Incredibly sad news this morning as legendary director Mike Nichols has died at the age of 83. ABC reported the news that Nichols died suddenly last night. Nichols was a creative powerhouse throughout his career as his character-centric work could cut to the bone but without ever feeling petty or childish even when his characters were behaving that way (which they had a tendency to do). When the Production Code was shaking in the mid 1960s, his feature directing debut Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? knocked it over and cleared the way for more mature language, themes, and other topics that had been stifled for decades. The Graduate, which is one of my all-time favorite movies, was a key movie in the changing of the guard from Old Hollywood to New Hollywood, and I could do a series of articles on how its place in film history and lasting impact. It’s an incredible film made even more remarkable by the fact that it was only Nichols’ second movie.
Over the course of his career, his films would continually land in the cultural zeitgeist. People still refer to a “Silkwood shower”. When Robin Williams died earlier this year, I know plenty of people who went and watched The Birdcage. Primary Colors remains a scathing and funny look at politics. And if your final film is on the level of Charlie Wilson’s War, you could do far worse. That’s not to mention winning 8 Tony awards over the course of your life. Hit the jump for more.
Nichols and fellow University of Chicago student Elaine May became skilled improvisers and the duo’s act eventually resulted in three best-selling comedy albums, one of which won a Grammy. So Nichols is one of the few entertainers in history who has an EGOT (along with the aforementioned Tony awards, he won Emmys for Angels in America and Wit, and a Best Director Oscar for The Graduate). The two would eventually go their own ways to tackle individual projects, but they did reunite later with May co-writing Primary Colors and The Birdcage.
Nichols came out of performing in and directing theater, and those roots, along with his emphasis on comedy, gave him a distinct approach to actors, which is part of the reason why he was able to get such great performances. His comedy background also allowed him to find humor in even the darkest moments and vice-versa. Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is an intense, emotionally ugly, and brutal film, but it’s not without some welcome dark comedy. And in one of my favorite scenes of all-time, the ending of The Graduate could traditionally be taken as “happy”, but Nichols diffuses the triumph as the characters ebullience fades into fear and uncertainty, and there’s even the indication that despite all of the grand, dramatic efforts by the characters, nothing has really changed for Benjamin as “The Sound of Silence” plays over the closing credits. (Also, using a single band for the soundtrack, as Nichols did with Simon & Garfunkel on The Graduate, was a big deal at the time).
Although his filmography ended with 2007’s Charlie Wilson’s War, he continued to direct for the stage, and his recent productions included 2012’s Death of a Salesman starring Philip Seymour Hoffman and Andrew Garfield, and Betrayal starring Daniel Craig and Rachel Weisz.
The writer-director’s work spanned movies, television, and Broadway, and he will be sorely missed. He is survived by his wife, ABC News Anchor Diane Sawyer, as well as three children and four grandchildren. Our deepest condolences go out to Mr. Nichols family and friends.
Here’s Nichols winning Best Director for The Graduate: