Thursday, November 20, 2014

MIKE NICHOLS, 1931-2014.

When I heard he was dead, I recalled that I'd seen his production of Streamers at Lincoln Center years ago; only later did I notice that he'd also directed the original Broadway production of The Gin Game, which I'd also seen (with E.G. Marshall in for Hume Cronyn, but Jessica Tandy still playing). 10 years ago (!) I made a mean gag about Nichols being "a one-man major entertainment institution for ninety years," because that's really how it seemed; he was always around, even when you didn't notice until someone gave him an award for it.

Those two New York productions were brilliant, but like most of you I know Nichols best from his movies. As Bruce Weber mentioned in the Times today, he was sort of an anti-auteur; you couldn't really pick out obsessions and motifs from his work like you could with Kubrick or Scorsese. He was more like George Cukor, a hard worker who knew that when inspiration failed elbow grease would do. And like Cukor he served the material. He served Edward Albee as well with Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf as he did Charles Webb with The Graduate; if the latter is fussier, it's just that Webb's deadpan angst needed more active intervention than Albee's masterpiece.

Maybe some clue to Nichols' true feelings, in lieu of auteur signifiers and whatnot, resides in two of his crazier, more misanthropic efforts: the eco-downer The Day of the Dolphin, and Wolf, a jaundiced (one might say hepatitic) midlife fantasy, redolent of Tom Wolfe but much more fun if no more convincing. If so, it's just as well he turned the generosity of his talent to other authors. For me his sweet spot is Carnal Knowledge -- and I wish there were a YouTube of the scene where Jonathan thinks he's going to date-swap and gets a double whammy instead; it's not as flashy as the available showstopper clips, but it has the advantage of being perfect. But it's also worth remembering that he started out as a comedy sketch artist -- just like Adam Sandler, and how's that for a flattering comparison -- and worth watching those old Nichols and May bits not just for the laughs, which are still there, but also to see him and Elaine May learning on their feet how the game works.


  1. Brother Yam1:28 PM

    "I'm your Grief Lady." Awesome.

    I love the pace of these old comedy routines. Bob Newhart and Bob and Ray just let the jokes unfold -- no rushing to the laughs.

  2. Mr. Aimai will be devastated.

  3. Gromet2:23 PM

    RIP, Mike Nichols. I first learned of you when I was about 26-27 and some enterprising lunatic managed to post a clip of you and Elaine May on the interweb. That would have been in the 1990s, so maybe I am remembering wrong, but at any rate -- I learned of you from some 1950s sketches and looked you and her up and discovered you both had done so many of the things I loved, and so many of the things I would later find and love, that it is genuinely shocking to consider.

  4. There's talent that's learned, and Nichols clearly applied himself at that.
    There's talent that's innate, and he also had surfeit of that.
    And then there's the one quality that makes it all work to perfection--the ability to make the work in progress the most important thing. That's why his movies and stage productions are so revealing of the foundational material: He sought to bring that material to life, to bring it to the audience in its fullness.

    Mentioning Adam Sandler in the same piece with Nichols just highlights the difference. With Sandler, everything is always and forever "Look at ME!!!!" and the work in progress is never viewed as anything more than a conveyance for Sandler's ego--the exact opposite of Nichols.

  5. My favorite, completely trivial, bit of trivia about Nichols and May is that Mike Nichols was born a German, in Berlin. Elaine May's original surname was Berlin.

  6. M. Krebs8:34 PM

    Aside from the perfect Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, my favorite Nichols picture has to be Biloxi Blues.

    And I have to mention his Catch-22. Even though it should have been much better, it's still a classic.

    It's amazing that someone could be such a large figure for roughly half a century.

  7. AGoodQuestion11:39 PM

    I watched his film of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf not too too long ago and found it electrifying. Nichols will be missed.

  8. rest in peace this talented man... may God Bless him

  9. Very nice, Roy. You should look at writing a series on the anti-auteurs -- hard working directors like Nichols, Kazan, etc, whose work is, though less exciting on the surface, ultimately more rewarding and influential than the Kubricks and Copollas (though there's a strong case for a chapter on Copolla's director-for-hire movies). AV Club or The Dissolve would grab it; and you'd have a surefire book at end of the run. OH, make sure you find a couple of virtual unknowns who you can build up to be as influential as Spielberg!

  10. Halloween_Jack10:03 AM

    he served the material.

    Totally agree. It's actually pretty startling to look at his filmography (which I did because I actually couldn't think of "a Mike Nichols movie" off the top of my head) and see that variety. If I had to pick out a favorite scene, it's this one from The Birdcage in which Nathan Lane's character tries to denellyize himself before the wedding (apologies for the crap quality):

  11. R.I.P. you where amazing.. Mike

  12. ddaly4:53 AM

    I remember listening over and over again to him and Elaine May doing the telephone routine (when you hang up your dieum will be returned to you) on in-flight comedy channel from LA to London. It was the best I've ever heard....and unlike many entertainers today they did not need to rely on profanity or filth to make people laugh.