Mike Nichols built such a prodigious and protean résumé that it’s hard to pin him down. After starting his career as an improv pioneer with Elaine May, he pivoted and became the pre-eminent director of sophisticated comedy on stage and screen, from The Odd Couple and Spamalot on Broadway to The Graduate and The Birdcage in movie theaters. 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 and his four decades making movies, Nichols could be the very model of a serious showman. In the age of “mature” cinema that he helped launch, Nichols 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, Heartburn and Closer, what gets naked is a man’s or woman’s most urgent, reckless feelings and animosities.
Sitting through Nichols’ films, you’d laugh or smile. But 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.
This appears in the December 15, 2014 issue of TIME.