Mike Nichols was a master of self-satire, a man of wealth and education and connections for whom his best targets were those of wealth, education and connections, from the vapid Californians of “The Graduate” to the military brass of “Catch-22.” Here are highlights from the long film career of Nichols, who died on Nov. 19 at age 83:
“Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” (1966) — Nichols was already a top stage director when he made a spectacular film debut by adapting Edward Albee’s play about the bickering, self-loathing spouses George (a history professor) and Martha (daughter of the college president). Filmed in claustrophobic black and white, winner of five Academy Awards, it featured the world’s most glamorous couple, Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, very unglamorous and almost unrecognizable — he in glasses and an old sweater, she in a knotty wig and dull, unflattering dresses and blouses. The film was highly profane and sexually explicit for its time, and was among the first releases that barred attendees under 18 who were unaccompanied by an adult.
“The Graduate” (1967) — The movie which brought Nichols his lone directing Oscar, a touchstone for the 1960s that somehow never mentioned Vietnam, civil rights or any issues beyond a general scorn for money, authority and Southern California. “The Graduate” starred Dustin Hoffman, in his breakthrough role, as the aimless, awkward Benjamin Braddock and his disastrous affair with family friend Mrs. Robinson (Anne Bancroft). Many who saw it once, saw it again, and again, and savored the jump-cuts, the Simon & Garfunkel soundtrack and such catchphrases as “Mrs. Robinson, you’re trying to seduce me. Aren’t you?”, spoken by Hoffman, who (in an iconic shot) appears in the back of the frame, dwarfed by the looming close-up of Bancroft’s bent, exposed leg.
“Working Girl” (1988) — The rich — at least the unscrupulous rich _ get theirs in Nichols’ popular fairy tale about a young secretary (Melanie Griffith, in her most famous role); the financial executive who deceives her (Sigourney Weaver) and the executive (Harrison Ford) who Griffith wins over. Few could forget the voluptuous, baby-faced Griffith, in her low-cut dress, uttering her come-on to Ford: “I have a head for business and a bod for sin.”
“Birdcage” (1996) — In the 1990s, Nichols began working again with his old stage partner, Elaine May, whose screenplay brought a sense of energy and wit that had been missing for several years. The adaptation of the great French farce “La Cage Aux Folles” featured Robin Williams and Nathan Lane as a gay couple and, best of all, Gene Hackman as the uptight prospective father-in-law to Williams’ son.
“Primary Colors” (1998) — Another Nichols-May collaboration, this one based on Joe Klein’s roman a clef about Bill Clinton’s 1992 presidential campaign. John Travolta starred as the Clinton stand-in, Gov. Jack Stanton; Emma Thompson played his wife, Susan, modeled after Hillary Clinton. May’s screenplay shifted gracefully, movingly from political satire to tragedy as the Stantons’ hired gun (Kathy Bates) confronts the price of helping such a gifted but unprincipled man.
…And what’s your favorite Mike Nichols’ film?