Mike Nichols got his start in the theater. One could not know that and still guess it from watching his films, even the ones not based on plays. The veteran director, who died yesterday of undisclosed causes, had a long, healthy career in the movies, breaking into Hollywood in the late 1960s and continuing to produce acclaimed work in the industry over the four decades that followed. But his sensibilities, honed in the vibrant stage communities of New York and Chicago, remained proudly and recognizably theatrical. He took from Broadway not just source material to adapt, but also a fundamental investment in dialogue and those delivering it. His best films put two or more people in a room, let the sparks fly, and then got the hell out of the way.
Nichols was, in other words, an actor’s director. For him, filmmaking was a way to highlight—and never to overshadow—the contributions of the performers. That ethos informed his shooting strategy: Never the most dynamic of visual stylists, he used the camera to soak in the feeling his actors transmitted—as when, for example, he opened his good-enough-for-theaters HBO film Wit with a series of invasive close-ups. Even The Graduate, which has its fair share of iconic and celebrated images, is primarily a showcase for its three leads; one could imagine the film without the famous shot between Anne Bancroft’s legs, but not without Anne Bancroft.
Because of his generous treatment of talent, Nichols had no trouble attracting a who’s who of A-list stars to his projects, and his filmography doubles as a kind of highlight reel of Hollywood acting from the ’60s onward. But where does one begin with a career that spans 40 years? Below, we’ve singled out seven of Nichols’ most essential films—a miniature primer on the intimate dramas and farcical comedies on which he made his name.
Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf? (1966)
Four decades on, Nichols’ feature debut remains a model of how to translate a pressure-cooker drama from stage to screen—not to mention one of the greatest feature-length quarrels committed to celluloid. Working from Edward Albee’s scandalizing play, Nichols drops an unsuspecting couple between henpecked professor George (Richard Burton) and boozing, bellowing Martha (Elizabeth Taylor), a middle-aged married couple whose domestic tiff escalates into a full-scale war of words. The performances are fierce and unflinching; Taylor, especially, digs deep, completely shedding all but the faintest traces of her celebrity glamour. But it’s Nichols who keeps the thing afloat: By carefully modulating the intensity, and controlling the pace in which tempers flair and things get out of hand, he lends credibility to the basic scenario of two strangers staying planted for the marital spat to end all marital spats. The only real misstep is a deviation from Albee’s blueprint—an escape from the single setting, a field trip that “opens up” the material in a way it shouldn’t. Chalk it to a rookie error, and marvel still that this was Nichols’ first movie. [A.A. Dowd]
The Graduate (1967)
Nichols first found fame as one-half of the comedy duo Nichols & May, which grew out of Chicago’s then-nascent improv comedy scene. With his partner Elaine May, Nichols skewered the pretensions and speech patterns of the college-educated American middle-class, producing three hit albums before disbanding in 1961. If Nichols’ film directing debut, the Edward Albee adaptation Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf?, provides the clearest through-line to his career as a stage director and actor, then his best-known film, The Graduate, is one that most clearly draws on his time in Chicago, in everything from its comic sensibility to its Simon And Garfunkel soundtrack. (Nichols created and initially hosted the folk music radio show The Midnight Special, which still broadcasts from Chicago’s WFMT.) The Graduate was a massive commercial and critical success and made a star our of Dustin Hoffman, and though it’s often held up as an iconic representation of 1960s disaffection, it’s really a product of the hip, anti-authoritarian coffee-house culture of the 1950s, where Nichols first honed his craft alongside the early folkies. [Ignatiy Vishnevetsky]
Carnal Knowledge (1971)
Overshadowed at the time of its release by controversy over its supposed obscenity, Carnal Knowledge now looks nothing like a film propagating sex, considering the way it makes sexual desire seem like a grim affliction. Jack Nicholson and Art Garfunkel star as two friends so sex-obsessed and perpetually unsatisfied they could have stepped wholesale out of a John Updike story, and the film, written by Jules Feiffer, watches with clinical detachment as their empty romances with women like Candice Bergen, Ann-Margret, and Carol Kane play out across decades of increasingly liberated mores. Nichols received some critical flak for the film’s staginess and low-wattage energy (much of which can be attributed to Garfunkel’s performance). But that very casualness makes Carnal Knowledge so properly attuned: The way these chauvinistic boys-to-men use and abuse the many women in their lives is casual, and Nichols matches their indifference with a film that mirrors that banal evil. It’s not the statement film on the Sexual Revolution that many have tried to paint it, but rather a far less revolutionary, far more honest examination of just how meaningless sex can be. [Sean O’Neal]
Postcards From The Edge (1990)
Many of Nichols’ favorite character themes—institutions based in absurdity; the struggle to maintain a sense of dignity and self within those institutions; awful people—can be found in 1990’s Postcards From The Edge. And, it must be assumed, in the life of Carrie Fisher. Nichols adapted his black comedy from Fisher’s novel, which was loosely based on Fisher’s life growing up in the shadow of her own hugely famous mother. While it’s not an exact replica of Fisher’s life—thankfully, Debbie Reynolds said that Nichols refused to let her play her loosely fictional alter ego—there’s a wry verisimilitude to its showbiz satire that borders on mockumentary, as Meryl Streep’s freshly rehabbed actress struggles with the many indignities of moviemaking. While Nichols is obviously most sympathetic to Streep, in one of her most hilariously caustic performances, he again demonstrates that he can provoke sympathy even for ostensible villains. Shirley MacLaine’s Doris is painted as overbearing, childishly competitive, and incredibly vain, yet with a single sequence—a triumphant rendition of “I’m Still Here”—Nichols gives genuine humanity to what could have been a cheap comic archetype. [Sean O’Neal]
The Birdcage (1996)
Thirty-five years after disbanding their comedy act, Nichols formally reunited with his old partner Elaine May—who’d also gone on to become an even more radical comedy filmmaker, directing The Heartbreak Kid, Mikey & Nicky, and the greatly underrated Ishtar—for a remake of the ’70s French hit La Cage Aux Folles. A farce about a gay couple masquerading as straight in order to not scare off their ultraconservative soon-to-be-in-laws might sound cringe-inducing, but it’s far from it; in fact, the combination of May’s writing and Nichols’ direction of actors makes for a surprisingly graceful movie, with Nathan Lane’s Albert serving as the locus for many of the movie’s smartest and most sensitive moments. The scene where Albert’s partner, Armand (Robin Williams), tells him to imitate John Wayne in order to seem more macho is a great comic miniature, with a pitch-perfect punchline that doubles as biting social observation. [Ignatiy Vishnevetsky]
Primary Colors (1998)
Nichols pulled off a tricky balancing act with this roman a clef, based on the book that similarly skirted legality with its “fictionalized” dissection of Bill Clinton’s 1992 presidential run. John Travolta, as charismatic, empathetic Southern governor Jack Stanton, deploys a cracked cornpone wheeze that’s obviously Clinton, as is the way Stanton’s dick constantly gets in the way of his heart—a comparison heightened by the movie’s release in 1998, at the apex of the Monica Lewinsky scandal. Yet despite Travolta’s best efforts, Primary Colors never slips entirely into broad satire or serious biopic territory. Instead, Nichols uses his talents as an actor’s director to bring genuine performances out of a killer ensemble of players—particularly Billy Bob Thornton, Emma Thompson, Kathy Bates, Larry Hagman, and Maura Tierney—whose characters may have been based on real-life figures, but who, more importantly, feel like real people, often within minutes of meeting them. Working with a screenplay from his old partner Elaine May, the duo finds that sweet spot between comedy and tragedy that is every presidential campaign. It remains one of the finest and funniest films ever made about the political process. [Sean O’Neal]
Like an update of Carnal Knowledge for the cybersex age, Nichols’ Closer examines the myriad casual betrayals that can pass for love—this time among four strangers revolving around each other in London. Once again, Nichols gets some career-best performances from an ensemble that includes Julia Roberts, Natalie Portman, Jude Law, and Clive Owen, whose intersecting romances begin star-crossed and obsessive, only to wither as that initial excitement fades, attentions stray, and selfish needs once more take precedence. From his very first time stepping behind the camera on Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf?, Nichols explored the lies people tell each other and themselves. Closer shows that his keen ability to do that, both sardonically and sympathetically, remained intact even toward the end of his career. “The heart is a fist wrapped in blood,” Owen’s character sneers at one point, and Nichols appreciated more than most the pain it could inflict—and what a tragicomic image that is. [Sean O’Neal]