One of the most revered directors of his time, Nichols was one of the few filmmakers who had a greater career on the Broadway stage. Over the course of his career, he would win eight Tony Awards for Best Director, the work ranging from the best of Neil Simon to the finest of Arthur Miller.
Nichols became a hugely successful half of a comedy team with the gifted Elaine May, and before he began directing they were staples on late night television. Having studied with Lee Strasberg at The Actors Studio, he possessed a gift with actors, which made him popular for the rest of his career.
Incredibly his debut film as a movie director was nominated for a whopping thirteen Academy Awards, including every major category. The film, Who’s Afraid Virginia Woolf? (1966) was a searing adaptation of the Edward Albee play, which was directed with genius by the first time, yet very confident young filmmaker. For the film he had insisted upon, and got a real life married couple, Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton for the leads, each responding with career best performances, Taylor taking enormous risks in her work, all which make hers one of the greatest performances ever given.
Nichols won an Oscar for Best Director the following year for his counter-culture masterpiece The Graduate (1967). Though he received several other nominations, and won Emmys for his work on HBO he never again won an Oscar despite his reputation with actors. Moving easily between film, television and the stage, Nichols was constantly busy, though often out of sight as a film director given to long absences directing plays. The box office and critical flop of The Fortune (1975) left him stunned, not making a film for eight years, which allowed him to shine with one Broadway hit after another. Returning to film in 1983, he stayed with movies consistently after that, dabbling with HBO in his later years.
Nichols might be the last of his kind, a true bi-coastal Director revered by actors, respected by his peers and critics. Here is the list of the top films of Mike Nichols.
1. The Graduate (1967)
One of four landmark films from 1967 which marked the beginning of the New American cinema, The Graduate (1967) was just his second film. A biting satire about restless youth in the sixties, we follow the misadventures of Ben Braddock (Dustin Hoffman) his first summer out of college. A book work, he missed the freedom and partying of college, diving into his studies never coming up for air. When his mothers best friend, Mrs. Robinson, portrayed with deep sexual sadness by Anne Bancroft makes pass at him, offer self to him, they begin a torrid affair. Ashamed yet equally excited by the time he spends with her, he does a complete 360 when he is forced to take her daughter, Elaine (Katherine Ross) on a date and falls for her. His life falls apart when she learns of the affair, but she cannot shake the love he had for her. Together at last, at the back of a bus, she having left her wedding to another man, their smiles fade as they realize, now their lives, and living life begins. With an extraordinary cast, Hoffman and Bancroft shine, a razor-sharp screenplay and the haunting soundtrack of Simon and Garfunkel songs, the film became a classic overnight. Nichols won the Academy Award for Best Director, and the career of one of cinema’s greatest actors, Dustin Hoffman was launched.
2. Angels in America (2004)
One of the finest made for television film of all time, Nichols knew that Tony Kushners’ massive six hour play was to big to work as a feature film, so he took the picture to HBO, where it could be broadcast over consecutive nights, keep the language, nudity and tough subject matter, and prove to be a fiercely loyal adaptation of the last great play of the 20th century. Beginning in the early eighties, the film explores the explosion of the AIDS crisis in New York, centering on a group of individuals whose lives become intertwined. In many cases, actors and actresses portrayed more than one role, flexing their muscles, often changing even gender. Pacino gives a powerful performance as AIDS afflicted power monger Roy Cohn, who hid his homosexuality but was well known as a Bull queer. Streep is superb as a rabbi, Ethel Rosenberg, a Mormon wife and mother while Emma Thompson is fierce and magnificent as an angel. Incredibly the performance of the lesser known actors are the films greatest highlights. Jeffrey Wright shines, literally lights up the screen with his soulful performance of a male nurse. Just a stunning achievement.
3. Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966)
Just an astonishing work, his first film sees Nichols bringing to the screen no less than one of the most celebrated and important films of the century. Insisting upon a real life married couple for his leads, it is narrowed down very quickly to Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. Howls of protest greeted the casting of Miss Taylor, but the actress, more than up to the challenge, packed on thirty five to forty pounds, allowed her face to become ruddy, and understood Nichols using close up after close up of her face contorted into rage. Edward Albee’s intense play transferred here to film deals with a middle aged couple who have not been blessed with children but in a secret game created a child of their own. When guests come they play vicious mind games to break them down. Taylor gives one of the most astounding performances caught on film as the tyrannical loud mouthed Martha, still managing to be uniquely sexual. Burton is her equal as the more mild mannered George, who matches her in viciousness word for word. There mind games are played out with an intensity that is both alarming and intensely frightening. Nominated for a whopping thirteen Academy Awards, Taylor deservedly won, Burton was cheated yet again, as was young Nichols for of the great directorial debuts of all time.
4. Silkwood (1983)
After an eight year absence from film, licking his wounds after the attacks on The Fortune (1975) and directing plays, he returned to helm the true story of Karen Silkwood, a rowdy blue collar nuclear power worker. Silkwood died while on her way to meet a reporter from the New York Times to discuss the safety of the plant in which she worked. There was evidence she was run off the road by another vehicle, meaning she was murdered. Portrayed with mischief and a devil may care approach to life by Meryl Streep, she is someone we connect with at once. Often a screwup who makes impulsive life mistakes, it has cost her a great deal and she knows it, but tries to forge some semblance of a life with her boyfriend and lesbian roommate, portrayed by Cher. Intelligent, funny, powerful and frightening, the film is a profound statement about the power of the government and big business. Kurt Russell is outstanding as Streep’s lover, as loyal a friend as she would have, whileCher made her first real Mark as an actress. As always Streep is superb.
5. Closer (2004)
Based on another play, this fiercely savage study of relationships offered a quartet of actors the most challenging roles they had attempted at that time. Julia Roberts is sensational as a lonely photographer caught between two very different men, while Natalie Portman is a revelation as a mysterious young American who finds, loses, finds again and then coldly walks away from love. The object of most men’s fantasies, Portman is remarkable in the film, going as far as she ever had before. Clive Owen is superb as the brutish doctor who comes into both women’s lives, with Jude Law as the more sensitive man who loses both women to the brute, never knowing why. Tightly directed, the performances carry the film, which has little good to say about relationships.
6. Wit (2002)
Again based on a play, a powerful work about a well known professor of literature dying of cancer. Emma Thompson is simply astonishing as the dying woman, none of her intellect able to get her past the fact the disease she has is going to take her life. Sometimes not even intellect can get you through such a time, because despite her soaring IQ, she cannot wrap her head around what is happening to her. Bold in its authentic approach to what cancer does to the body and mind, the film offers an extraordinary study in being a cancer victim. Thompson is remarkable in the film, her eyes displaying her near constant fear, trying to understand, trying to be accepting. The actress allows herself to be nakedly vulnerable in the role, giving one of her finest performances.
7. Primary Colors (1998)
Though there last name might be Stanton, make no mistake, this film is about Bill and Hilary Clinton and their campaign to the White House. Based on the anonymously written book, created by an insider to the campaign who bore witness to the goings on, it is a biting, insightful look at the rise of a President. John Travolta, gray hair, a southern drawl, that aw shucks good ol’ boy grin, that Clinton ability to make one feel they are the only person in the world at that moment is brilliant as Stanton, a womanizing hick who cannot keep his zipper up. Emma Thompson is equally good as his wife, who simply demands to be told everything, good and bad. Kathy Bates steals the movie as a trouble shooter packing a gun who understands the Stantons better than they do themselves and burns for it. Savagely funny, often heartbreaking, it gives great insight into the dirty dealings of American politics.
8. Postcards from the Edge (1990)
Based on the Carrie Fisher memoir about her fight with addiction and the struggles with her mother, Debbie Reynolds, Nichols made a very funny, acerbic film, that is also a fascinating look at life being famous. Meryl Streep is Suzanne, ok, Fisher, a drug addicted actress, talented but fast becoming not worth the trouble she brings to the set. Shirley MacLaine is her mother, past her prime but not ready yet to give up the spotlight she has had for so long. The actresses are great together, but the film belongs to Streep. Gene Hackman gives a lovely warm performance as a fatherly Director who believes in her despite being let down time after time. Black comedy abounds, so does artistry.
9. The Birdcage (1996)
An American remake of the film and stage play La Cage Aux Folles (1979) which was a huge critical hit and major box office success out of France, this hilarious film was notable for the superb performances of its lead actors Robin Williams and Nathan Lane. A fascinating, albeit funny look into the gay world, Lane and Williams must convince a staunch senator and his wife they are suitable in laws for their daughter, who loves their son. In a rare bit of casting, Williams is the straight man in the film to Lane’s shrill hysteric, yet both bring to the film great comedy and genuine heart. Nichols work in the theatre brought great insight to the film, its portrayal of the gay stage show in the nightclub the couple own. The film was a solid hit with audiences and critics.
10. Working Girl (1988)
One of his most acclaimed and successful films, it speaks to dreamers from the wrong side of the tracks who dared to believe they could make it to the other side. Tess (Melanie Griffith) is a mid level assistant in a brokerage firm, with a business degree and a sharp head for business, but coming from Brooklyn she cannot catch a break. But when her boss is injured while on vacation, she assumes her identity and starts to form a major deal. Things go crazy when her boss returns to take credit for the deal, lay claim to her man and ruin Tess. But things have a way of working out for Tess and all her dreams do come true. Sharply written, nicely acted and well directed by Nichols the film was a major player at the Academy Awards with six nominations and a win for Best Song.
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