Critic’s Notebook: Todd McCarthy Reflects on the Film Career of Mike Nichols

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Todd McCarthy writes: Mike Nichols is such a great talker, my first desire after reading The Hollywood Reporter’s current skipping-stone account of his theatrical directing career is to buy his own 20-disc recording of the autobiography he unfortunately hasn’t written yet.

My second desire is to see Death of a Salesman before it closes.

My third is to know: Who is Mike Nichols?

As Meryl Streep attests, he always is “the smartest and most brilliant person in the room.” I spent a couple of hours with him many years ago, a memorable encounter that directly led to my first job in Hollywood — as assistant to his former partner, Elaine May. At the time, Nichols was preparing to direct the film version of The Last Tycoon, a project that eventually passed to his self-proclaimed idol, Elia Kazan, while Nichols moved on to The Fortune. This sequence of events didn’t work out well for either of them; it was the end for Kazan, and Nichols didn’t direct another dramatic feature for nearly a decade.

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Nichols’ best films, in order:

ANGELS IN AMERICA (2003) Nichols’ distinct talents for stage and screen merge perfectly in this superlative adaptation of one of the great American epic plays. Jeffrey Wright and Al Pacino are out of this world in it.

CARNAL KNOWLEDGE (1971) With a terrific Jules Feiffer script (originally written as a play) and a bold visual style, this bracing study of men’s attitudes toward women is probably the director’s most probing, self-revelatory film.

THE GRADUATE (1967) Still funny and sharp-edged after all these years, it’s one of the great zeitgeist films of the ‘60s or any other era, caricatured, perhaps, but with truth and insight to support it. Dustin Hoffman and Anne Bancroft are simply sensational.

WHO’S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF? (1966) Richard Burton remains the standout in Nichols’ vibrant and vital adaptation of one of the seminal American plays, with Haskell Wexler’s mobile, unflattering black-and-white cinematography still a marvel.

WORKING GIRL (1988) This key female empowerment comedy is sheer enjoyment, plain and simple, with Nichols displaying his great skill with actors by making everyone in the variously talented cast look equally good.

And therein lies the first mystery. Why did this golden boy, who had conquered improv, recording, cabaret and Broadway by his early 30s, won an Oscar for his second film and batted .750 in his first four times up to the plate — with Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?The Graduate and Carnal Knowledge all going for extra bases while Catch-22 was a deep fly out to left — suddenly flatline, lose “The Knack” (also the title of a play he successfully directed in the early 1960s) and retreat to Broadway?

First of all, he did it because he could. The theater was his original home; he had always flourished there and would continue to. I’ve seen eight of his stage productions, and I don’t think he ever missed a trick, even if the laughs sometimes seemed manufactured, the attitude glib. You could get cut by The Real Thing, it was so sharp….(read more)

Hollywood Reporter

 

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2 Comments on “Critic’s Notebook: Todd McCarthy Reflects on the Film Career of Mike Nichols”

  1. […] The Butcher Todd McCarthy writes: Mike Nichols is such a great talker, my first desire after reading The […]


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