Remembering Mike Nichols (1931-2014)

One year ago Hollywood and the moviegoer community lost one of the greatest directors of all time, Mike Nichols. In a career that spanned 50 years and the arenas of film, stage and television, Nichols not only proved himself as being capable, but also proved himself as a tremendously versatile director. Nichols touched on the genres of dramatic and comedy, sometimes even finding opportunities to fuse the two genres together to formulate what contemporary audiences now call “the dramedy.” Arguably, Nichols also had the uncanny ability to bring out performances from actors that kept them from being typecasted, while also provoking career-defining performances from actors such as Anne Bancroft, Dustin Hoffman, Elizabeth Taylor, Meryl Streep, Nathan Lane, Melanie Griffith, and Clive Owen, to name a few. Yet what Mike Nichols should especially be remembered for is being one of the rare elite directors to ever achieve a complete EGOT win – Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, and Tony win. In the span of Nichols’ career, he won a single Grammy (1961), 9 Tonys (ranging from 1964-2012), an Oscar (1968), and 4 Emmy Awards (2001 and 2004). When looking at this impressive list of achievements, it can argued Mike Nichols was one of the most successful, most irreplaceable directors of all time.

Mike NicholsDespite Mike Nichols’ unfortunate passing, audiences and moviegoers still can experience the filmmaker’s vast career. The one limitation to this would be honoring Nichols’ stage work due to a lack of video recordings. The best one can do in such scenarios is listen to the original Broadway audio recordings, to which the listener can at least experience the energy of what once occurred on the stage. Therefore, it is encouraged to listen to the original Broadway recordings of Annie (1977) and Monty Python’s Spamalot (2005). Of course, there are also the various films in his career, any of which are worth watching. Below are eight films from Mike Nichols’ career (in no particular order) that are worth watching to honor this truly extraordinary director.

Silkwood (1983)

SilkwoodThis film follows the true-story of Karen Silkwood (Meryl Streep), who was a whistle-blower who sought to expose the health violations of the nuclear plant she worked for in Oklahoma. Her efforts were met with life-threatening scenarios, which did not deter her, but may have contributed to her untimely death. What Silkwood was most effective in conveying was the immense pressure a whistleblower endures in the name of attaining what is right. Silkwood needed a human aspect to it, which Mike Nichols was sure to achieve through Meryl Streep. This film was also particularly profound in that it not only exposed the safety violations from nuclear plants, but it implicated union officials of not doing enough to prevent such gross negligence. Silkwood encouraged viewers to rally behind Karen Silkwood and demand the answers she never lived to uncover.

Charlie Wilson’s War (2007)

Charlie Wilson's WarThis was Mike Nichol’s final movie, which concluded his film career on such a high note. The film focuses on the true-story of congressman Charlie Wilson (Tom Hanks), who worked with a CIA operative (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and a Texas socialite (Julia Roberts) to covertly provide Afghanistan weapons to eliminate the Russian communist regime in their region. The film, written by Aaron Sorkin, is dialogue-driven and comes off like an elaborate play with beautifully written monologues that emphasize the need to help others, but also provide foreshadowing if enough is not done.

Postcards from the Edge (1990)

Postcards from the EdgeThis film was written by Carrie Fisher as a sort of semi-autobiographical portrayal of her life. The film stars Meryl Streep as an actress who suffers from substance abuse and is overshadowed by her mother (Shirley MacLaine), who was once a legendary Hollywood sensation and now grabbles for the spotlight whenever she can. The film functions as both a coming-of-age film that portrays the relationship of mother and daughter, while also being a film that conveys the complexities of success.

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf (1966)

Whos Afraid of Virginia WoolfMike Nichols was already an established Broadway director when he directed Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf as his first movie, which put him at the forefront of newcomer director lists almost immediately. Not shying away from the controversial nature of the play, Nichols kept the brutal honesty of the Edward Albee play intact and encouraged his actors to provide grim representations of alcoholism and marital issues. Nearly 50 years later, this film still is a golden example or how to properly adapt a Broadway play into a coherent and captivating film.

Working Girl (1988)

Working GirlIn perhaps one of Mike Nichol’s most unique films, it stars Melanie Griffith as Tess McGill, a secretary who learns that her boss (Sigourney Weaver) has stolen her idea about a financial merger and is in the process of passing it off as her own. When her boss injures her leg during a ski trip, Tess decides to steal her idea back and make it a reality with the assistance of Jack Trainer (Harrison Ford), who is a highly regarded investment broker. Working Girl is about the American dream and how anyone can make it big if they are willing to fight for it.

The Birdcage (1996)

The BirdcageThis film adaptation of the 1983 musical, La Cage aux Folles, stars Robin Williams and Nathan Lane as a well-established couple in Miami who run a gay cabaret. Their lives are dramatic but comfortable, but that all is challenged when their son announces he is to be married. The issue is that the father of this prospective daughter-in-law is a senator who is currently engaged in passing legislation that emphasizes morality and the need to revert back to the “normal” definitions of family. What makes this film particularly special is how Mike Nichols never cheapened the characters within this film by satirizing their sexuality. Instead, it is the emphasis of masculinity and ‘what is masculinity’ that is satirized throughout the film. This film remains at the top of most LGBT film lists because this film is ultimately about being yourself and accepting you for you and not needing to change to satisfy anyone.

Angels in America (2004)

Angels in AmericaThis 8-hour HBO miniseries adaptation of Tony Kushner’s Pulitzer Prize winning two-part play is perhaps one of the greatest achievements in Mike Nichols’ career. Following a handful of characters during the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s, each character is emotionally lost and seeking to find some inner solace within themselves. The film perfectly captures the complexity of faith, disease, politics, sexuality, and morality, detailing such attributes having the possibility to be paralyzing or be a crutch to halt one from truly living. What is especially worth noting with this film is the astounding acting from its entire cast, most notably from Al Pacino, Meryl Streep, and Mary-Louise Parker. In the style of the original Broadway play, actors starred in multiple roles in this film, which further heightened the level of acting talent that came from such a stellar HBO miniseries. This, alone, makes Angels in America worth watching.

The Graduate (1967)

The GraduatePerhaps the most famous and the most iconic film of his career, The Graduate is a movie that is still talked about nearly 50 years after being released into theaters. The film stars Dustin Hoffman as a recent college graduate who is jaded about life and conflicted about not knowing what he is supposed to do with his life. His world becomes much more complicated when the seductive Mrs. Robinson (Anne Bancroft) propositions him and begins an affair with him. This situation gets even more complicated when he falls for Mrs. Robinson’s daughter, triggering jealousy and passive-aggressive behavior from her. The Graduate was a groundbreaking film when it was first released into theaters and is arguably one of the first satires focused on suburbia. Mike Nichols won his only Oscar for this film.

Mike Nichols Oscar
Mike Nichols accepting his Best Director Oscar for “The Graduate” in 1968.

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