Mike Nichols has died. He was 83. His career spanned six decades and saw him presenting and producing work for the stage and screen – big screen and little screen. As a performer he toured and made award-winning albums. He is one of a select group of people to have won in four major US entertainment awards – collecting an Emmy, a Grammy, a Tony and an Oscar.
Nichols was a fabulous movie director – he made a bunch of great films. Critically great, as well as commercially successful – his instincts for comedy, and the blur of comedy and tragedy, honed from his time as one half of the successful Nichols and May comedy duo with Elaine May).
After three comedy albums with May, the pair creating humorous improvised, dialogue-driven scenes, Nichols turned first to the theatre. When he moved to directly Hollywood films, shortly after, he would continue to work across stage and screen. Producing several hit plays and directing comedy specials also.
But let’s look at that run of great movies. His first was Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? It was also his first Oscar nomination. The following year he won for The Graduate.
A partial list of his crucial films would include Catch-22, Carnal Knowledge, Silkwood, Heartburn, Working Girl, Postcards From The Edge, Regarding Henry, Primary Colors, the TV mini-series Angels In America and his last truly great film, 2004’s Closer.
He was working constantly. He hadn’t made a film since 2007 but produced a version of Death of a Salesman for Broadway in 2012, and Betrayal the following year. He was working on an HBO adaptation of Master Class, the Terrence McNally play about Maria Callas. It would reunite him with his Silkwood star, Meryl Streep.
I guess I first became aware of Nichols from The Graduate. From there his name would appear on some of the more recent films I was watching (The Birdcage, Wolf) and then I started spotting his name across older films I was re-watching (Biloxi Blues, The Fortune). What was obvious, almost instantly, was the broad range. And this innate comic skill – Nichols made comedies that weren’t often all that funny. He also made dramas that made you laugh out loud. His films were incredibly human.
I got hooked on the Nichols and May comedy stuff from the early 1960s. I was listening to comedy records almost obsessively at one point. A break from regular listening – I was fairly burnt out as a music reviewer (and, at the time I was also working in a music store). I couldn’t just put on music to enjoy, but at the end of a day of a lot of listening it was hard-wired, I needed audio. Enter comedy albums – something that had been a staple in my upbringing.
The Nichols and May stuff was, like Bob Newhart, only dated by a handful of cultural references. The observations, the wit, the wordplay, the delivery – all of that still dazzled. It was lively and exciting. And funny. Really really funny.
What a clever man. And what an extraordinary career.