An Appreciation of…Mike Nichols (1931 – 2014)

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I was incredibly saddened today to hear about the death of Mike Nichols. Not only was he one of my all-time favorite directors, I found it about it on my birthday, which makes him the second director in the span of a few years for that to happen to, with the other being the brilliant Robert Altman. It is very sad to sit and think about Nichols and what he contributed, because quite frankly he contributed too much to even comprehend – theatre, television, comedy and of course, film. He was an amazing filmmaker, and one that is both indelible and irreplaceable

Nichols is one of those people who you take for granted. He was always there, and he was just a machine, creating masterpiece after masterpiece, so well and so often, it seems almost part of life. To just sit and look through his filmography is something incredible – very few directors can gave such a brilliant filmography, having directed some of the most brilliant and iconic films ever made. His style and ability to tell some incredibly human stories, about real people, is one not many people can boast of. His films, whether hilarious comedy or heart-wrenching drama, are all masterpieces, crafted by a man with such a knack for human intelligence and nature, and could portray these everyday experiences with such honesty and brilliance.

Nichols was not at all a one-trick pony. He often branched off into other spheres of entertainment, and made his mark there just as well. His work on stage is one that represents one of the great masters of theater. He is one of the few directors who tried everything – and I mean everything, from Spamalot to Death of a Salesman. He won six Tonys for his work in theater, and each of them incredibly deserved.

His work on television was no small feat either. He directed two of the most important television events in history – the touching cancer film Wit, and the incredibly moving, eternally important six-hour epic Angels in America. It comes as no surprise that he won a few Emmys for his work on television as well. Nichols was one of only a dozen people to win the EGOT (Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony), and if that doesn’t cement him in the history books as one of the most talented artists to ever live, nothing will.

Here are my essential Mike Nichols films. I found it very hard to choose just five, because everything this man touched turned to gold. Seriously…

  1. The Graduate. One of the most iconic films of all time came from the mind of Nichols. In this sprawling suburban epic, Nichols made us believe the 30-year-old Dustin Hoffman was just a kid, and one that would fall in love with Anne Bancroft (but who wouldn’t?). It was the film that won Nichols the Academy Award. and is without a doubt his greatest achievement. A beautiful, poignant and very funny look at what lurks behind the white picket fences.
  2. Who’s Afraid of Virgnia Woolf? There was something theatrical about Nichols’ directing. So it only seems apt that his very first film as a director was an adaptation of the seminal classic play by Edward Albee. A play that has been performed for years on Broadway and amateur theatre stages, nothing can top the brilliance of Nichols’ film version. It is tense, dark and very cold, while still being a warm and incredibly entertaining film. He showed off Hollywood’s most scandalous real-life couple Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton as anything but romantic – they are a bickering, rude couple, and it showed a new side to both of them. Nichols broke through perfectly here, and it goes without saying that is is not hard to see why Nichols became the artist he is today.
  3. The Birdcage. My absolute guilty pleasure. A fun, hilarious and brilliant remake of a classic French film. Nichols was not one to be dour or elitist about his movie choices, and because of his willingness to do anything that would make him laugh, we were given this gem – an amazingly funny comedy that was even too funny for Nichols himself to handle, as he had to be covered with a blanket during some scenes to prevent his laughter from ruining the shoot. Its melancholic, as earlier this year, we lost another great performer from this film. The Birdcage is a beautiful, wonderful little comedic goldmine, and is one I rewatch constantly.
  4. Angels in America. You know how a film just seems important? Well, they don’t get more heavy than Angels in America. Once again adapting a play, Nichols tells the story of a group of New Yorkers, all diagnosed with HIV/AIDS, and how the manage the disease. In a sprawling six-hour epic, Nichols creates a terrifyingly sad story about life, death and family. It is an important part of film/television history, and one of Nichols’ greatest achievements.
  5. Primary Colors. Everything thinks they can make a political satire, but only a few can make a good one. Nichols is one of them. Primary Colors is a sweet, very funny political comedy that is tame enough to avoid controversy, but edgy enough to be entertaining. He casts John Travolta as a Clinton-esque politician, but also manages to pull out some amazing performances from Kathy Bates and Emma Thompson.

I am very sure Nichols has joined two of the other great performers he worked with that we lost this year – Philip Seymour Hoffman (who he directed on Broadway) and Robin Williams. Nichols was an artist, a visionary and a man of profound brilliance and dedication to the craft. He will be sorely missed, but his incredible contributions will never be forgotten.

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