Mike Nichols was at various points a colossus of film, theatre, television and comedy and worked with the very best actors, playwrights, screenwriters and craftsmen throughout a long and illustrious career spanning six decades.
A Nichols project suggested a keen intelligence, sophistication and class – the puzzling Garry Shandling vehicle What Planet Are You From? (2000) aside – in whatever medium it was presented in. A member of the Actors Studio, the nascent Second City inmprov troupe, one half of the pioneering comedy duo Nichols & May, a feted Tony Award winning Broadway theatre director of Neil Simon comedies, an Oscar-winning film-maker of The Graduate (1967) and in the latter part of his career, creatively reborn on cable television with ambitious adaptations of prestige plays.
With such a broad and varied career, there were peaks and valleys and certainly his film output was erratic, the success of any one project seemed to depend on the strength of his collaborators and the material he had to work with. Indeed, Nichols abandoned film-making for eight years between 1975 and 1983 after the consecutive failure of Day of the Dolphin (1973) and The Fortune (1975).
After starting out of the gate with Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolff and The Graduate, two huge commercial and critical successes in ’66 and ’67, Nichols was given carte blanche by the studios and stumbled in 1970 bringing Joseph Heller’s brilliant anti-war novel Catch 22 to the big screen. Both Virginia Woolf and The Graduate were stylish, darkly comic satires of contemporary sexual mores and generational divides that were for mainstream film-making, groundbreaking in their treatment of adult subject matter. The star-studded Catch 22 seemed like the perfect match of director and material but the expensive project ended up being overshadowed by Robert Altman’s MASH in the same year, a film which also tackled war in a decidedly absurdist if more counter-cultural fashion with Nichols himself admitting in an interview a few years back, “I didn’t really find a completely successful way of translating the surrealism of the novel….If I could do it again, I would like to think it could be funnier and have more Heart. It was very cold, too.”
Catch 22 (1970)
Nichols recovered somewhat with Carnal Knowledge in 1971, possibly his bleakest and cruelest portrait of relationships but the arguably misogynist viewpoint of its male protagonists portrayed by Jack Nicholson and Art Garfunkel kept audiences at a chilly distance.
Carnal Knowledge (1971)
After the aforementioned Dolphin sunk at the box office and the seemingly can’t miss Beatty-Nicholson pairing did, Nichols took a break, came back to prominence with the gritty true-life drama Silkwood in ’83 and from then on produced tasteful, relatively commercial entertainments that more often than not with the likes of Working Girl (1988), Wolf (1994), Postcards From The Edge (1990), Patrick Marber adaptation Closer (2004) and Charlie Wilson’s War (2007) were an impressive showcase for dark wit, occasional subversiveness and charismatic big star performances, often effortlessly straddling a fine line between comedy and drama.
Nichols heart seemed to return to the stage towards the end, guiding the Monty Python musical Spamalot to huge success and tailoring acclaimed modern plays such as Wit (2001) and Angels and America (2003) for the small screen to award-winning effect. Perhaps there is the sense among critics – David Thomson rather cruelly dismissed his later works stating that Nichols post-’60s work made you walk out of the cinema, wondering why did they ever bother to make this? – that as a film-maker, he never quite lived up to his early promise, the personal style of those movies giving way to that of a more impersonal director for hire in the 1980’s and 90’s who focused on character and script, sacrificing his voice and becoming more a factory director in the old Hollywood style. That may or may not be true but what is certain is that he was a significant cultural figure who leaves behind an impressive body of work that show his talents as a dramatist if not a consistent auteurist.