Get us in your inbox

Search

R.I.P. Mike Nichols (1931–2014)

By
David Cote
Advertising

This morning brings us the sad news of the death of Mike Nichols, superlative director of stage, screen and television, and a profoundly important shaper of modern drama. Nichols, 83, found massive success during his multidecade career, one that started in groundbreaking stand-up comedy in the 1950s and stretched into prestige projects that, over the years, earned him the impossibly rare feat of an "EGOT" (winning four Emmys, one Grammy, one Oscar and nine Tony awards). Tomorrow night at 7:45, the marquees of all Broadway theaters will dim their lights for one minute in his memory. Below are salutes from Theater editor David Cote and Film editor Joshua Rothkopf.

*********************

With Mike Nichols’s passing, we bid farewell to the last of the great crossover directors, those dynamos who were equally audacious in theater and film. Although contemporary theater artists such as Julie Taymor and John Cameron-Mitchell have gotten behind the camera, they’ve only achieved niche success. Nichols straddled celluloid and the wicked stage with aplomb for half a century, when middlebrow wasn’t a dirty word, before cable TV and the Internet atomized mass audiences. Orson Welles and Elia Kazan blazed this dual path before Nichols, but another has yet to follow in his footsteps. He worked at a time when the culture was smaller in sheer volume but larger in terms of social impact.

His run on Broadway began alongside Elaine May in their legendary comedy revue An Evening With Mike Nichols and Elaine May, which opened in 1960 and ran for 311 performances. It ended on January 5 this year, with the closing of his revival of Harold Pinter’s Betrayal, starring Daniel Craig, Rachel Weisz and Rafe Spall. In between, Nichols directed, translated and appeared in a dizzying array of plays and musicals—and not only on Broadway. His work spanned high and low—from Neil Simon’s sitcom farces to Chekhov’s sublime tragicomedies. He could do sentimental (The Gin Game) and cerebral (The Real Thing). He was equally adept at breezy musicals (The Apple Tree, Annie, Spamalot) and political drama (Death and the Maiden). If that CV doesn’t seem eclectic enough, Nichols returned to the stage in 1996 to star as Jack in Wallace Shawn’s modern masterpiece, The Designated Mourner. His courtly yet offhand delivery was perfectly attuned to Shawn’s unnerving portrait of a society descending into fascist barbarity. Directed by David Hare, the play had its world premiere in 1996 at London’s National Theatre. Nichols’s performance is preserved in the film adaptation.

I was lucky to see a few productions in the last leg of his stage output. To say there was unevenness is merely to note that he took risks, even toward the end. First there was the 2001 staging of Chekhov’s The Seagull in Central Park, starring Meryl Streep, Kevin Kline, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Natalie Portman. Not every celebrity nailed his or her role, but it was an event. When was the last time Chekhov was an event in New York theater? His Spamalot was pure froth, a coming together of comic sensibilities that included his quirky routines with May, Beyond the Fringe, Monty Python (of course) and good, old-fashioned showmanship. Between 2008 and this year he took on three titans of postwar world drama: Clifford Odets (The Country Girl), Arthur Miller (Death of a Salesman) and Harold Pinter (Betrayal). I will remember Nichols most fondly and admiringly as the director of Salesman, for which we in the New York Drama Critics Circle awarded him a lifetime achievement citation. Not only did he give the late, great Philip Seymour Hoffman the role of his lifetime, he gave us a Salesman that scrupulously followed tradition, unlocking the power of an American classic.—David Cote

*********************

It will be much said in the days ahead how Nichols made his mark in movies without having a signature style—no love of symmetrical compositions or zooms or dazzling Steadicam sequences as did his contemporaries Stanley Kubrick, Martin Scorsese and Steven Spielberg. You can't look at a Nichols film and say, "That's so him." But if anything, Mike Nichols's career was evidence that such things didn't matter. From his first behind-the-camera assignment, 1966's ferocious adaptation of Edward Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Nichols brought adult subject matter kicking and screaming into the mainstream. If anything, that's his legacy, a conviction that audiences were ready for more—that they thirsted for social crusaders (Silkwood), marital dysfunction (Carnal Knowledge), feminist righteousness (Working Girl) and gay acceptance (The Birdcage or HBO's harrowing Angels in America).

At the summit must come The Graduate (1967), only Nichols's second film but a complete revision of Hollywood's way of doing things. "It was like being at a prize fight," the director told us in 2012, remembering those early audience screenings and the cheers from younger viewers. Coming-of-age stories had never felt so fresh, and the casting of then-unknown Dustin Hoffman would kick off the meteoric rise of the heroic rom-com nebbish; there's no Seth Rogen, no Matthew Broderick, no When Harry Met Sally without that single decision. Some of the films were stinkers (The Day of the Dolphin was sold with the tagline: "Unwittingly, he trained a dolphin to kill the President of the United States"), but the guy kept working and there was always the potential for risk. I'll treasure Nichols for his highlights—and for some of the impressive dares that still knock me out: a near-avant-garde take on 1970's Catch-22 and the beautifully raw Postcards from the Edge, starring his signature leading lady, Meryl Streep.—Joshua Rothkopf

Popular on Time Out

    Latest news

      Read next

        Advertising