It would not be overstating the case to say that Mike Nichols was a social and moral barometer for an entire generation of film and theatergoers.
By Paul Dervis
Mike Nichols died today. He was one of the most influential directors in my youth, and I will miss him.
Born Jewish in Germany, he and his family fled the Nazis for America when he was seven. He went to the University of Chicago as a Pre-Med student, but soon there found theater more to his liking. He dropped out … choosing to study with Lee Strasberg at the Actors Studio. He returned to Chicago to become a member of the Compass Players which would evolve into the famed Second City comedy troupe.
There he joined up with Elaine May. They became a comedy team and won a Grammy for best album in 1961.
And then his career took off.
He became what amounted to a house director for the emerging comedy legend, Neil Simon, directing his Broadway hits Barefoot in the Park, The Odd Couple, and Plaza Suite. It seemed for a time he was simply going to be producing light-weight comedies for the stage when he was offered his first film, the dark and heavy Edward Albee masterpiece, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?.
He had found his calling.
During the next five years he helmed three of the most important films of that generation: The Graduate, Catch-22, and the unforgettable Carnal Knowledge.
When he went back to the stage he no longer was directing fluff. Instead, he anchored such provocative plays as David Rabe’s Vietnam indictment Streamers, as well as the British tour-de-force Comedians. He continued to direct such thought- provoking pieces as the Canadian classic Billy Bishop Goes to War and Rabe’s most successful play, Hurlyburly. Add to this impressive list Death of the Maiden and the revival of Death of a Salesman in 2012 and you have a body of work most directors would covet.
It was his timing that made his work so special. The Graduate spoke volumes to Baby Boomers who didn’t want to seattle for a life pushing “plastics.” Catch-22 was set in World War II but obviously spoke to the absurdity of America’s presence in Vietnam. It was a cult hit among the counterculture youth. And how much more on-target can you be about friendship, paths not chosen, and the search for sex in our society than in Carnal Knowledge?
After this film, Nichols returned to make many more popular, though noticeably less biting, movies. Heartburn, Biloxi Blues, Working Girl to name a few. But his preference for depth returned in 2003 when he offered up Tony Kushner’s Angels in America as a mini-series for HBO.
Nichols was one of the few American artists who won the Grand Slam of awards, copping a Grammy, Tony, Oscar, and Emmy. He also won a Golden Globe amongst many, many other prizes.
It would not be overstating the case to say that Nichols was a social and moral barometer for an entire generation of film and theatergoers.
We have lost a Giant.
Broadway and Hollywood will not be the same.
Good night, Mike Nichols, good night.