Mike Nichols has passed away suddenly after a life spent shaping modern comedy on stage and screen. Nichols began his career in the 1950s doing improv at a time before Second City. He then teamed up with Elaine May and they became one of the greatest comedy teams in history. Later, he would become one of Broadways most successful directors earning 8 Tony awards the last just two years for Death of a Salesman starring Phillip Seymour Hoffman.
There may be no director in recent American history who attempted to make his work more ‘of and about’ the times he lived in with a dark and sharp commentary than Mike Nichols. Yes, some of his work was deceptively crowd-pleasing. But even those works had bite just under the surface.
If you’ve never had the opportunity to see Nichols work with his Second City partner Elaine May, prepare to take a trip down the YouTube tunnel. Like the Smother Brothers satirical approach to vaudeville, May and Nichols were sharp, sexy and eccentric. While May often played like a smarter, weirder Gracie Allen, and created characters SNL would have killed for, Mike Nichols was a straight man who delighted in showing unexpected weirdness. From skits about a domineering mother and son to many relationship skits, Nichols and May were the perfect antidote for baby boomer conformity, and pioneers in gender equality.
But by the time 1960 came along, the twosome were split, and both pursuing careers as directors. Nichols started out with top playwrights like Neil Simon, whom he collaborated with on the stage play of Barefoot in the Park. Considering his relationship with spirited May and his own image as the straight man, the opposites attract romantic comedy was a perfect fit for Nichols. They were followed by landmarks of 60s sexual liberation, The Knack (best known to audiences for the film adaptation by Richard Lester The Knack…or How to Get It), and Luv, which earned Nichols the Tony Award (that film adaption ironically starred May). His directing of Luv, and his directing of The Odd Couple are unexpectedly sad images of contemporary manhood.
His awareness of the sexual frustrations in America, among young and old, made him the perfect choice to direct battle of the sexes Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf, making the bitter, cruel, unlikable characters of George and Martha into pathetic characters who ultimately have our sympathy, as did the younger couple who are seen as just as opportunistic and cruel as the elders. The film is one of the hardest movies to watch, an unexpected film debut for Nichols to have made…one which paid off in spades. He followed the film up with The Graduate, a film comedy which despite big laughs, features two characters engaged in dangerous manipulative games, and one of the most uncomfortable mother-daughter relationships ever committed to film. It was called the film of a generation, but didn’t present the generation as the saviors.
Nichols took on film properties which were not just critical of institutions and government, but the very people who he made the films for. Catch-22 was a project made about the military, but made for the people who were indifferent to Vietnam (and even the soldiers themselves). And despite being an infamously difficult shoot and box-office failure, is one of the quintessential military comedies made during the Vietnam War.
Men were his next target of satire were the very men who went to his films in droves. In Carnal Knowledge, Nichols showed men with deep resentment and anger towards women in a movie which is as captivating as it was cringeworthy. But like Catch 22, proved too controversial a film or the time. Nichols returned to theater, directing more of the iconic, satirical, controversial work of the times, such as Tom Stoppard’s The Real Thing and HurlyBurly, both plays which would become touchstones of their times.
He returned to film directing in the 80s, this time with a feminist perspective on his properties. He put the spotlight on Gilda Radner with Gilda Live, one of the first live concert film of comedy and first to star a woman. He introduced Hollywood to Nora Ephron with Silkwood and Heartburn. And then came Working Girl, a cinematic anthem for working women. And like his best films, Nichols was cynical of his primary audience, featuring not a sexist man, but catty, deceptive woman (Sigourney Weaver) who isn’t the one for all feminist. One sex isn’t the enemy.
A few years later, Nichols would make his most compassionate, direct comedy, and reunite with Elaine May for The Birdcage. Appropriately enough, the look a the American family and update on the classic ideas of Capra’s You Can’t Take It With You and Stanley Kramer’s Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner, the film is set at a gay night club, focusing on a gay couple who raised an adult son. In a time when gay culture was just beginning to emerge on screen as typical, the image of a gay family as loving and traditional was its own powerful comment audience.
The remarkable thing about Mike Nichols wasn’t the remarkable filmography and stage resume he has, the people he worked with, or longevity of his career. The fact that he stayed as fresh and direct with what he choose to comment were remarkable. The films he made later in his life, such as Closer and Angels in America, don’t seem the work of a man in his 70s. He was cynical of the world, even his own place in society, and unafraid to use the medium to comment on society, politics, and even his own audiences.