Mike Nichols was a movie industry giant; however, he only directed 22 films between 1966 and 2007. Even so, he earned accolade after accolade and repeatedly guided performers to new levels of greatness. His last film was the fact based Charlie Wilson’s War, starring Tom Hanks, Julia Roberts, and Philip Seymour Hoffman, who earned an Academy nomination for Best Supporting Actor.
So, here is how my mind works: Mike Nichols unexpectedly passed away last week at the age of 83.
- Heralding him as a wunderkind is no overstatement as he is one of precious few individuals to have earned an Emmy (Wit and Angels in America), a Grammy (the landmark comedy album, An Evening with Mike Nichols and Elaine May), an Oscar (The Graduate), and a Tony (actually several Tonys, everything from directing Neil Simon hits such as Barefoot in the Park and The Odd Couple to producing and or directing such smash musicals as Annie and Spamalot). Furthermore, he was still in his 30s when he won his Oscar–and for only his second film, on the heels of scoring a nod for his first: 1966’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
- I remember a skit from the old Carol Burnett show in which Burnett played a somewhat jaded sophisticate reunited with an old friend–played by Vicki Lawrence, of course–the latter having once looked up to the former something fierce. The gag was that Lawrence was on the verge of a huge showbiz breakthrough but Burnett’s character just couldn’t be happy for her friend’s success and kept trying to squash her hopes, pointing out how competitive Broadway is and that Lawrence’s chances for appearing in a hit play would depend on the auspices of an established playwright–to which Lawrence responded something to the effect that her play was written by Neil Simon. Undaunted, Burnett reminded Lawrence that even a well-written play was nothing without the right director. On cue, Lawrence came back with “Mike Nichols.” Sure she did, right?
- Last week’s Entertainment Weekly features an Oscar preview, lamenting, of course, the relatively meager lineup of Best Actress possibilities, and that’s what gave me an idea about how to effectively address Nichols’ passing.
Burnett’s mean-spirited character was right. Having the right director can make all the difference to an actress, and Nichols certainly provided memorable showcases to some of Hollywood’s best. Not that it’s a contest, necessarily, but Nichols often brought out the best in actresses, particularly regarding awards consideration, more so, perhaps, than with actors though Richard Burton (Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?), Dustin Hoffman (The Graduate), Al Pacino (Angels in America), and Clive Owen (Closer) might take exception to the notion. Consider the following:
Elizabeth Taylor went for broke in 1966’s Who’s Afraid of Virgina Woolf?, snarling and growling all the way to her second Oscar victory as boozy Martha in the adaptation of Edward Albee’s Tony winner and Pulitzer contender. Whereas the Academy had–arguably–been generous with Taylor and her first Oscar for 1960’s BUtterfield 8, she more than proved her mettle with this demanding role, in which she played considerably older than her actual age.
Sandy Dennis won the Academy’s Best Supporting Actress statuette for her performance in the emotionally exhausting role of Honey, who spends an evening with Martha and George (played in the film by Taylor’s then real-life spouse, Richard Burton) that’s so volatile it causes the young woman to become physically ill. Dennis was an often mannered actress who truly needed the guidance of a confident director, and she got just that with Nichols. That he should direct two Oscar winners in only his first film ranks as a considerable achievement.
Like Elizabeth Taylor in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Bancroft might have seemed an unlikely choice to play brazen seductress Mrs. Robinson in 1967’s groundbreaking The Graduate. After all, Bancroft was still on the youngish side, approximately 36, not quite middle aged, and less than 10 years older than either Katharine Ross, as daughter Elaine (Best Supporting Actress nominee), or Dustin Hoffman, the titular recent college grad Mrs. Robinson so memorably seduces. Still, it was a career defining role for Bancroft who by that time had already won an Oscar for 1962’s The Miracle Worker. To clarify, Bancroft was bested for the 1967 trophy by Katharine Hepburn (Guess Who’c Coming to Dinner).
Nichols courted controversy with 1971’s Carnal Knowledge, playing hardball in an “obscenity” trial that went all the way to the Supreme Court of the United States, which upheld the conviction of a theatre manager who exhibited the film though the court later reversed itself, attesting that the movie, however provocative, was not necessarily pornographic. Amid all the hoopla was and is Ann-Margret’s knockout performance as a needy high strung beauty Bobbie Templeton, whose relationship with priggish Jonathan (Jack Nicholson) proves her undoing. The actress, who up until that time had mostly played featherweight ingénues, immersed herself in the part of the damaged Bobbie, so much so that she reportedly pushed herself to the brink of a nervous breakdown. She won that year’s Golden Globe for Best Supporting Actress and was a favorite to take home the Oscar as well though she was outpaced in the final stretch by the equally memorable Cloris Leachman in Peter Bogdanovich’s shot in Texas, The Last Picture Show. To clarify, Nicholson earned a Globe nod, but Margret was the sole Oscar nominee in a cast that also included Art Garfunkle, Candice Bergen, Carol Kane, and Rita Moreno.
By the mid 1970s, Bette Midler had established herself as a campy, hotter-than-hot Grammy winning cabaret artist, and Hollywood came a-callin’, but Midler turned down one film property after another. Apparently. she had been approached by Nichols for the female lead in The Fortune, alongside no less than Warren Beatty and Jack Nicholson, but for whatever reason, a deal never materialized and Nichols cast Stockard Channing in her first leading feature film role, fresh from her triumph in the Joan Rivers penned TV comedy The Girl Most Likely To. The Fortune, with Channing as a kidnapped heiress, was far from a hit though Channing garnered respectable notices and a Golden Globe nomination for Best Newcomer (or something equivalent), losing to Marilyn Hassett in The Other Side of the Mountain.
After The Fortune, Nichols took a break from films but returned in fine form with 1983’s Silkwood, starring Meryl Streep (left) as the real-life union activist and nuclear power whistleblower who died under mysterious circumstances in 1974. Streep earned her third consecutive Best Actress nod for the role, a year after her singular triumph in Sophie’s Choice; meanwhile, Cher (right) scored a Golden Globe as well as an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress in the composite role of Silkwood’s housemate, a lesbian named Dolly. Stripped of her glamour and asked to play emotionally complex scenes, Cher proved a revelation in the film though the role is pathetic and ill-conceived, a rare false note in an otherwise exceptionally crafted film. Indeed, Nichols garnered his third Best Director nomination for the film as well. Nichols and Streep would work together again throughout the next two decades. To clarify: Cher lost the Oscar to Linda Hunt (The Year of Living Dangerously) while Streep was bested by Shirley MacLaine (Terms of Endearment).
In the early 1980s, Nichols was all over Broadway, directing Glenn Close, Jeremy Irons, and Christine Baranski to Tony winning glory in Tom Stoppard’s The Real Thing. Nichols was also instrumental in discovering comedian Whoopi Goldberg. The director had been given a tip about Goldberg’s downtown comic act and liked what he saw so much that he offered to help shape the material and mount a one-woman Broadway show. The rest is history. Whoopi was a smash, attracting the attention of no less than Steven Spielberg who catapulted Goldberg to movie stardom, and an Oscar nomination, for her big screen debut as the much maligned Celie in the adaptation of Alice Walker’s Pulitzer winning novel, The Color Purple. A few years later Goldberg nabbed the Best Supporting Oscar for her role as a psychic in the crowd pleasing Ghost.
By the time Melanie Griffith appeared in Working Girl, she’d been acting in movies for more than a decade. having blazed across the screen as teenage sexpots in a trio of 1975 releases: The Drowning Pool. Night Moves, and Smile. The second generation starlet, daughter of The Birds star Tippi Hedren, earned raves in Brian DePalma’s Body Double and Jonathan Demme’s Something Wild but under Nichols’ care, she acquired the aura of a star in the role of a corporate underling plotting to stay one step ahead of the competition, earning that year’s Golden Globe for comedy and scoring her one and only Oscar nod for Best Actress. The winner that year was Jodie Foster in The Accused. Unevenly mixing office and sexual politics, Working Girl proved hugely popular nonetheless, earning Academy nominations in multiple categories including Best Picture and Best Director.
Working Girl is at its best whenever Sigourney Weaver appears as Griffith’s sly fox of a boss. Weaver savors the comically sinsiter role, finessing each line for maximum punch. Her every word to Tess (Griffith) drips with condescension, veiled insults masked as helpful hints thanks to Weaver’s cultivated tone, her velvety delivery. Weaver scored rare double Oscar nods in the 88/89 Oscar race, competing against Griffith for Best Actress (per Gorillas in the Mist), and seemingly leading the pack in the race for Best Supporting Actress. History dictated that Weaver should have won the latter, consistent with previous double acting nominees, but Geena Davis took home the trophy instead.
Joan Cusack competed against Weaver for the 1988 Best Supporting Actress Oscar. Cusack played Griffith’s wisecracking best friend in Working Girl, her performance just short of a miracle given that Nichols did not do her any favors by having her appear with garish makeup and hair that even by 1980s big hair standards seemed ugly and exaggerated. Ultimately, the only Working Girl nominee to emerge victorious was singer-songwriter Carly Simon for “Let the River Run,” the anthemic track that opens and closes the film and provides the basis for the entirety of the score.
After their lukewarm second collaboration, an adaptation of Nora Ephron’s Heartburn, Nichols and Streep reunited yet again for Postcards from the Edge, a a witty romp through Hollywood via Carrie Fisher’s semi-autobiographical novel about substance abuse and recovery as seen through the lens of a second generation film actress. After a string of emotionally demanding–and Oscar nominated–roles, Streep had recently opted for somewhat lighter fare, and Fisher’s vehicle was a perfect fit despite the character’s desperate attempt to stay sober while filming a B-action picture. Ironic detachment, movie-biz inside jokes, and clever visuals help. Streep secured yet another Oscar nod though co-star Shirley MacLaine, as Streep’s dynamo of a mom, a still high-steppin’ musical comedy star (not unlike Fisher’s real life mom, Debbie Reynolds) was not as fortunate though she secured a Golden Globe nod. Ultimately, the Academy favored Kathy Bates (Misery) over Streep.
Nichols was just about the perfect choice to direct 1998’s Primary Colors, based on the scandalous, reportedly fact based, novel that purports to take readers behind the scenes of Bill Clinton’s tumultuous first presidential campaign. John Travolta and Emma Thompson starred as the stand-ins for Bill and Hilary, respectively, but it was Kathy Bates (above), as a boisterous strategist who plays to win, that snagged the lion’s share of acclaim, earning a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination and taking home the SAG prize, among others. Nichols’ frequent partner Elaine May also earned an Oscar nomination for her script; however, both she and Bates went home empty-handed on Oscar night. Judi Dench (Shakespeare in Love) took Supporting Actress honors
Before their work in Primary Colors, Emma Thompson and Nichols had worked together on 1993’s Best Picture nominee The Remains of the Day, a Merchant-Ivory production for which Nichols served as one of the producers. The Academy responded with nominations for both Thompson (a year after her Howards End victory) and Anthony Hopkins. In 2001, Nichols cast Thompson in HBO’s adaptation of Margaret Edson’s Pultizer winning play, Wit (also known as W; t). Not surprisingly, Thompson was in the running for just about every year-end award that season, including an Emmy (natch), but she was outmatched by no less than Judy Davis, strutting her stuff with considerable abandon as Judy Garland in the mini-series penned, in part, by Garland’s daughter Lorna Luft. Even so, Nichols actually earned an Emmy for his direction of the Edson project.
Natalie Portman warranted an Academy Best Supporting Actress nomination for her performance as an enigmatic stripper in 2004’s Closer, which also featured fellow Oscar nominee Clive Owen and headliners Jude Law and Julia Roberts. This love roundelay is not for the faint-hearted, drawing unavoidable comparisons to the users in Carnal Knowledge. Portman dazzled in an extended monologue, a showy, Oscar worthy feat, but she lost the Oscar to Cate Blanchett (The Aviator) though she and Owen both secured Golden Globes.
Backing up a bit, Nichols defied all odds when he adapted Tony Kushner’s epic, Tony and Pulitzer prize winning Angels in America for television via HBO in 2003. Jumping around time and space, Kushner’s two-part play (Millennium Approaches and Perestroika) runs approximately six hours and examines the early days of the AIDS crisis, mixing fictional characters (specifically Jewish and Mormons coming to terms with commitment and/or their sexuality) and such historical figures as Roy Cohn (who succumbed to AIDS) and Ethel Rosenberg. Although there had often been talk of bringing the epic to the big screen, going back a decade to when the play premiered, it seemed inevitable that TV would be a better fit, and Nichols directed with extraordinary care…
Meryl Streep played three characters, including the ghost of Ethel Rosenberg (pictured), in Angels in America and cleaned up at awards time, taking both the SAG award and an Emmy, among others.
Mary Louise Parker also won an Emmy for Angels in America. She played the frustrated, Valium popping wife of a closeted Mormon. She and the drag queen known as Prior Walter (played by Emmy nominee Justin Kirk) frequently pop up in each other’s hallucinations.
Thompson again, playing four roles in Angels, none more spectacular than the Angel whose entrance brings the first play to its thrilling climax. Thompson competed against Streep at the Emmys.
Nichols, in front, accepting his Emmy for Angels in America. Behind him, the remarkable cast, including Emmy winner Jeffrey Wright (fifth from left), reprising the role for which he won also won a Tony, Emmy winner Al Pacino, as Roy Cohn (sixth from left), Emmy nominee Patrick Wilson (center), Emmy nominee Ben Shenkman (fourth from right), Emmy winner Mary Louise Parker (third from right), Emmy nominee Justin Kirk (second from right), and winner Meryl Streep (far right). Also featured is playwright Tony Kushner (fourth from left), who also won an Emmy for adapting his work.
Incredible, right? Angels, indeed. Thanks, Mike….