be Nichols’ last film and he went out on a high note. Based on a true story, Tom Hanks, Julia Roberts and Philip Seymour Hoffman bring their A game to comedy-drama about funding arms to Afghan rebels to fight a Russian invasion. Hanks produced the film from a script by Aaron Sorkin (The West Wing). By this time, Nichols was struggling with his health, particularly during the tough filming in Morocco. What surprised me then were the action sequences in the film. Nichols did not direct that type of film, and reportedly some scenes had to be redone back in California.
Nichols finished his career where it had begun, the theater. He tackled Death of a Salesman (2012). It was a labored limited-run, his health in decline. He won his seventh Tony Award for directing.
In his last years, Nichols was presented with every award for theater and film, deservedly so. What is Mike Nichols legacy? I mentioned his three distinctive careers. Besides the Grammy, Tony and Oscar awards, his work was ahead of its time. Although he directed dramas, it was his comedy and biting societal commentaries that defined his ability to be both funny and insightful. The trouble was, early in his career he set the bar so high that he had trouble meeting it again after that. He continued to win Tony Awards in the theater, and supervise material that would become huge hits like Annie and Spamalot, but his early work was brilliant. The same could be said for his films. Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolff?, The Graduate and Carnal Knowledge were hugely influential and powerful films. It was not until The Birdcage that he touched that quality again.
Nichols was attracted to a certain kind of film, and he was best in working with certain writers: Elaine May, Buck Henry, Nora Ephron, Aaron Sorkin, Neil Simon, Jules Feiffer. He did not direct Westerns, science fiction, horror, war, period pieces or action (minor exception). Arguably, his best work was inside-out type character studies. His best plays and films had strong human conflict that drew empathy from the audience. You did not have to like the characters to accompany them on their journey, but you were drawn into their story.
Benjamin Braddock: “Mrs. Robinson, if you don’t mind my saying so, this conversation is getting a little strange.”