MIKE NICHOLS (1931-2014): How can you capture Mike Nichols' legacy easily? It's a series of dayenus: If he had only been half of Nichols and May, which helped redefine what sketch comedy would do, it would have been enough for us; if he had only directed The Graduate and not any of the other 20+ films he directed for screen and tv, my goodness, what a generation-defining, innovative, great film.
And yet there was also Carnal Knowledge. And Primary Colors. And Working Girl, a modern feminist fairy tale done right. And everything he did for the stage, including seven Tony Awards for Best Directing across a 41-year-span as well as introducing Whoopi Goldberg to the world through her amazing one-woman show.
This anecdote from Mark Harris' recounting of the making of The Graduate remains my favorite Nichols story:
When he had decided to make The Graduate three and a half years earlier, Nichols thought he knew exactly what his satirical targets were. ''I said some fairly pretentious things about capitalism and material objects, about the boy drowning in material things and saving himself in the only possible way, which was through madness,'' he recalls. But the deeper he got into the shoot and the more intensely he pushed Hoffman past what the actor thought he could withstand, the more Nichols realized that something painful and personal was at stake, and always had been, in his attraction to the story. ''My unconscious was making this movie,'' he says. ''It took me years before I got what I had been doing all along — that I had been turning Benjamin into a Jew. I didn't get it until I saw this hilarious issue of MAD magazine after the movie came out, in which the caricature of Dustin says to the caricature of Elizabeth Wilson, 'Mom, how come I'm Jewish and you and Dad aren't?' And I asked myself the same question, and the answer was fairly embarrassing and fairly obvious.''
Nichols — the immigrant, the observer, the displaced boy — finally understood why it had taken him years to settle on an actor to play Benjamin. ''Without any knowledge of what I was doing,'' he said, ''I had found myself in this story.'' And in Hoffman, he had found an on-screen alter ego — someone he could admonish for his failings, challenge to dig deeper, punish for his weaknesses, praise to bolster his confidence, and exhort to prove every day that he was the right man for the role. By the time the actor got into Benjamin's Alfa Romeo to shoot the montage in which he drives across the Golden Gate Bridge to find Elaine, ''I don't really think they cared whether I lived or died,'' Hoffman says, laughing. ''There was a helicopter and a remote, and the direction I got was, 'Pass every car.' Traffic was moving fast, and I would hear on the walkie-talkie, 'Just drive.' I remember thinking, I can't get hurt — this is only a movie!''