The great American film, TV, and stage director Mike Nichols died today, Nov. 20, 2014, at age 83. He leaves a legacy of movies that have gone down in cinema history. Here are 15 ways to remember Director Mike Nichols, winner of the American Film Institute Lifetime Achievement Award.
Sources: imdb.com, suntimes.com
Nobody knew who Mike Nichols was, but they sure knew who Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton were when this film was released. Shaking the grounds of refinement and good taste, the Edward Albee adaptation for the screen stunned audiences unaccustomed to cursing, sexual innuendo (“hump the hostess” became a bashfully-uttered repeated phrase after this film), and a brutally dizzying, unflinching look at George and Martha’s twisted partnership. The result: Oscars for Taylor and actress Sandy Dennis, and Nichols’ first nomination.
This was the movie that clinched it for Nichols, winning him an Oscar at the age of 36 for his sophomoric effort. Brave and innovative for its time, and now one of the classics, “The Graduate” introduced to the world a new face: Dustin Hoffman — a timid little Jewish TV actor from California. Nichols had been looking for a more Robert Redford-type in the role, but when the 30-year-old Hoffman stepped up to audition for the role of Benjamin Braddock, Nichols knew he had his man. Hoffman and Mrs. Robinson (Anne Bancroft) became one of the most memorable on-screen couples ever.
The ’70s were OK for Nichols. They produced some minor classics such as the Ann-Margret vehicle, “Carnal Knowledge” and the “Catch-22” adaptation. The ’80s were a more fruitful time for Nichols’ creativity. He started the decade by honoring the talents of comedienne Gilda Radner with a filmed version of her famous “Gilda Radner: Live From New York” Broadway show that ran during her summer hiatus from taping “Saturday Night Live.” It also featured her now-immortalized characters from the show.
Meryl Streep had won an Oscar the previous year for “Sophie’s Choice,” and was now the most versatile actress alive. She followed up with arguably an even better performance as the late Karen Silkwood, a blue-collar worker in an Oklahoma nuclear plant who exposed hazardous safety situations for the workers that potentially endangered the community. The real Silkwood died under mysterious circumstances after taking her story to the media. Streep portrayed her extraordinary situation superbly, and Nichols directed Streep, and her co-stars Kurt Russell and Cher.
Maybe the real star of this film is Carly Simon’s song “Coming Around Again,” playing with the opening credits. Not so much critically acclaimed or successful in movie houses, this is an interesting story, and it’s got Jack Nicholson and Meryl Streep. Nora Ephron wrote this film and it’s as close as it it could be to an autobiography about her marriage to journalist Carl Bernstein (“All the President’s Men” fame), who cheated on her while she was pregnant. It may not have won awards, but you have Streep and Nicholson in a Mike Nichols film, OK?
Melanie Griffith was a high-pitched bombshell coming into her own when Nichols picked her over actresses such as Brooke Shields and Michelle Pfeiffer to play Tess McGill, a Staten Island secretary slogging in a Manhattan cubicle until a major break. Her somewhat malevolent boss Katharine (a delicious Sigourney Weaver) breaks her leg in a ski accident and a young and very swoonable Harrison Ford swoops in to the rescue. For immersion in mid-’80s hairstyles, pumps, and American dreams, look no further than this absolutely entertaining comedy. Nichols, Griffith, Weaver, and the film received Oscar nominations.
Wickedly funny and dark, this film takes an incisive look at Hollywood through the eyes of actor Carrie Fisher in her sordid and zany novel about Suzanne Vale (Meryl Streep), a fictional Hollywood actress fresh out of a 1980s drug rehab facility who’s sent to live with her boozy film star mother played by the incomparable Shirley MacLaine. An all-star cast includes Gene Hackman, Dennis Quaid, and Rob Reiner as these two world-class actresses tear into each other and into the antics of the film business like never before.
Jack Nicholson plays a down-and-out publisher who turns into a werewolf and then makes love to Michelle Pfeiffer. You’re in. Under the radar of most of the Mike Nichols ouevre, this film is in the tradition of crafty horror-comedy fusions, and entirely worth revisiting to see a hairy Jack Nicholson, James Spader at the height of sleaziness, and Michelle Pfeiffer.
The classic French Jean Poiret farce, “La Cage Aux Folles” is transformed into a Miami Beachfront slapstick gay-fest that has become quite a mid-’90s throwback classic. Robin Williams is the Hawaiian shirt-donning owner of a popular drag nightclub. His longtime lover is the melodramatic, over-the-top Albert (a classic Nathan Lane), who is the starring act at the joint. When their son brings his future wife’s parents to meet them, hijinks ensue. Gene Hackman and Dianne Wiest play Mr. and Mrs. Ultra-Conservative U.S. Senator. This film may be a bit dated with its amping-up of gay character stereotypes, especially with Hank Azaria as the poolboy, Agador, but it’s still totally enjoyable.
President John Travolta, how does that sound? It’s more serious than you think. Nichols hit the mark with this political satire about the trials and tribulations of a road-tripping governor making his way across America on the campaign trail, with the help of his wacky gallery of advisers. There’s the bodyguard — tough lesbian Kathy Bates; the yellow-bellied strategist Billy Bob Thornton; his fast-talking wife Emma Thompson, and they’re all seen through the eyes of the young idealist,Adrian Lester. It’s hilarious and often heartbreaking, and all of it is the craft work of Nichols and writer Elaine May.
The silver screen was just not grand enough for this TV miniseries that swept across the HBO network in December 2003. Larger than life, sprawling, incredibly moving, and filled with the greatest performers, the adaptation of Tony Kushner’s award-winning Broadway play is about America, especially New York City during the early days of the HIV/AIDS crisis. Characters range from fictional creations to interpretations of real people such as Ethel Rosenberg and Roy Cohn. The cast includes Al Pacino, Meryl Streep, Emma Thompson, Mary-Louise Parker, Jeffrey Wright, Justin Kirk, and Patrick Wilson. This series was an event, and with it, Mike Nichols changed the potential of TV forever.
Let’s talk about death for two hours. That’s what renowned English professor Vivian Bearing does when she’s diagnosed with terminal ovarian cancer. The Margaret Edson play gets new life with Emma Thompson never leaving the frame. At first she’s cynical and huffing at the army of “9-year-old doctors” assigned to her case, and then terrified and anguished as reality sets in. This film is unbearably moving and accurate with its sarcasm about how we face death. With it, Nichols fashioned yet another masterpiece.
Do we really like these four people? Roberts, Law, Portman, Owen — they’re likable actors, but Nichols challenges that by showing how abusive people can be to each other in relationships. From the opening shot on London streets to the closing shot on New York streets, we shiver at how spoiled and terrible people can be, and it’s probably because we have had relationships just like these. It was a brilliant move by Nichols to make this film.
There really was a guy named Charlie Wilson, an early-1980s U.S. Texas congressman who loved partying, naked young women, alcohol, and prestige. Tom Hanks pulls it off. When he journeys to an Afghanistan refugee camp, he sees the damage that the Soviet Union’s occupation caused civilians and decides to do everything in his power — legally or otherwise — to arm the rebels against the occupying forces. Nichols gets some great moments out of Philip Seymour Hoffman who plays the foul-mouthed and brilliant CIA argent Gust Avrakotos. The film also stars Julia Roberts and Amy Adams.
For the 38th Annual American Film Institute’s Lifetime Achievement Award, Mike Nichols was honored with his wife Diane Sawyer by his side by dozens of the actors, writers, and friends he’d helped over the years. Watch this short Youtube clip to see how hilarious Nora Ephron is, and let it lead you to other videos with warm and funny speeches by Jack Nicholson, Natalie Portman, Elaine May. They speak about what a creative genius Mike Nichols was.
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