Celebrated director Mike Nichols died on Wednesday in Manhattan at the age of 83. Nichols, known for his wit, comedic timing, and ability to bring out the best in actors, enjoyed a storied career that spanned the stage, screen, and radio. He is one of only a handful of people ever to win an Oscar, a Tony, an Emmy, and a Grammy, and his work ranged from “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” to the Monty Python musical “Spamalot.” The list of luminaries who have worked with Nichols over the decades is long: He discovered Whoopi Goldberg and Dustin Hoffman, made his cinematic directorial debut overseeing Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, and in 2012, directed Andrew Garfield and Philip Seymour Hoffman in the award-winning revival “Death of a Salesman.”
But of all the stars Nichols worked with, the one who paid perhaps the best tribute to him was Elaine May, the other half of the comedy team that first made Nichols famous: “So he’s witty, he’s brilliant, he’s articulate, he’s on time, he’s prepared and he writes. But is he perfect? He knows you can’t really be liked or loved if you’re perfect. You have to have just enough flaws. And he does. Just the right, perfect flaws to be absolutely endearing.”
“The Graduate” (1967)
Cast: Dustin Hoffman, Anne Bancroft, Katharine Ross, William Daniels, Murray Hamilton, Elizabeth Wilson, Buck Henry
Available streaming on Netflix, to rent or purchase from Vudu, Amazon Instant, iTunes
The obvious choice, perhaps, but “The Graduate” is an unimpeachable piece of film canon for a reason. There aren’t many films that remain so persistently entertaining and so dramatically restless – every time I watch it I find some new delight in Hoffman and Bancroft’s masterful performances, and some new existential dread behind the laughs. This is what happens when the American Dream turns into American Ennui. I can’t even think of much else to say except that it’s essential cinema, and if you haven’t seen it yet, why are you still here?
“Working Girl” (1988)
Cast: Melanie Griffith, Harrison Ford, Sigourney Weaver, Joan Cusack, Alec Baldwin, Philip Bosco, Nora Dunn, Oliver Platt, Kevin Spacey
Available to rent or purchase on Amazon Instant and Vudu; on disc from Netflix
The paradox of Mike Nichols was the way his career was defined by undefinability – he bounded between projects from frivolous (“The Birdcage”) to profound (HBO’s mini-series of “Angels in America”), never with any particular consistency. He was capable of both bombing or firing on all cylinders, and there was no particular pattern in genre or theme to predict when he might hit which. Small matter – when it worked, it worked, and “Working Girl”…err….succeeded. Anchored by a charming cast (remember when Harrison Ford seemed to enjoy being in movies?), and a zippy, if blunt, script, Nichols’ rom-com benefits from his generally invisible, clockwork craftsmanship. And I mean really, anyone who recognized that Sigourney Weaver and Joan Cusack needed to be in the same movie deserves some sort of recognition.
Cast: Julia Roberts, Clive Owen, Natalie Portman, Jude Law
Available to rent or purchase on Amazon Instant, iTunes and Vudu, on disc from Netflix
Film adaptations of plays are often accused of being too “talky” – sort of a ridiculous in a world where we all fawn over Tarantino – but “Closer” is a great example of how being cinematic doesn’t exclude being eloquent. If there’s anything consistent about Nichols’ directing career, it was that he gravitated toward characters that were articulate, whether they were cracking jokes, breaking down, or, in the case of this film, just being kind of generally desperate and lonely. Between his aesthetically appealing quartet of actors and some of the most beautiful, woozy cinematography (photographed by Stephen Goldblatt) of his career, “Closer” is certainly attractive as well; as engaging a film to look at as it is to listen to, even when its messy web of romance and deceit gets most ugly.