Thursday, November 20, 2014

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!''


  1. Adam B.11:12 AM

    The $65 funeral.

  2. What's always been most remarkable about Nichols' career to me is the breadth of it. From thrillers like Day of the Dolphin to small dramas like Regarding Henry to broad farce like The Bird Cage, he did pretty much everything. It's rare to have that breadth in a filmography.

  3. Adlai1:04 PM

    Also, I believe he used to tend bar at Jimmy's.

  4. Adam B.2:07 PM

    Mark Harris, on FB:

    "It's hard to find words today to express my feelings about Mike Nichols, a man whose brilliance, kindness, insight, and generosity were, for me, transformational. In many ways, he changed my life by helping to make my first book possible, and his friendship over the last ten years gave me a chance to understand what so many of the people he worked with over a more than fifty-year career knew: He raises you up. He makes you better than you are. His insight is like a laser and his approval, with which he is profligate, is like a sunbeam. I don't have the heart yet to put those last lines in the past tense because I think all of us who knew him are going to try to keep him alive in ourselves. I think of him today with sorrow, but also with deep gratitude and love."

  5. Alex_Gordon2:23 PM

    I, too, was taken at the breadth of his career, and even more so at how he rebounded on several occasions from sub-par work (Regarding Henry might be one of my least favorite films of all time).

  6. Adam B.2:29 PM

    Written by JJ Abrams.

  7. mikeski3:33 PM

    "introducing Whoopi Goldberg to the world"
    And yet, almost miraculously, his career was a net positive.

  8. Such an amazing career - he proved through his career that popular culture can be intellectual, entertaining, and yes, varied. I'm not sure there's anyone else who's created or influenced so much of the art that has influenced me. RIP.

  9. Joseph Finn9:33 PM

    Also, I like Day of the Dolphin.

  10. Alex_Gordon11:19 AM

    Wow. Interesting.