By Eleanor Ringel Cater
The glamour names were Spielberg, Coppola and Scorsese. But not one of them contributed more to the cinematic zeitgeist of the last 50 years than Mike Nichols.
How did a Berlin-born Jewish refugee become the voice of a generation? A generation he wasn’t even part of.
Nichols was in his late 30s when he made “The Graduate,” which became the iconic film for the “Never trust anyone over 30” crowd.
But then, Nichols, born Mikhail Igor Peschkowsky, understood being an outsider. Which, in an odd sense, was what all the privileged Baby Boomers were shouting at their parents: You don’t understand. You don’t get it. You want me to go into plastics!!!!
What’s more, he bathed the Boomers’ crie de coeur in the whispery beauty and socially-conscious enhancement of Simon and Garfunkel’s parsley-sage-rosemary-and-thyme soundtrack.
Yet, by the time he died — last week, at age 83, of a heart attack —he had become the ultimate insider. At home in Hollywood or on Broadway or on London’s West End or in posh Connecticut – he was member of the rarified EGOT club (winner of an Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony).
There’s a story about a flight Nichols was on that took off from JFK and then got into trouble. The pilot, in his best “Right Stuff” voice, was soothing the passengers when suddenly the intercom went dead. A passenger a few rows in front of the director turned back and, looking squarely at him, said in an accusatory voice, “What do we do now, Mr. Success?”
Mr. Success, indeed. His improvised comedy act with Elaine May made them both world-famous by the time they were barely out of college and landed them on Broadway in the sold-out hit, “An Evening with Mike Nichols and Elaine May.”
The first Broadway play he directed was called “Nobody Loves Me.” Written by a then-unknown Neil Simon, it underwent a name change and, as “Barefoot in the Park,” became another huge hit.
Nichols moved to the movies with a little piece called “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” which broke the accepted mold for Hollywood pictures by re-writing the censorship code and grabbing great box-office, despite being shot in black-and-white.
Plus there, was the reality vs. reel-ality factor. How much of the picture was Edward Albee’s play and how much was a behind-the scenes “peek” at Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton’s tempestuous marriage?
But it was “The Graduate” that secured his place in the pantheon. As Dustin Hoffman later recalled, the part was written for a golden-boy Robert Redford type (whom Nichols had made a star in “Barefoot.”)
As the director explained to the neophyte actor, the character may be a Redford on the outside, but inside, he’s short, Jewish, neurotic Dustin Hoffman. It was a casting coup almost unequaled in the history of film and it propelled Nichols onto the A-list faster than any director since enfant terrible, Orson Welles.
Nichols had his flops — most notably, “Catch 22” and, in its way, the searing “Carnal Knowledge” that said things about men and women that most men and women didn’t want to hear in 1971. (they still don’t today; witness “SNL’s” Michael Che on Weekend Update where he basically equated Michael Richards’ (Kramer from “Seinfeld”) racial epithets with the rape accusations aimed at Bill Cosby).
On the whole, however, Nichols had nothing to apologize for when it came to either his stage or film career. He produced “Annie” (nice piece of change) and directed such shows as “Hurlyburly,” “Streamers” “The Real Thing: and “The Odd Couple.” He transferred the epic “Angels in America” to television.
His movies ranged from “Primary Colors,” “Wolf” and “Regarding Henry” to “The Birdcage,” “Closer” and “Working Girl.”
He made smart movies about smart people — even if they weren’t as smart as they thought they were or were smarter than they knew. An odd accomplishment for the awkward kid who never felt accepted until he stumbled into the weird magic of the theater. As May once told him before they went on stage, ‘when in doubt, seduce.”
And seduce he did. For decades.
Here is a trio of films showing Nichols at his seductive best.
As a book, Nora Ephron’s dishy roman a clef about the decline and fall of her marriage to Carl Bernstein was pretty much a one-liner whine — searingly clever, but with an underlying bitterness that left a sour aftertaste. Nichols’ movie is an hors d’oeuvres of a different color — A Diary of a Mad-As-Hell Housewife who realizes she shouldn’t take it anymore. “It” is her husband’s cheatin’ heart. The man who helped break Watergate was catting around when his wife’s water broke. Meryl Streep and Jack Nicholson play Nora and Carl beautifully, careening from inside-the-Beltway cocktail parties to in-the-bedroom gender politics that only get uglier over time.
“Postcards From the Edge”
“Instant gratification takes too long,” complains recovering addict Suzanne (Streep again) in Nichols’ instantly — make that, smashingly — gratifying comedy. Loosely based on the book by Carrie Fisher (Debbie Reynolds daughter, aka, Princess You-Know-Who), this immensely entertaining film focuses on an actress’s struggle to overcome her drug habit and come to terms with being the daughter of a movie star (Shirley MacLaine, acidly superb). The story itself isn’t all that —“Terms of Endearment” meets “Valley of the Dolls” — but it’s so damnably well done.
Not about a woman’s death, but — movingly, triumphantly — about a woman’s life. Karen Silkwood, an employee at a nuclear processing plant, was mysteriously killed in a car accident in 1974 while on her way to talk to a reporter about safety violations at the plant. But Nichols and Meryl Streep have co-created a brilliant study of a working-class heroine rather than a tiresome anti-nuke propaganda piece. Not born a hero — the Karen we first meet would rather have her breasts raised than her consciousness — she achieves heroism through her initially reluctant activism. The film is less about who did what to Silkwood than what she did to and for herself. Kurt Russell, Diana Scarwid and Cher (she’s unbelievably good) give the star all the support she could want. But it’s Streep — with an able assist from her director — who turns Silkwood from a bumper sticker to an unforgettable flesh-and-blood human being.
When Nichols was still just an up-and-comer, he and Leonard Bernstein were walking in New York. The maestro put his arm around Nichols and said, “Oh, Mikey, you’re so good. I don’t know at what, but you’re so good.”
Luckily for all of us, Nichols discovered just what that was.