Remembering Mike Nichols: Let’s Talk About Sex

10 minute read

Mike Nichols, who died Wednesday at 83, built such a prodigious and protean résumé that it’s hard to pin him down. An improv pioneer with Chicago’s Compass players, a forerunner of Second City, he teamed with Elaine May to create a series of duet skits, ranging from improbable romance to social satire, that made the writer-performers the rage of nightclubs, records and, by 1960, Broadway. Then Nichols gave up acting (except for starring in David Hare’s 1997 film The Designated Mourner) and became the preeminent director of sophisticated comedy on stage and screen. Broadway: The Odd Couple and Spamalot. Movies: The Graduate and The Birdcage. When a show or a film was smart and funny, it often was one of his.

Yet across the full half-century he spent as a Broadway director, from the 1963 Barefoot in the Park to the 2013 revival of Harold Pinter’s Betrayal, and his four decades plus making movies, from his sensational debut with the 1966 Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? to the 2007 Charlie Wilson’s War, Nichols could be the very model of a serious showman. He lured movie stars off-Broadway to do Beckett — Robin Williams and Steve Martin in the 1988 Lincoln Center staging of Waiting for Godot — and to play Chekhov in Central Park, where in 2001 Meryl Streep, Kevin Kline, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Natalie Portman, John Goodman and Christopher Walken brought fresh luster to The Seagull. His strongest TV work may be his 2003 miniseries of Tony Kushner’s AIDS epic Angels in America, with Streep, Al Pacino and Emma Thompson. So we’ll say: Mike Nichols, all-round expert director.

We might be able to refine that epithet just a bit — for Nichols, in the age of “mature” cinema that he helped launch with Virginia Woolf and The Graduate, was arguably the wisest director of movies about sex. And we mean not Show but Tell. Films can reveal startling erotic truths about their characters, about us, without exposing so much as a breast or a butt. In Nichols movies like Carnal Knowledge (1971), Heartburn (1986) and Closer (2004), what gets naked is a man’s or woman’s most urgent, reckless feelings and animosities.

He managed all this without writing a word of the text, or at least putting his name on it. (After An Evening With Mike Nichols and Elaine May, he took no writing credit except for the 2001 TV adaptation of the cancer play Wit.) In the age of instant auteurs, Nichols had an old-fashioned gift: energizing each moment in a good script, bringing clarity, subtlety and potency to the people on view. He was no Preston Sturges, a writer-director who created his own cockeyed caravan of stories and characters. His Hollywood model was George Cukor, a director of sublime taste and grace, who inhabited the writer’s words and world — in such film comedies as Holiday, The Women, and Adam’s Rib — and made them shine. The very least you think of a Nichols film is: This is the best this project could be.

He had directed just three Broadway plays, all comedies — Neil Simon’s Barefoot in the Park and The Odd Couple and Murray Schisgal’s Luv — when Richard Burton convinced Jack Warner to sign Nichols for the movie of Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? The tyro director promptly dismissed veteran director of photography Harry Stradling, who was trying to beautify Elizabeth Taylor in the role of a frowsy, fiftyish wife for which she had scrupulously gained a couple dozen pounds, and hired the rebel DP Haskell Wexler for the movie’s severe monochrome look. Nichols was faithful to Albee’s text; all but a few words in the movie were straight from the play. But because this all-night fight of a married couple and their younger guests (George Segal and Sandy Dennis) used words and emotions new to Hollywood movies, the film created a singeing intimacy that raised temperatures, eyebrows and hackles, and earned Oscars for Taylor, Dennis and Wexler.

His next film, The Graduate, detailed the passive, loveless affair between young Benjamin (Dustin Hoffman) and the avaricious mother (Anne Bancroft) of his pretty neighbor Elaine (Katharine Ross). More daringly, it undercut the plot’s rah-rah climax. Remember that The Graduate broke a basic rule of romantic comedy and let Benjamin win Elaine just after, not during, her marriage to the blond lunk. But after this boy-steals-girl-from-another-guy triumph, they hop on a bus and, in the last shot, we see the excitement quickly drain from their faces. Ben seems to realize that he really wanted a great quest, not the Grail, and that he and Elaine are now condemned to become their parents. It’s true that ’60s audiences for this immensely popular film remembered the big win, not the post-climax depression. But Nichols gets points for plating a sour aftertaste. Hello, darkness, my old friend…

Nichols’ boldest early film was the 1971 Carnal Knowledge, which traced 30 years in the sexual lives of two perpetually immature men played by Jack Nicholson and Art Garfunkel. The excoriating chatter in Jules Feiffer’s screenplay would be familiar to anyone who’s attended a college-dorm tell-all, or sat at a bar while the guy three stools down pours out his little black heart, but it was a jolt for mainstream movies. Nobody learns, let alone hugs. In sour midlife, the men still abuse their women, still treat them as sex toys to attain the mystical, apocalyptic orgasm that fades almost as soon as it explodes.

In Heartburn, which Nora Ephron scripted based on her revenge novel about being married to Carl Bernstein, Meryl Streep has to cope with husband Jack Nicholson’s rampant adultery; she’s especially annoyed that he put one of his hotel assignations on a credit card and asks (as I recall), “Why can’t you pay cash like an ordinary philanderer?” Primary Colors, which May adapted from the roman à clef by Joe Klein (sorry: Anonymous), anatomizes the frailties of another charming horndog: John Travolta as, basically, Bill Clinton. The most conventional of Nichols’ movie romcoms, the 1988 hit Working Girl, threw Melanie Griffith into the arms of Harrison Ford, but only after she found her boyfriend, Alec Baldwin, in bed with another woman.

Nichols’ one sci-fi comedy, What Planet Are You From, imagines Garry Shandling as an alien from an all-male planet; he’s come to Earth to have sex with women, but they’re distracted by his humming penis). The sort-of horror movie Wolf trumpets the rejuvenative pleasures of a publishing executive (Nicholson) who, under the full moon, becomes an animal. He’s a monster, and it’s hell on his family but, in his elemental element, he feels younger, sexier — great.

The director wasn’t building a misogynistic argument in his films; he followed the tone of each script and made it better. His two-woman comedy, Postcards from the Edge, is much gentler to its flawed heroines. Daughter (Streep) is a junkie in rehab, and Mom (Shirley MacLaine) is an alcoholic — though she says that she’s recovered, and that “Now I just drink like an Irish person.” Carrie Fisher’s script could have been as devastating as Feiffer’s, a kind of Maternal Knowledge, but it finds forgiveness in human frailty; isn’t frailty what makes us human? That was the message of The Birdcage, scripted by May from the French comedy La cage aux follies. The gay twosome (Williams and Nathan Lane), playing it straight for visiting conservative in-laws, is the most prominent faithful pair in a Nichols movie.

Mostly, though, Nichols films threw a wicked curve at couples who thought they were attending a date-night movie: At least one of you is cheating.

What must this couple have thought of Closer, the blistering sex drama Nichols made from Patrick Marber’s 1997 play? Covering the intersections of four people — Dan (Jude Law), Alice (Portman), Anna (Julia Roberts) and Larry (Clive Owen) — over four years, Closer is initially playful about the deceptions this handsome quartet of characters commit while falling in love and, later, climbing out. But there are scans to be ripped off, as when Anna tells Larry she’s sleeping with Dan. In just a few minutes, Larry endures the first five stages of the cuckolded male: denial, derision, pleading, sobbing, threatening. Now, in confronting Anna about Dan, he atavizes into Caveman, the Alpha Male in competitive fury. Where did you make love: what parts of the house, what parts of the body? How did Dan perform? What did he taste like? Was he “better”? “Gentler,” she acknowledges, depleted by the hard truths he’s forcing out of her. “Sweeter.” Larry finally has what he wanted: the instant, utter and mutual eradication of their year-long tryst. “Thank you for your honesty,” he tells her. “Now f— off and die.”

The scheme of Closer is simple: two people become a couple, break up, pair off with someone new. We are shown only the beginnings and ends of each affair, when hopes are surging, or betrayal sours the air. The piece is a series of cardiograms: hearts open and shut down. “Have you ever seen a human heart?” says Larry, a doctor. “It looks like a fist, soaked in blood.” Closer is a closeup of that heart, which keeps beating even when diseased. It challenges the big movie lie that in life there are heroes and villains, that the good we seek is easily distinguishable from the good-bad we do. This Nichols film is about four glamorous folks with severe but recognizable fissures in their façades. Not like movie people. Like people.

Nichols made movies in Hollywood but his home in New York, in part because he saw L.A. as a company town that value perception over achievement. As he told ace TIME reporter Josh Tyrangiel in 2004, “One of the great dangers of living in Hollywood, and the reason it’s really unwise, is that it’s very hard to fight the virus: ‘How am I perceived?’ And once you preoccupy yourself with that question you’re pretty much lost. It’s all over Hollywood: you can see whether your stock has gone up or down in the eyes of the parking attendant.”

For all those decades, in his journey from Young Turk to Old Master, Nichols kept directing high-IQ movies attentive to the nuances of emotional and sexual brutality. He made no sequels, no flat-out action vehicles (the war movie Catch-22 comes closest) and, excepting his Broadway Annie in 1978, nothing that aims for the adorable. His one box-office smash was The Graduate (nearly $700 million in today’s dollars), followed by The Birdcage, Virginia Woolf, Working Girl and Wolf (all more than $100 million). But after The Graduate, he made the expensive, acerbic Catch-22 and that brazen jeremiad Carnal Knowledge. Nichols just wanted to tell stories that interested him, without worrying what the parking attendant thought.

He could almost be called a minority director, since his films were about adults — who sometimes behave like disturbed kids — for adults. Sitting through them, you’d laugh or smile; and on the way out you might realize there was something deeper, darker, a hard truth worth contemplating and cherishing. Which is how you may feel now, at the end of Mike Nichols’ exemplary career.

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