Among the notable artists who passed away last year was Mike Nichols, the celebrated film and theater director, producer and onetime comedian, who died on November 19 after a prolific career. Everyone I know liked him immensely, and I’m just talking about people who, like me, never met him. People I know who had met him, like my friend Kurt Andersen, the journalist and host of Studio 360, really liked him. As he wrote:
I met and chatted with Mike Nichols a few times at large social events and then, a few years ago, had dinner with him,’’ Kurt wrote on the Studio 360 site, “This, I thought as I listened to amazing story after amazing story in a dining room at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, is the New York of my dreams. The last time I saw him, at a mutual friend’s book party, I mentioned a piece I’d just written about Kurt Vonnegut — which launched him on a surprising, generous, breathtakingly knowledgeable exegesis of Vonnegut. I wanted to take notes.I know plenty of people who are variously smart, or funny, or thoughtful, civilized, erudite, entertaining, accomplished. But all those things at once and so extremely? Mike Nichols wins.
No doubt that’s true. And yet, I still can’t quite shake the conviction that seeing a Mike Nichols movie was like watching an episode of Masterpiece Theater. His movies were the very highest brow of middlebrow entertainment, the kind of films that flatter the viewer’s intelligence without ever testing it very much. He pleased his audiences, which isn’t the worst thing that can be said about a director, but he seldom, if ever, confronted us.Take the The Graduate, Nichols’s breakthrough picture, which is still generally regarded as his masterwork. It was very cool when I saw it in 1967 at age 14, but there is no denying that it benefitted enormously for being a film for “us”, about those of “us” on the younger side of the generation gap. Benjamin has come home from college evidently overwhelmed about what he should do next. Implicit in his indecision was a reluctance to enter the false and corrupted world of his parents’ generation, the world where “plastics” passes for wisdom. Alas, the film has aged poorly (admittedly, perhaps I have too); without the fat, hip thumb of youth on the scale, the film doesn’t look so good. Ben looks more like a self-indulgent narcissist who needs to get himself into gear. The manipulative Mrs. Robinson is the infinitely more provocative character, a pre-feminist revolution woman who, in a year or two, might just explode out of her leopard-skin prison in very interesting ways. When I first saw the film, it was kind of thrilling to see Ben and Elaine in the back of the bus, free and alive, not knowing where they were going or what was going to happen next. Since then, everyone I know has sat in the bus, many times. The pleasure, in my experience, has proven evanescent.Nichols was a great one for adapting books and plays for the screen; evidently he collaborated well with writers, but the partnerships seldom resulted in brilliance. In Catch-22 (1970) Nichols began with arguably the funniest book of the century, added a screenplay by Buck Henry and a cast of brilliant comic actors, and ended up with a chilly, unwatchable film. His adaptation of Neil Simon’s Biloxi Blues (1988) is about as memorable as a glass of water. Heartburn (1986) and Postcards from the Edge (1990) were adapted from bestselling romans à clef written by famous and funny women (Nora Ephron and Carrie Fisher, respectively), but the courageous soul-baring that carried the novels was just emotional messiness on the screen; once again, almost none of the wit survived. In these movies, as in far too many Nichols movies, we leave feeling the same way we went in, having reassured ourselves of our moral superiority. Nothing about Silkwood (1983), The Birdcage (1996) or Closer (2004) was surprising: Big Energy is bad, prejudice is bad, love is hard. The same is true of Primary Colors (1998), a vast middle of a movie periodically rejuvenated by the appearance of new supporting characters. Like Heartburn and Postcards From the Edge, the film came pre-sold from a somewhat controversial bestseller that carried the less-than-electrifying message that even good politicians are imperfect people. His final film, Charlie Wilson’s War (2007), is simply infuriating, the story of a corrupt congressman told as a jovial con man’s caper—The Sting with mujahadeen.What saves Nichols’s movies, again and again, are moments when the actors get to charm the audience: John Travolta speaking with such heart at the factory in Primary Colors; Meryl Streep’s vivacious vocal performance of “I’m Checking Out” at the end of Postcards; Robin Williams’s choreography instructions in The Birdcage (“You do Fosse, Fosse, Fosse! You do Martha Graham, Martha Graham, Martha Graham! Or Twyla, Twyla, Twyla!”); Melanie Griffith’s sly, movie-rescuing winsomeness in Working Girl. His films are showcases for small, brilliant performances: Cher in Silkwood, Park Overall in Biloxi Blues, Stockard Channing in The Fortune. Far too often, though, the parts are bigger than the whole.Nichols ought to be regarded as one of a group of directors that includes Martin Scorsese, Sidney Lumet, Woody Allen, Nora Ephron, and from time to time Paul Mazursky: directors whose great, collective subject was New York and its inhabitants in the second half of the 20th century. Nichols was brilliant at conspiring with the audience, using over-the-top performances in small moments to wink at the viewer and establish a secret bond. With varying degrees of affection we laughed at but not with Kathy Bates in Primary Colors, Hank Azaria in The Birdcage, and William Daniels and Elizabeth Wilson in The Graduate, and always it was, as it were, behind the character’s back. But with rare exceptions (the crucifix-swinging scene at the end of The Graduate might be one), Nichols seldom grabbed the audience by the throat and took them somewhere totally unexpected. There is nothing in Nichols oeuvre to compare to the moment in Scorsese’s Raging Bull when Jack LaMotta bangs his head on a the walls of a cell and says “I am not an animal”; nothing that compares to the astonishing bravura speeches of Peter Finch and Faye Dunaway and Ned Beatty in Lumet’s Network, or Pacino yelling “Attica!” in Dog Day Afternoon; nothing that captures Mickey’s exhilaration at seeing Duck Soup in Hannah and Her Sisters.Still, the characters in Nichols’ films have resilience and conviction and belief. That is enough to entitle Nichols to be a champion of the New York sensibility in that era, that of the educated, prosperous upper east side portion who read the Times and went to the theater and discussed books and knew the bylines of magazine writers and paid attention to issues and candidates and the world. With those other directors, he presented images of the great roiling city in all its chaos and turbulence and appetite. That city—that literate, intelligent city, with its aspirations of moral leadership, its visions of artistic greatness, and its simultaneous scorn and envy of money—is all but dead now. In its place is a town where books and theater and cinema, even love and sex, and even the lust for fame, have been eclipsed by the pursuit of alpha. Who is interested in replacing them? J.C. Chandor, possibly Bennett Miller. HBO is doing its best.In Nichols’ beautiful, generous obituary in the Times, intelligently constructed by Bruce Weber, there were many rich quotes and anecdotes, but for me, these more commonplace sentences stood out:
Mr. Nichols, who lived in Manhattan and Martha’s Vineyard, married Ms. [Diane] Sawyer, his fourth wife, in April 1988. His first three marriages ended in divorce. He and his first wife, Patricia Scott, a singer who sometimes opened for Nichols and May, had no children. In addition to Ms. Sawyer, he is survived by a daughter, Daisy, from his second marriage, to Margot Callas (who had been a muse to the poet Robert Graves and a lover of the writer Alastair Reid and who was sometimes described as an Elaine May look-alike); and another daughter, Jenny, and a son, Max, from his third marriage, to Annabel Davis-Goff, a novelist.
These were real people, of course, but they might as well be characters in a novel written a couple decades ago, New York characters from the land of Elaine’s and Rizzoli, who might have passed Holden Caufield under the Biltmore clock and waved to Sherman McCoy across the bar at Trader Vic’s. They are people teetering on extinction, as dead as Newland Archer and the Countess Olenska, and their world is disappearing.