The films of Mike Nichols

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.”

1. Wit
2. Angels in America
3. Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf
4. The Birdcage
5. The Graduate
6. Working Girl
7. Silkwood
8. Primary Colors
9. Carnal Knowledge
10. Catch 22

3 thoughts on “The films of Mike Nichols

  1. Jukebox

    Cinderella by way of Wall Street is so compulsively watchable I don’t know where its magic resides. The cast is inspired. “Get your bunny ass out of my sight” shouldn’t work at all. The obvious fetihization of Indiana Jones. The contrievancies (the book!) I don’t know. Melannie Griffith’s finest hour?
    Why Joan Cusack is always MVP but supporting? She’s alwasy underrated. A natural born comedian.

    Oh, this man sure knew how to make comedies. The last heir of Frank Capra to me. American to the bone. Plus, their actors didn’t need to scream or whisper. Here, we loved him. Really.

    Reply
    1. humanizingthevacuum Post author

      The film doesn’t quite know how to deal with Sigourney Weaver, and the contrivances (no one noticed Tess using her boss’ office?!) annoy if you think about them too much. That said, you’re right about Cusack and especially Ford, who knows how to do low key comedy.

      Reply
      1. Jukebox

        Exactly. I tend to forget contrievances are more tolerated in “comedies” but still.. Nobody ever will argue the premise in the superb “Groundhog Day”, no? I mean the suspension of disbelief here demands forgetting those (the office thing is pure vaudeville trickery, it reminds me of those comedies by Neil Simon -what was the name of the one whehe airplane pilot is dating four different stewardesses at the same time and they never bump into each other until the final?- I think Tony Curtis was the protagonist.

        Great list!!

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