A celebration of legendary director Mike Nichols and his masterpiece-studded career

If I had to make a list of the ten film directors who I think most influenced my own standards of what filmmaking can be and should be, Mike Nichols would be on that list, if only for the first two films he made. And it may seem strange to say that I admire how he survived making those masterworks, but early success can destroy even the greatest talent because of the expectations it creates, and Nichols somehow managed it in a way that many other talented people have not.

That is not to say that the rest of his work is not worth that kind of consideration and discussion. It's just that Nichols came out of the gate with two genuine, no-debate masterpieces, two films that crackle with life, two films that are so visually adept that they are humbling, two films packed with performances that go beyond good or bad to simply be iconic. It is safe to say that he made the most successful transition as a director from theater to film since Orson Welles.

Like Welles, he was capable of humbling brilliance and truly colossally bad films as well. His first ten years made him a legend and also effectively ended his career, a pretty breathless ride up and down, but he was such a nimble artist, able to work in so many different media, that he was always doing something. Unlike Welles, Nichols was able to redefine himself as a filmmaker several times, with several different eras of success, and he did work at the end of his filmography that was still vital and demanding and worthwhile, and one of the real joys of his work is watching the evolution of the heart in his work.

When someone like Mike Nichols dies, it becomes clear just how feeble a tribute a simple article is. Born in Germany in 1931, he and his family fled the Nazis and moved to America. He was Mikhail Igor Peschkowsky at birth, but by the time he became a citizen in 1944, he had been re-named, and he appeared to be on a path to follow his father into medicine as a profession.

Thank god for Elaine May and the University of Chicago, then. Whenever I think of Nichols, I automatically also think of May. The two of them developed a type of literate, subtle, sweetly surreal performance comedy, driven largely by improvisation, that stood out in the late '50s and early '60s. They ended up playing Broadway together in a now-legendary production directed by Arthur Penn, and while it was a huge triumph for them, it also ended their partnership as a comedy team, even though an album of their work won them a Grammy in 1962. They worked together numerous times over the years, and it was apparent how much they meant to one another.

Nichols may have trained as an actor initially, but when he moved into directing for theater, he reportedly fell in love with everything about the craft, and he quickly became a highly-sought-after Broadway sensation, winning a Tony for “Barefoot In The Park,” with Neil Simon becoming one of his key collaborators. This was the period of time where Simon was on fire, turning out one monster hit after another, and Nichols was a big part of that. He had a real knack for casting, and most of his casts won awards with the same frequency that Nichols did.

Alan Schneider was the original stage director of Edward Albee's “Who's Afraid Of Virginia Woolf?”, but when Warner Bros. decided to adapt it to film, it was Nichols they turned to, working from Ernest Lehman's remarkable adaptation of the play, and I wonder if anyone had any idea what he was going to do with that movie. His casting must have seemed sort of crazy before people saw the film. After all, Elizabeth Taylor was hardly the person you'd picture when reading Martha, but the entire cast of that film is working from a place of otherworldly inspiration. Sandy Dennis gives a performance so strange, so heartbreaking, so unique, that I'm not even sure how Nichols imagined it so that he would cast her. It's all about what happens between these people, and Nichols picked each of them perfectly.

When you look at it now, it's hard to believe that it literally burned down the Production Code, the creative straightjacket that had restricted the studios for decades. “Woolf” is not explicit by today's standards, but at the time, the language was considered blisteringly frank, and the film plays emotionally rough. It is a brutal round-robin between four characters, and it was released with a special warning that no one under 18 was allowed to see it without a parent. This was before there was a ratings system, but because the film was considered a serious piece of adult work, it was obvious that there needed to be a way to release this kind of material. The audience was ready. The industry was ready. And Mike Nichols was the one who rode the right piece of material across the finish line, shattering the way things had been done and paving the way for the way things are still done now.

So, sure, change the entire industry and make a huge hit that wins a fist full of Oscars with your first film. But what do you do for an encore?

Well, you could make a movie that manages to somehow crystallize an entire cultural moment at the split second it was happening, defining two different generations and the gap between them in a way that influenced not only other filmmakers but people in their daily lives. “The Graduate” made a movie star of Dustin Hoffman, and that casting choice alone should be enough to cement Nichols as a genius. That role was not written for a Hoffman, and no one else would have ever gotten to that decision based on the book or the script. Because Hoffman was the absolute last guy to play what was written, he was the perfect guy to play it, and Nichols saw that.

What I see when I look at “Woolf” and “The Graduate,” first, beyond anything else, is the cinematography, and here's what really blows me away. It would have been so easy for him to simply shoot a stage production of “Woolf,” without any real flourish, and he probably would have still made a compelling movie based on how good he was with scripts and with actors. It would also be easy to just credit Haskell Wexler or Robert Surtees with the credit for the way these films looked, but there are too many strong similarities in composition and the choices about how the frame is used to believe that. Nichols used every single tool of filmmaking to convey theme and character and drama, and he used them like weapons in those first two films. There are single edits in “The Graduate” that have resonated through decades of other films, and there are choices he made in those films in terms of how he used his camera that I think are still as sophisticated as anything I've seen from any filmmaker, and it came from an intuitive place for him. He spoke cinema fluently, and with an elegance that was breathtaking.

I genuinely adore six of his films (seven if you count both halves of “Angels In America”), but I respect even his occasional disaster. “The Day Of The Dolphin” doesn't work at all, but it doesn't work in fascinating ways. “Catch-22” is as bad as an adaptation as “Woolf” is great, but I still find myself going back to it to watch how it goes off the rails because of how interesting it is. He did a great job of giving actors their first big moment or their best showcase, and when I think of Cher's performance in “Silkwood” or Hank Azaria's insane turn in “The Birdcage” or Al Pacino's noble rot in “Angels In America,” I can only imagine the atmosphere that Nichols created for them, or the way he worked with them to reach those remarkable heights.

His last film, “Charlie Wilson's War,” is a lively, not-quite-great political satire with an Aaron Sorkin script, and it was great to see that Nichols was still an engaged and intelligent filmmaker, still capable of creating that same great environment for his cast. I'm glad he got to work with Philip Seymour Hoffman and Tom Hanks in that film, or Natalie Portman in “Closer,” because it felt like a bookend to having worked with a completely different generation of movie stars in a totally different studio era. So often, filmmakers of real longevity reach the end of their career and they're simply not the filmmakers they once were. That was true of Nichols, but he wasn't a weaker filmmaker… he was just different. He continued to grow and change and evolve for his entire career.

I never met Mike Nichols. I would have loved to have spoken with him about his life, his work, the sheer breadth of what he accomplished. I would have loved to have tried to make him laugh, or to have made a point that he agreed with. He was a tremendously smart man, and the combination of a generous heart and a fierce intelligence was what made him so special, no matter what he did.

So here's to you, Mr. Nichols. As long as we preserve and share the films of the 20th Century, his work will be at the forefront of that, and that's exactly as it should be.