Mike Nichols and The Business of Living
In Andrew Sarris’ fascinating, infuriating (and badly-in-need-of-an-update) manifesto, American Cinema, Mike Nichols was dismissed along with Stanley Kubrick, Richard Lester and Norman Jewsion as a director whose work was less than meets the eye. Like many hot directors in the 1960s, Nichols wore his style on his sleeve. The two films that insured his A-list status, Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf? (1966) and The Graduate (1967), gleefully utilised all the toys available to a thirtysomething boy wonder of that period: self-conscious editing and cinematography, stylised production design, hypernaturalistic acting, and a willingness to break down the crumbling dicates of the Hays Code. Until the mid-’70s, Nichols, like many of his peers, embraced the European ideal of the personal filmmaker. He continued to choose projects that gave cinematic expression to a tragicomic sensibility forged in the mid-1950s and early ’60s when the director was then best known as one of half of the improvisational duo, Nichols and May.
Then around 1975, Nichols dropped out of the virtual reality of New Hollywood. For almost a decade, he directed plays or executive produced television or film projects. When he returned to feature filmmaking with Silkwood in 1983, a sea change had occurred in his work. Although Silkwood was an ostensibly ’60s film dealing with corporate corruption, political activism, class and gender, the film was, at its core, a character study about a woman and her friendships. Silkwood was also unadorned by the visual flourishes (especially those that annoyed a hardline auteurist like Sarris) that had made him such a quintessential ’60s director. The film would also be the last time until Primary Colors (1998) that Nichols would make a film about the kind of big ideas—politics, war, sex, death, alienation, etc.—that were de rigeur for a director of his stature and autonomy. That kind of seriousness would be satisfied through his theatre work, most notably David Rabe’s Hurlyburly, Tom Stoppard’s The Real Thing, Ariel Dorfman’s Death and The Maiden and Samuel Beckett’s Waiting For Godot. However, the films would focus almost exclusively on the politics of the personal: the process by which individuals and groups interact on a daily basis, the minutiae of the business of living, and the gap between domesticity and romance in relationships. Conflicts which Nichols often sought to explore through romantic comedy.
This major shift in ambition and approach by Nichols did not endear him to critics, although his films continued to be successful with audiences. David Thomson says his post-’60s work made you walk out of the cinema, wondering why did they ever bother to make this? Such elegant dismissiveness may make Thomson fun to read, but does little to explain or illuminate what Nichols does. Nichols has become a kind of anti-Kubrick, an enigmatic filmmaker who uses his power to make seemingly modest, self-effacing film souffles. Outside of the usual film junket type publicity, there has been little serious commentary about Nichols’ work (the only book length study on Nichols by Wayne H. Schuth came out in 1978, when many assumed he had retired from film). Yet beneath the laughter, Nichols’ ironic sensibility remains remarkably consistent in the second half of his filmmaking career. It is a form of irony that may be out of fashion with those for whom irony means never having to think too deeply about any one idea for too long, but for those trying to reconcile the gap between dream and nightmare in their waking life, Nichols work continues to resonate.
Born in Berlin on November 6, 1931 as Michael Igor Peschkowsky, Nichols came with his German-Jewish family to the USA when he was seven. The death of his father when he was twelve dealt a financial blow to his family. Although he was raised with aspirational middle class values, he worked hard to win scholarships that got him a place at the University of Chicago. It appears he grew quickly disenchanted with academic life. He supported himself with odd jobs including janitor, post-office clerk, hotel night clerk, and stablehand (the last led to a life long interest in raising horses). He dropped out to study acting with Lee Strasberg in New York and then returned to Chicago to work and perform with a group of young actors that formed The Compass. This restaurant/cabaret/theatre (whose history and legacy is beautifully documented in Janet Coleman’s book) brought Nichols into contact with Alan Arkin, Severn Darden, Barbara Harris, Roger Bowen, Paul Sills and other brilliant, eccentric, tempermental talents.
Of this group, Elaine May became the most important figure in Nichols’ personal and professional life. They quickly formed a creative partnership developing inspired comic riffs on the archetypal man-woman dynamics: mother/son, boyfriend/girlfriend, doctor/patient, student/teacher, etc. After leaving The Compass, they became superstars of the Satire Boom of the period. Along with Lenny Bruce, Jules Feiffer, Mort Sahl, Lord Buckley, and Terry Southern, they were pioneers in extending the range and subject matter of American comedy. From 1956 through 1961, Nichols and May achieved mainstream success by making fun of the mainstream middle class sacred cows—going to college, dating and sexual etiquette, psychoanalysis, the distinction between high and low culture, doing the right thing with respect to one’s parents/employer/spouse/president/personal God. The recordings and film footage of their best years has for, the most part, not dated. Although they poked fun at the middle class, they did so from the inside out. The delightful agony of making the first romantic move on a date, the banality of talk-show chatter, the difficulty of explaining a career choice to one’s parents, or the officiousness of doctors, funeral directors, or other figures of good standing in the community remain fertile situations for comic and satiric study. Over time they developed a repertoire of popular skits, but each live performance took on the quality of jazz. In fact it was this high-wire quality that led to Nichols and May parting ways. May was easily bored and wanted to improvise more, whereas Nichols loved to refine and fine-tune what already existed. By the time Arthur Penn directed them in An Evening With Nichols and May, the two were sick of working with each other.
After his debut on the Great White Way with Neil Simon’s Barefoot In The Park, Nichols quickly became a highly sought after Broadway theatre director. His reputation as a kind of renaissance boy wonder helped him set up his first two films, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and The Graduate. The former was a pitch-perfect translation of Edward Albee’s absurdist play about an academic couple gone to seed. Nichols was also one of the few directors to take the formidable talent and star power of Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton and use it to good purpose. The unforgiving cinematography of Haskell Wexler and the grimness of Richard Sylbert’s set design also heightened the desperation of Martha and George’s marital prison.
If Virginia Woolf demonstrated Nichols’ genius for translating theatre to film, The Graduate proved Nichols could achieve greatness with modest source material. Charles Webb’s novel is a spartan tale about disaffected youth that resembles a mouse squeak compared to the lion’s roar of Philip Roth, William Burroughs, Thomas Pynchon, or Richard Brautigan. Yet working closely with Buck Henry (after an earlier draft by Calder Willingham), Nichols turned a minor book into an iconic ’60s film. With Dustin Hoffman as Benjamin Braddock, Nichols helped to usher in the dominance of a new kind of male actor in American films. As is often the case with social satire, Nichols was accused of superficiality, misogyny, ripping off Fellini, and various other cinematic war crimes by critics who resented the film’s broad appeal. Although the film barely references the counter-culture (despite a major section of the film being shot in Berkeley), it vividly captures the uncertainity, distrust of authority, and willingness to take risks experienced by the baby boom generation. Yet the film’s famous ambivalent ending also suggests that this same generation may prove to be more reactionary and selfish than their parents at day’s end. The Graduate remains a powerful fable about the difficulties of rebellion in a consumer culture where choice is rampant and yet illusory.
Mike Nichols once jokingly referred to Catch-22 (1970) as his “green awning film”. After a major success, the studios would let you make a film about people walking under a green awning. The logic being if it were a hit, they had bet on a sure thing. If it were a flop, Mr. Auteur would go back to being a hired hand and deliver bums on seats with his next picture.
Impeccably designed and cast, Nichols mammoth adaptation of Joseph Heller’s classic anti-war novel was released just after Robert Altman’s M*A*S*H stunned critics and audiences with its irreverent combination of gore and slapstick. Nichols’ film appeared too calculated and fussy compared to the rawness of Altman. The passage of time reveals that there is very little wrong with Nichols’ film. The period detail is spot on. The special effects are near flawless, combining real aerial footage with back projection. Alan Arkin is a sympathetic Yossarian. The various character parts played by a veritable who’s who of acting talent (including Jon Voight, Bob Newhart, Anthony Perkins, Martin Balsalm, Paula Prentiss and Art Garfunkel) reinforce Nichols’ interpretation of the novel as a series of insane black-out sketches. And yet, in spite of the film’s picaresque quality, Nichols’ film, thanks to Buck Henry’s script, with its repeating dream sequence set in a damaged bomber cockpit, is as immaculately structured as one of Harold Pinter’s celebrated screen adaptations. In spite of its undeserved reputation as a failure (even Nichols finds it difficult to like the film), Catch-22 endures as one of the finest achievements of the era. If only all “failed films” were this well crafted, thoughtful, full of comic energy, and beautiful to look at (David Watkins’ cinematography is as near visionary as Vittorio Storaro’s work on Apocalypse Now).
Nichols recovered from the negative reception of Catch-22 with Carnal Knowledge (1971). Jules Feiffer’s original screenplay is a scathing deconstruction of the sexual attitudes of males who came of age in the ’50s. As the two college pals, Jonathan (Jack Nicholson) and Sandy (Art Garfunkel), get older, their adolescent randiness grows into something darker. Jonathan begins to hate the women he lusts for…a form of self-loathing that freezes into literal and metaphorical impotence. Sandy slides into and out of suburban complacency only to be reborn as a weekend hippie escaping a mid-life crisis by chasing younger women. Neil LaBute has tried to replicate Carnal Knowledge‘s unremitting view of the battle of the sexes, but his work lacks the sense of tragedy Nichols and his cast invest into the film. Sandy and Jonathan are victims as much as predators; men adrift in an illusory world of choice.
By the mid-’70s, the seemingly limitless choices available to Nichols would lead to confusion in his own work. Day of The Dolphin (1973) and The Fortune (1975) are somewhat unsuccessful attempts to rework genres—the political thriller and the bedroom farce, respectively. Nichols inherited Dolphin from Roman Polanski, who realized it was hard not to make even the most serious film about talking fish look not a little ridiculous. Yet if the film is no Klute (Alan J. Pakula, 1971), it can still hold up its head high thanks to the sheer craft and conviction with which it is made. Marketed as a family picture, it probably introduced an entire generation of youngsters to fatalistic endings and Kissingeresque realpolitik.
The Fortune had the (no pun intended) misfortune of starting like a mad-cap road movie and then downshifting into an Beckett-like one setter thanks to Carol Eastman’s unfinished screenplay. Warren Beatty, Jack Nicholson, and Stockard Channing play the accidental menage à trois with an aphetamine-like enthusiasm. The Coen Brothers are reportedly big fans of The Fortune and one can detect that everything-and-the-kitchen-sink quality in their more problematic films like The Hudsucker Proxy (1993) and The Big Lebowski (1998).
The poor critical and commercial reception of these two films dealt a serious blow to Nichols’ confidence as a director. He left The Last Tycoon during preproduction (Elia Kazan took over). Then after a highly publicised on-set dispute with Robert De Niro, Nichols abandoned The Man Who Looked Like Bogie after several days of filming. Nichols’ professional life was also complicated by divorce and struggles with depression. He dealt with these setbacks by concentrating on his work in the theatre where he continued to have enormous success. He also executive produced the moderately successful, The Family, for ABC television, an innovative series that was a precursor to the likes of thirtysomething and Six Feet Under.
Following the aforementioned Silkwood, Nichols seems to have been reborn. As he told an interviewer, his aesthetic had changed: “you use the technical things to make people completely unaware of technical things.” Nichols the expressionist had become Nichols the seemless craftsman.
Yet his post-’60s/’70s work yields many discreet pleasures and insights. If Heartburn (1986) was nowhere near as brutally honest as Nora Ephron’s source novel, it did feature some wonderful character playing from the likes of Milos Forman, Jeff Daniels, Catherine O’Hara and Kevin Spacey. Far more successful was Biloxi Blues (1988) which features one of the most ravishing opening and closing shots in a service comedy ever made. I would argue that the film is probably the greatest Neil Simon adaptation after The Odd Couple (Gene Saks, 1968). As an alternative look at life during wartime, the film would make a wonderful double with John Boorman’s Hope and Glory (1987). The interplay between Matthew Broderick as the young recruit and Christopher Walken as the semi-psychotic drill sargeant is revelatory in its combination of laughter and melancholy.
Working Girl (1988) and Postcards From The Edge (1990) highlighted Nichols as one of the few mainstream directors to make films for women confronting choices. If the satire in neither film is as sharp as The Graduate or Carnal Knowledge, Nichols’ ability to bring surprising performances from his cast remained. Melanie Griffith has rarely been as good before or since Working Girl. While the various cameos in Postcards enhance the concept of Hollywood as a Cheers-like bar where everyone knows your name until of course a bigger name comes along. Gene Hackman almost steals Postcards as the veteran director who delivers some hard won wisdom to Meryl Streep’s drug sodden character. Postcards‘ film-within-a-film opening was also a sly nod to those in the audience wondering where Nichols the stylist had gone.
Regarding Henry (1991) and Wolf (1994) were both attempts to examine masculinity in crisis as viewed from New York’s Upper West Side. Once again, Nichols’ ability to bring out interesting performances from his cast was present, but the scripts were unworthy of someone so effortlessly clever and witty as Nichols. The Nichols fan had to content himself with subsidiary pleasures—Annette Bening’s warmth and Guiseppe Rotunno’s cinematography in Henry or Ennio Morricone’s sensual score for Wolf.
The Birdcage (1996), a remake of La Cage aux folles (Edouard Molinaro, 1978), matched Nichols’ gifts with the material for his most cohesive film in ages. The film also reunited Nichols with Elaine May. Her knack for making a feast out of misunderstandings and red herrings rejuvenated a project which could have been another paint-by-numbers big studio remake. Nichols and May both understand that the source material is essentially Charley’s Aunt with racier dialogue, but they manage to bring a lot of the then-contemporary debate about family values into the mix. Although the film is in the final analysis a farce, it is certainly more beautiful to look at than Molinaro’s original.
Primary Colours released in the same year as Warren Beatty’s out-of-nowhere samizdat Bulworth (argubly the greatest film Donald Cammell never got around to directing) also had the misfortune to coincide with the real-life satire that became the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal. Adapted from Joe Klein’s bestselling satire, Colours was intended to be the final word on the diminishing returns of old style Roosevelt liberalism in a new political universe of post-modern spin. Instead, the film looked suspiciously like instant nostalgia to many viewers and critics. Like Catch-22, Primary Colours will eventually earn the respect it deserves. Few American films of recent years have cast such a thorough, critical, yet sympathetic look at the people and processes that shape public policy. The film is also a return to the epic themes that distinguished Nichols’ most celebrated films.
Judging by the evidence of his most recent work, Wit (2001), and the as-yet unreleased Angels In America (both made for HBO), Nichols is undergoing yet another major shift in his work. Wit was an almost Kubrickian look at death and dying. Emma Thompson’s near monologue blocked out with the precision of the drill instructor scenes in Full Metal Jacket (1987) and just as intense and harrowing. Angels, from all accounts, could be Nichols’ Berlin Alexanderplatz (Rainer Werner Fassbinder, 1980). Tony Kushner’s award winning play has been reconfigured as a multi-part series with Al Pacino as Roy Cohn, as well as the tantalising likes of Simon Callow, Mary Louise-Parker, Michael Gambon, and Jeffrey Wright.
In spite of a puzzling lack of sustained critical study, Nichols has continued to influence a new generation of film directors. Sam Mendes, Wes Anderson, Spike Jonze, Steven Soderbergh, Whit Stillman and the Coen Brothers have all rescued irony from the tarpit that has become post-modernism. Anyone seriously wanting to learn about film acting would be remiss not to watch at least one Nichols’ film. Regardless of his lack of interest in some of the scripts he is filming, there is nothing complacent about Nichols’ love of actors. He is neither overly reverent or uncaring about their status. His recent virtuoso performance in Wallace Shawn’s The Designated Mourner (filmed by David Hare in 1996) shows a man who is not afraid to take the same risks he demands from his cast. There is arguably no more unforgiving or moving dissection of well intentioned, middle class complacency committed to celluloid in recent years. It is a performance made all the more so because it comes close to being autobiography.
Nichols is after all a director who has enjoyed enormous critical and commercial success for almost five decades. He was always more boy wonder than enfant terrible. As a consequence, he has paid the price at times for being more liked than disliked. As a filmmaker, he has made puzzling choices (why The Fortune, Regarding Henry or Wolf and not Blue Movie, Remains Of The Day, or All The Pretty Horses?), but then he is not alone in making the odd misstep. For many years, Nichols has paid the price of being Hollywood and Broadway’s Mr. Success, but he has not lost his experience of not quite fitting in with a system that has rewarded him so often. His work, as seen as much as one can, as a whole, has been about individuals trying to go about the business of living with as much dignity, good humour and hope as they can muster. The world appears to conspire against these efforts. It is in this gap between reality and desire that Nichols finds a brand of humour and tragedy that is uniquely his.
Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966)
The Graduate (1967)
Carnal Knowledge (1971)
The Day of the Dolphin (1973)
The Fortune (1975)
Gilda Live (1980)
The Gin Game (1981)
Biloxi Blues (1988)
Working Girl (1988)
Postcards From the Edge (1990)
Regarding Henry (1991)
The Birdcage (1996)
Primary Colors (1998)
What Planet Are You From? (2000)
Angels in America (2003)
Film about Nichols:
Nichols and May: Take Two (1996) American Masters TV series (PBS). Superb 60 min. documentary with archive footage and commentary from Steve Allen, Steve Martin, Robin Williams and others.
Janet Coleman, The Compass: The Improvisational Theatre That Revolutionised American Theatre, University of Chicago Press, 1991
Wayne H. Schluth, Mike Nichols, Twayne, 1978
Joseph Gelmis Mike Nichols, The Film Director As Superstar, Doubleday, 1970
Gavin Smith, “Without Cutaways”, Film Comment, May–June, 1991
Gavin Smith, “Of Metaphors and Purpose: Mike Nichols Interviewed”, Film Comment, May–June, 1999
Interview with Nichols. Also inludes an introduction piece.
Film Directors – Articles on the Internet
Several links to articles here.
Two interviews with Nichols.
Click here to search for Mike Nichols DVDs, videos and books at