"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).
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.