Expressing the angst of a generation

Remembering Mike Nichols (two)

4 minute read
Changing the nature of comedy: Elaine May and Mike Nichols
Changing the nature of comedy: Elaine May and Mike Nichols

Unlike the great Sidney Lumet, who was only a few years older, Mike Nichols’s work wasn’t tied to the naturalistic weight of the Actors Studio and the great films of the late 1960s and 1970s. Nichols helped define the angst and joy of a generation, every decade he entered.

Many artists are outsiders. After all, what better way to study human behavior in all its glorious doubts and foibles than to stand just to the side of it? Mr. Nichols knew no English and had already lost his hair to a childhood inoculation when, at age seven, he arrived from Nazi Germany and was reunited with his family. Fitting into the neighborhood was a challenge.

Yet, at the University of Chicago in the early 1950s, he and Elaine May tapped the awkwardness of the everyman and -woman in the battle of the sexes. They and their colleagues at the birth of improvisational comedy were no longer the joke tellers of the vaudeville and Borscht Belt circuit. Instead, they humorously reflected society in sketches, quickly rising to be a touchstone of the hip and happening for the educated and urbane, much like Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert are today.

And then they both moved on, but neither let the heady fame of their early career define them. May went on to be a consummate playwright and screenwriter and Nichols discovered directing.

Simply Simon

First he turned to theater, as an early and longtime director of Neil Simon’s plays. He won four of his seven directing Tony awards for the classic Simon comedies. But he was also the interpreter of the fine drama of Stoppard, Chekov, Hellman, Rabe, and so many others. From the chamber piece of The Gin Game to a spectacular production of Annie, Nichols was not just tied to one genre.

In 1966, he brought his movable feast to the screen with the savage, raw authenticity of the repressed lives of George and Martha in Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? The movie appeared at the cusp of the women’s movement. What did it really mean to be the woman behind the man, when the man wasn’t enough? He brought to the playwright’s searing words an articulation of the visual and the emotional in every shot. Richard Burton praised him saying that, “He conspires with you to get your best. He’d make me throw away a line where I’d have hit it hard. I’ve seen the film with an audience and he’s right every time. I didn’t think I could learn anything about comedy — I’d done all of Shakespeare’s. But from him I learned.”

And the list of actors who vied to work with him, and working with him repeatedly, are the crème of stage and screen. Comedy or drama, to work with Nichols meant you were working at the top of your game. Yet, he was famously not star-driven but actor-driven. Who else but Nichols would cast the anti-leading man Dustin Hoffman in the generationally seminal role of Benjamin Braddock? Nichols, because he understood the person, the humor, and the generation just outside the traditional circle. There were two kinds of baby boomers who watched The Graduate: Those who understood and those who didn’t. We haven’t made peace with each other yet.

Finger on the pulse

Nichols continued to nail the zeitgeist. The emptiness of success in Carnal Knowledge, the true David and Goliath story with a tragic ending of Silkwood, the satirical skewering of politics in Primary Colors, the majesty of hope in the darkest hours of the AIDS epidemic in Angels in America, and one woman finding the grace of life in dying in Wit. Nichols understood character and how to explore its complexity with fine acting and in poignant pictures. When technology is often overwhelming storytelling, he was an artist whose eye integrated into the soul of the camera and became a true participant. It should be the goal of all filmmakers.

Of course not every project was a home run, but overall his batting average was stellar. It’s okay to forget Regarding Henry because we also have Working Girl.

And he always returned to the stage, mounting complex and challenging material with a clear focus and vision. How elegant his work was! Nichols has not been referred to as an auteur, but he should be. His work attests to what an auteur should be — he took each story and told it with a fresh and unique voice designed for that very moment of telling. His stamp of “auteur” was his intelligence and keen wit. From the madcap joy of Spamalot to the burning blade of Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman, Mike Nichols was a storyteller who brought a nuanced view and understanding to human failure and triumph.

He was a grand master whose work graced our lives, and yes, attention must be paid.

Above right: Burton and Taylor in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (© 1966 - Warner Bros.)

For a remembrance by Armen Pandola, click here.

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