The visual imagery director Mike Nichols brought to The Graduate was so strongly persuasive that for several days after I saw it he had the clearly gay, not yet out, early adolescent me convinced that I could actually be straight. The stocking leg of sleekly sexy Mrs. Robinson beckoning the scared and too internally worried young boy/man – it all worked and made me wonder, “Hmmmm, perhaps there’s a…chance?”
I’m not sure whether this was a good or bad thing. But I do know for certain it was as effective as it was unlikely. And any resentment I might have had towards Mr. Nichols for prompting that momentary confusion is forgiven not due to the fact that he died this past week but because it all worked out so gloriously for both of us in the end.
Mr. Nichols died at the age of 83 and accolades have sprung up, as they do, all over the globe for someone who has had such a prodigious career and was, incidentally, also married to one of the most famous newswomen in the world. It’s also what will inevitably happen when one of a dozen proud earners of the EGOT – Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony awards – passes away. A merely talented person can get fortunate and as a fluke be awarded any one of these in their field in an off year. But all four – and in this case awarded multiple times – it seems like the overused title of “genius” is for once earned.
I have many friends who have met, hung out and worked with Mr. Nichols over the years. Unfortunately, I never had the opportunity to do any of the three. But I feel as if I have because their stories are endless. They alternate between his brilliance as a director, the extreme smarts he brought to everything he touched in work and in life and an unrelenting and often quite scabrous wit. Not to mention his sophistication, occasional superiority, playfulness, penchant for secrets, kindness, generosity and yes – sheer, unadulterated genius.
Ugh, not that word again. Well, as my little sister used to say when that early adolescent me also begged her to let me play with her jacks on the kitchen floor – tough.
To be a recognized genius in show business is no easy feat – mostly because the arts are in the end so utterly subjective. Still, in Mr. Nichols’ case any rational person measuring “genius” by any rational standard could be overwhelmed by his canon in just film alone. Very few directors make one or two memorable movies in their lives, much less five, six, seven or eight over almost half a century. That might not seem as impressive as I hoped to make it sound – that is until I start listing the films.
How many directors among us, or those aspiring to do anything meaningful in the movies, are capable of making their debut with something on the caliber of Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Think you can? I invite you to Netflix it or rent it or even borrow my copy and then get back to me.
If after watching one of the best movie adaptations of one of the best plays ever written with one of the biggest movie star couples that ever lived, then watch his follow-up film – a little throwaway classic we like to call The Graduate. These two releases in two consecutive years? Are you kidding? Not only will the latter live on as a seminal work in the history of movies, it also happens to be one of the few films that captured the tumultuous themes the 1960s and manages to stay relevant today. Don’t believe me on that either? Sit in on one of my college screenwriting classes, or the film classes of any of my colleagues at pretty much any university across the country and do an informal survey of this younger generation’s view of The Graduate – something I have done on and off for more than a decade. Not a negative word about a movie that was shot nearly five decades ago (Note: Rare in itself) – a time not long after most of their parents were born.
Then there were other classics like Carnal Knowledge, Working Girl, Postcards from the Edge (Note: One of the truest and funniest movies about show business that I’ve ever seen) and Primary Colors. Not to mention the brilliant and seemingly inadaptable epic play Angels in America as a multi-part HBO movie. Which begs the question of Silkwood and Heartburn – about as different as two films can get but both equally affecting and chilling in very different ways. There’s no time to get into those or any others of the above or we’ll be here all night. Better to spend your time watching or re-watching any of them instead of spending one more second reading any more of what I or anybody else chooses to write about them.
We could stop there but we haven’t gotten to the theatre. I’ll try to make this brief but what do you say about an eight time Tony Award winner who directed so many of Neil Simon’s most seminal and successful early Broadway comedies – including Barefoot in the Park, The Odd Couple and Plaza Suite – only to produce the megahit musical Annie a decade later, follow it up by directing the even meggier hit musical Spamalot thirty years after that, only to follow that by winning a Tony Award less than a decade later for directing the late Phillip Seymour Hoffman in a much-acclaimed revival of Arthur Miller’s classic American play Death of a Salesman?
Had enough yet? It might surprise young people to know that Mr. Nichols began his career as a performer. Along with his friend and frequent collaborator over the years – Elaine May – he was one half of one of the most successful comic duos of the 1950s and 60s – Nichols and May. They played clubs around the world, guested all over television and sold millions of records – earning him his first “G” in the EGOT – the Grammy award.
For those who believe to be a brilliant director or artist of any kind means that one must create a very specific and very individual style that permeates their entire output, it is particularly interesting to note that as a filmmaker, man of the theatre, and performer Mike Nichols had no such signature or even strategy. Of all the many thoughtful quotes I’ve read and heard from him since his death the one that stayed with me is probably the simplest. When asked about how he directs scenes in comedy vs. drama he noted that all he really tries to do is figure out “what’s really going on” between the people. That search for “the truth” among human beings could be why he so easily cuts across so many genres and styles. On the other hand, it could just be that he was smarter and more perceptive than the rest of us.
Of course, EGOTS – or in layman terms: little statuettes voted to you by your peers – don’t account for or even prove genius beyond a shadow of a doubt. Still, it’s one of the only measures we have for the immeasurable. But if you still don’t buy that reflect on what Mr. Nichols has left behind in the aftermath of his death. No, I’m not talking about the massive tributes throughout the world from all of the top people across the board in the entertainment industry. Consider the work.
One final note: Mike Nichols was an immigrant. He was born in Berlin with the name Mikhail Igor Peschkowsky and arrived in the U.S when he was seven years old with his family in order to escape the Nazi regime. He recalled that at the time he could only speak two phrases in English. One was: I do not speak English and the other was: Please don’t kiss me.
Clearly he was a dreamer to have achieved as much as he did. So perhaps it stands to reason we give a few others the chance to follow in his footsteps and at least attempt to begin to fill the void. I think he’d approve. Though certainly he would say it more elegantly and with a dash more humor. Which sort of proves my point.