I’m glad he believed in comedy; the brooding Silkwood is the exception in a career defined by bringing the timing of stand-up and the precision of theater to film. But if Ingmar Bergman often failed at the latter I can’t blame Mike Nichols for maintaining his glib equipoise. Catch-22, Carnal Knowledge, Heartburn, Working Girl, and Closer have the rat-tat-tat hollowness of TV productions; in some of those things I can hear actors hitting their marks. Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf and Wit are more than that; it’s impossible for me to imagine Albee (and screenwriter Ernest Lehman) and Margaret Edson letting anyone run away with their work. Hip, crisp, as pretty and meaningless as effective advertising, The Graduate defined how bourgeois youth saw themselves before they bought the first Crosby Stills & Nash album: the guy beds Mrs. Robinson and Elaine and is allowed a moment of self-doubt (their child will be Jesse Eisenberg in The Squid and the Whale had his parents been merely clever New Yorkers).
I may be alone in thinking that his run of work between 1996 and 2004 was his peak. Thanks to former collaborator Elaine May’s scripts and polishing, The Birdcage and Primary Colors are sound, solid entertainments (humanizing the Clinton-fied candidate in the latter is gross though), and despite garish touches (what looks intentionally chintzy on stage is worse onscreen, thanks to the camera’s literalizing effect) his HBO adaptation of Angels in America isn’t afraid to mismatch tones. I need to rewatch The Fortune; it can’t be as bad as Heartburn.
Hail YouTube for preserving many of the original Nichols-May routines. Quote of the day: “A moral issue is always so much more interesting than a real issue.”
2. Angels in America
3. Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf
4. The Birdcage
5. The Graduate
6. Working Girl
8. Primary Colors
9. Carnal Knowledge
10. Catch 22