Like many people, my introduction to Mike Nichols came by way of seeing The Graduate as an impressionable and vaguely rebellious adolescent. Though the film had been released nearly thirty years earlier, when I brought it home from the library that one fateful day, I felt like it had been made exactly and only for me. In a summer filled with repeat viewings of Pulp Fiction, Annie Hall, and Nashville—films that opened my eyes, for the very first time, to the magic that filmmaking can be—The Graduate came along and further changed the entire trajectory of my life. Everything about it seemed magical and true—the way Nichols used the camera, Buck Henry’s bold and hilarious script, Dustin Hoffman’s awkward perfection, the Simon & Garfunkel music that was almost a character unto itself, the gut-punch ambiguity of its final moments. It immediately became one of my very favorite films. From that moment on, I was always interested in anything that Mike Nichols touched.
And Nichols had his fingerprints on a whole lot of things over the course of his fifty years in show business. He slid effortlessly between comedy and drama, stage and screen, collaborating with seemingly everyone who was anyone, writers and actors alike, telling stories that weren’t always perfect, but were always worth watching. Though critics have attacked him over the years for casting a wide artistic net and never settling into a distinctive thematic groove or directorial voice (as opposed to auteurs of a similar age, like Woody Allen or Martin Scorsese, whose films can almost never be mistaken for anybody else’s), such a reading of his art seems to miss the rather obvious point: Nichols’ themewas humanity. He spent the vast majority of his career observing and wrestling with the human condition, endlessly fascinated by relationships, and their boundless capacity to hurt or heal us. A good deal of his work—certainly the best of it, anyway—was most interested in the interplay between closeness and distance, the dance of intimacy and defense. That his very first film (Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?) and his next to last one (Closer) focused almost exclusively on these themes—full of hurt people hurting people—only serves to highlight how he never lost interest in the porcupine’s dilemma.
Born Mikhail Igor Peschkowsky in Berlin in 1931, Nichols endured a lonely and painful childhood, which included going permanently bald following an inoculation for whooping cough when he was four (he’s worn wigs and false eyebrows ever since), fleeing to America with his Jewish family at age seven in order to escape the Nazis, and then losing his beloved father to leukemia at the tender age of nine. By his own account, he “never had a friend” from the time he came to America until he attended the University of Chicago.
And yet somewhere amidst all those childhood trials, traumas, and tribulations, an artist was being formed. As an adult, Nichols learned to harness his past struggles and adversity—his deep loneliness and perpetual sense of feeling like an outsider—and use them to his advantage. Out of necessity, Nichols learned how to observe, and more importantly, how to truly listen to those around him. In time, this became perhaps his greatest asset, informing not just his artistic sensibilities but also his way of being in the world, allowing him to not only capture the cultural zeitgeist of his adopted country across four different decades, but also enabling his legendary ability to get the very the best out of nearly every actor he worked with.
Though serious critical study and adulation often eluded Nichols after his initial burst onto the film scene in the late 60s—with the one-two punch of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and The Graduate—his career was arguably among the more wide-reaching, ambitious, and successful of any director in the latter half of the 20th century. This self-described “lonely bald kid,” in time, became one of only twelve people to ever achieve the mythical EGOT, discovered stars as diverse as Dustin Hoffman and Whoopi Goldberg, mounted award-winning plays from Samuel Beckett, Arthur Miller, Neil Simon, Harold Pinter, Tom Stoppard, and Tony Kushner, won both the National Medal of Arts and an AFI Lifetime Achievement Award, befriended Elizabeth Taylor, dated Jacqueline Kennedy, and married Diane Sawyer.
And so, for our very first issue of the new year, we’ve decided to devote an entire issue to the films of Mike Nichols. We obviously don’t have space to look at each of Nichols twenty-one feature films, so instead we’re focusing on the beginning, middle, and end phases of his vast career. Comedian Fran Hoepfner takes a look at Nichols’ early days as a comic, when he comprised one half of the massively influential duo, Nichols & May; Sarah Malone examines the fiercely intimate and brittle relationship at the heart of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?; Elizabeth and Chris Cantwell watch, re-evaluate, and talk through The Graduate; Arielle Greenberg explores the battle of the sexes in one of Nichols’ most challenging and controversial films, Carnal Knowledge. Then, we jump ahead more than fifteen years and catch up with Nichols in mid-career: Kelsey Ford imagines Working Girl’s Tess McGill giving advice on how to succeed in business, while Andrew Root looks at The Birdcage through the lens of his own challenging role in an upcoming play. We close things out with a handful of Nichols’ final films: my own look at Wit, a vastly underseen end-of-life drama, Kara VanderBijl’s poetic reflection on Angels in America—the film Nichols personally considered his crowning achievement—and Tracy Wan’s take on his next-to-last film, Closer.
Mike Nichols spent a lifetime telling stories, in one form or another. Whether he was performing as a stand-up comedian, producing Broadway plays, directing films—or even just sitting around with a group of friends and regaling them with tales from his past—he always strove to both illuminate and entertain, to show us more about ourselves and give us something to smile about along the way. “I never understand when people say, ‘Do you do comedy or tragedy?’ I don’t think they’re very much different,” Nichols reflected, near the end of his life. “They both have to be true…the whole idea is to reflect life in some way.”
And while his own light finally gave out late last year at the age of 83—still working, as always—thankfully, his reflections live on.