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Mike Nichols (1931-2014)

Elaine May & Mike Nichols in the 50s"The Great Work begins..." that's a line from Angels in America but someone should've said it in the 1950s when one of the greatest figures in modern showbusiness began his career on Chicago stages as a university student. Mike Nichols, who died yesterday at 83, first gained fame as half of a celebrated comic duo "Nichols & May" with actress/director Elaine May but comedy sketches were only the beginning. He'd eventually conquer all realms of showbusiness winning a Grammy with May for a comedy album in 1961, the first of several Tony Awards for directing Barefoot in the Park on Broadway (1964), an Oscar for directing The Graduate (1967) which was only his second film, and in the last decade of his career, two Emmys for television triumphs with Wit and the aforementioned Angels.

Because I came of age in the 1980s, the Nichols collaboration that defined the director for me was with Meryl Streep who he directed four times for the camera. They were both Oscar winners before their first duet Silkwood (1983) which is, not coincidentally, my favorite Streep performance. Streep was worshipped and mythologized very early in her career but he brought her down to earth while still helping her ascend. Under his his guidance she was instantly more earthy and relatable, less the iconic mannered star than a goddamn amazing (and relaxed) genius of the craft. They made two more feature films together within a decade's span (Heartburn, Postcards from the Edge).

Gene Hackman as a director and Meryl Streep as an actress in Postcards from the Edge (1990)

In fact, whenever I watch Postcardsand marvel at that beautiful scene between director and actress that marks its emotional pivot point, it's easy to imagine Gene Hackman's patient benevolent director as the Nichols stand-in with Meryl representing for all actors struggling with inner demons, doubting their gift, or struggling with a particular performance. It's easy to imagine because Nichols was particularly great with actors directing several of them -- not just Streep -- to their all time best work.

As if aware that he directed three of Streep's least glamorous acting triumphs, his last gift to her was Angels in America (2003) in which they left the ground and transcended into the ghostly, the spiritual... the ecstatic.

Ectastic. That's a good work for his great work. Nichols left us with 22 films, three of which are largely undisputed masterpieces (Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, The Graduate, Angels in America), many of which are exemplary and perhaps still undervalued classics of their particular genres (Gilda Live, Silkwood, Postcards from the Edge) or just, you know, extremely popular entertainments (Working Girl, The Birdcage). Through it all, though this is not often true of mainstream-embraced prestigious entertainers, he rarely forgot the zeitgeist-capturing envelope-pushing us his handful of first films from Woolf through Carnal Knowledge and was still pushing movie stars into transcendence with newly revealing, riskier emotional terrain almost until the very end (Wit, Angels in America, Closer).

He will be missed but his work has more than earned its immortality.


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  • Response
    One of the last great directors working before 1970, Mike Nichols passed away at the age of 83 yesterday. Before he became one of the nation's preeminent directors of stage and screen, Nichols first gained fame with Elaine May as one of the nation's most popular comedy duos and helped shape ...
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    Response: TedXsdSu
    Awesome read , I am going to spend more time learning about this subject

Reader Comments (31)

Kind of hard to put my feelings into words. A stellar, stellar career. I like that you mentioned the Streep/Hackman scene in Postcards because I believe his greatest screen moments are the interplays between 2 actors. Think about the scenes with Streep and Russell in Silkwood. So powerful. And my favorite might be the extended scene between Clive Owen and Julia Roberts when they admit their infidelity. It is EASILY Roberts' finest hour.

A true actor's director. Maybe the best one ever.

November 20, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterSawyer

When I heard that Master Class was finally getting made with Meryl as Maria Callas (meh) and Mr. Nichols directing the whole thing, I personally doubted he would end up doing it because of his age. I regret being right about it because I consider his versions of Angels of America and Wit two of the best things he ever directed.

He was so good with actors specially with the ones who are also big stars. We all know how big stars get too comfy. He knew how to shake them up.

November 20, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterPeggy Sue

It's very sad to read of the death of Mike Nichols who was a brilliant person, and a gifted director. He gave us literate, witty, interesting, and always well acted films. My personal favourites are Angels in America, Silkwood, Wit, Primary Colours, Postcards from the Edge, and Working Girl.
He was a real spotter of talent, you could always count on him for a great cast who would bring their best. I think I will watch Postcards today to honour his memory, watching Shirley Maclaine and Meryl Streep sing at the piano will be the best salute to a great professional.

November 20, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterLadyEdith

Mike Nichols' films embraced a femininity that none of his macho contemporaries would touch. I always spoke up for him when people talked about the "greatest directors" because despite all his awards and recognition, he somehow seemed underrated.

November 20, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterHayden W.

He'd be a great candidate for a Tuesday Top Ten. His best films, best scenes, best performances he directed etc etc. It's a shame we won't see Master Class with him behind it now. Him and Meryl are an underrated duo that isn't as discussed as some others like Leo and Martin Scorsese.

November 20, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterRyan

wow, there was a forty-eight year gap between winning his first tony award for directing and his last; now that's a career

six favourite performances in mike nichols directed films (not tv)
1. anne bancroft as mrs robinson (the graduate)
2. elizabeth taylor as martha (who's afraid of virginia woolf?)
3. dustin hoffman as benjamin braddock (the graduate)
4. cher as dolly pelliker (silkwood)
5. clive owen as larry (closer)
6. sigourney weaver as katharine parker (working girl)

November 20, 2014 | Unregistered Commenterpar

Another HUGE loss.
Ugh, this year is just terrible....
I really loved ALL his films and while some are not perfect, they are at least entertaining, even Wolf.
Liz Talor's win for WAOVW is my personal 2nd best ever. It's EVERYTHING.

I'm sorry for Meryl.
No, not because Master Class is (probably) not getting made, but that she lost a wonderful friend. They had differences for quite a time, when Nichols didn't get her the lead role in "The Remains of the Day". It needed ten years or more to overcome these differences and I'm so glad they decided to work together again. Angels in America is a masterpiece and deserved every award it got.

Again, a great loss.

RIP Mike! ;_______;

November 20, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterSonja

How sad for all of us. I think he was THE actor's director and doesn't get the "auteur" recognition because his films are not heavily stylized. His genius is simply told by a story I heard about directing Spamalot: a cast of strong professionals with its share of crazies.
His direction?

"You have made it make it true."

Mr Nichols brought truth; with Elaine May, with Dustin Hoffman, with Meryl Streep, with Elizabeth Taylor, with Gene Hackman, with Shirley MacLaine, with Nathan Lane, with Cher, with Richard Burton, with Robin Williams, with Alan Arkin, with Robert Redord, with Sandy Dennis, with Philip Seymour Hoffman, with Walter Mathau, with Anne Bancroft, with Art Carney, with Elizabeth Ashley, with Jack Nicholson, with Ann-Margret with..............

November 20, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterLeslie19

Nichols has been a hero for a long time. It stings that he's gone, but man oh man, what a life, what a career! Five masterpieces for my money - Virginia Woolf, The Graduate, Carnel Knowledge, Wit and Angels in America - with a lot more great movies closely following.

I wish I could've seen some of his theater work from back in the day, but I did see Spamalot and Death of a Salesman. That he executed such disparate works flawlessly ought to say everything that needs to be said.

November 20, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterRoark

I appreciate most of his work and isn't it wonderful that he had such a long life and career.

November 20, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterHenry

I love Mike Nichols. RIP. And thank you for letting us know that it twirled up.

November 20, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterThe Pretentious Know it All

An amazing talent. And I'm inclined to agree with you about Meryl in Silkwood. I initially considered Sophie's Choice to be her best work but I just cannot shake her Silkwood performance.

November 20, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterJoe

Literate AND entertaining, Mike Nichols was a great actor's director, too. Nichols helped three superstars with over-the-top images give career-changing performances: Liz in "Virginia Woolf," Ann-Margaret in "Carnal Knowledge," and Cher in "Silkwood."

November 20, 2014 | Unregistered Commenterrick gould

Beautiful tribute Nathaniel. He was a singular talent, but like you said, he'll live on in his works, which will always be immortal.

My own experience with Mike Nichols's films is sorely lacking. Now I know how I'm spending my weekend.

November 20, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterJonny

A singular artist who forever changed the cultural landscape. He possessed an artistic intuition that is rarely seen, evidenced by the breadth and depth of his legacy. He will hold a special place in my heart for directing one of the greatest film performances ever by Anne Bancroft in The Graduate; introducing us Dustin Hoffman; producing Annie, my first Broadway obsession as a kid; and giving us Shirley MacLaine's tantalizing number in Postcards.

I think I've seen Heartburn about eight times. Love that movie, warts and all.

November 20, 2014 | Unregistered Commenterbrookesboy

I love that one section of his vita is winning Tony Award after Tony Award for directing the quintessential Neil Simon comedies. What a career!

November 20, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterPaul Outlaw

I think he was a great "woman's director." There I said it. But the evidence is out there, and it's probably the reason he doesn't get as much respect as, say, Scorsese. His style was almost never the most important thing, rather the substance, the interaction is what he strove for and usually got.

Special thanks to Taylor & Burton who had the foresight and bravery in the first place to get him hired.

Just thinking about Ann-Margret and Rita Moreno in Carnal Knowledge "going there." Wow, what a talent he had for bringing out the best in people.

Oh, can I say that photo of Meryl in Postcards is singularly beautiful. It's amazing when you can see such great acting in a still photo for heaven's sake.

November 20, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterDave in Alamitos Beach

I was fortunate enough to have seen Mr. Nichols opposite Miranda Richardson in "The Designated Mourner," in London in the early 90's. He was a great actor as well. So many important works. We are all saddened by this loss.

November 20, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterPatryk

One of the greats in American cinema. A man that will sorely be missed. He's made a lot of good films and some of them are among the funniest ever made.

November 20, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterSteven

Truly one of the greats and he will be missed. From Who's Afraid of Virgina Woolf to The Graduate and Silkwood. Perhaps the best ever was Angels in America. What a talent. May he rest in peace.

I have to wonder if Master Class (with Meryl Streep) will ever get made now.

November 20, 2014 | Unregistered Commenterbrandz

Master Class will get made, it's too important a piece to be ignored and easy to mount, but I doubt Streep will still be the star. There are so many other actresses with a claim to the role, most notably Dunaway and Tyne Daley and I doubt Streep would do it with anyone but Nichols. I could also see LuPone laying claim to it.

November 20, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterHenry

Closer <3

November 20, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterAdam

one of the TRUE greats ;(

November 20, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterRyan

Very sad day for movies and theater. He was a genius with actors, and was highly underrated as a filmmaker. The Graduate, Silkwood and Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? are all American classics, along with the masterful Angels in America. I have a feeling that HBO will easily lure an A-list director to replace him on Master Class (Spielberg? Rob Marshall?), because he/she will get to work with Streep and also pay tribute to the great Mike Nichols by helping to finish his last project. RIP.

November 20, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterJono

I hope you are right Jono.

November 20, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterJamie

Patryk -- The Designated Mourner is on DVD!

November 20, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterPeggy Sue

He directed Monty Python on stage and adapted Catch 22. He produced Annie on Broadway while directing Jessica Tandy to a Tony award in a Pulitzer prize winning play. He directed Cynthia Nixon in two plays at the same time (Hurlyburly, The Real Thing).

Dude directed two of the most important cultural works of my own life with Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf and Angels in America.

Thanks Mr. Nichols. Rest well and in peace.

November 20, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterArkaan

Nichols brought Whoopi Goldberg to Broadway. Directed Glenn Close to her first Tony. Kathy Bates to a sophomore Oscar nomination. And Sandy Dennis to an Oscar.

November 20, 2014 | Unregistered Commenter3rtful

3rtful - he also directed Close to her second Tony and I tthink it a great shame that they never collaborated on film

November 21, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterMatt

"Working Girl" is one of those movies that I stumbled upon at 2 in the morning on TV and fell in love with it, 25 years after it was made.

November 21, 2014 | Unregistered Commenterjakey

Nichols set the stage for the Hollywood new generation of directors to come (Coppola, Scorsese, Spielberg etc) and yet, as some have said here and elsewhere, to his credit focused on a far more diverse portfolio of characters than most of those other guys ever have or in some cases will.

The numerous female led films, two entirely different portrayals of gay life in THE BRIDCAGE and ANGELS IN AMERICA, choosing a then unknown black actor to play the POV character in PRIMARY COLOURS.....As someone said above despite his significance, awards and acclaim he always seemed to be missing from discussions of Great Directors and I get the unfortunate impression that some of that may have to do with what I'm crediting him for.

November 22, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterChris

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