To understand the source of his remarkable imprint, one must take a step back even further, to the days of 1950s improv. As a founding member of the famous Chicago-based Compass Players (along with another well-known name behind-the-scenes of the movies, writer Elaine May), here was a man who engaged with the whimsical nature of instantaneous comedic sensibilities as, we gather, a catharsis from earlier realities: namely, the notion that he and his family of German Jews were required to flee to the states at the start of World War II, lest they fall to the atrocities of a Nazi-occupied Europe. Because human observation has proven that harsh experiences often give way to more impassioned choices for artists, it was clear to any well-versed in the Nichols style that his panache for witty sensibilities was not derivative of the artistic choices of his closest peers. This was a man molded and conditioned by a life that began in darkness, whose acknowledgment of the world was that it could be made all the more bearable if one took the approach of a tongue always being firmly planted in one’s cheek.
In essence, Mike Nichols was enamored with that concept even when the career that followed demanded more droll outlooks. As a movie director, his style was consistent even when the subjects ranged from the innocent to the deliberately calculated, and the diversity of his subjects reads like an extensive travelogue through the unending facets of pointed human behavior. Consider the extremities: on one end was “The Graduate” (with its relatively uncultivated ideas about youthful pleasures), and on the other was “Primary Colors” (in which characters conditioned by the cynicism of politics struggle to maintain their individualism). In nearly all cases the commonality Nichols found in his subjects was of remarkably simple insight: as long as one has the foresight to know what dangers lurk in the world, a good character will counter them with sub-conscious impulse of retaining a sense of wit interlaced with almost satirical acknowledgment.
To say that his drive was consistent in that regard clearly understates the nature of his work ethic. Most filmmakers consider it a gift to begin their careers with a debut effort that is even mildly passable; to have the first be as utterly brilliant as “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” is to suggest your voice comes as effortlessly as a child prodigy finds theirs in front of a piano. While he made amazing movies over the course of forty years, “Virginia Wolf” – indeed the greatest of his motion picture endeavors – remains a distinctive revelation in the sense that it was not the work of a more seasoned veteran behind the camera. It seemed to come as naturally to him as breathing, and even now offers two distinctive insights: 1) the observation that theater-trained professionals were easily accustomed to the transition of films (whether as actors or otherwise); and 2) there is still no greater education than the opportunity to watch characters converse on screen to the point of discord, because that is where the fragility of our psyches are ultimately revealed.
If “Virginia Wolf” announced him as an important voice, then a plethora of other amazing pictures saw that voice maintain its reverberating quality through decades of drastic social change. “The Graduate,” one of his most celebrated pictures, is iconic in the sense that it is about so little and yet manages to impart its quaint philosophy so vividly in the minds of its observers; nearly all mentions of the director in the 40+ years since its release have referenced the picture with unending fondness. “Catch 22,” meanwhile, achieved a balance that by today’s standards seems elusive in the black-and-white approach of more cynical directors: the ability to balance a certain nervous humor in the foreground of impending worldwide catastrophe. “Silkwood,” one of his more challenging films, briefly replaced the humor of awareness with the tragedy of injustice, but of course it did – that film was based on real events without worthwhile relief, and the heartbreaking performance by Meryl Streep was uplifting without losing sight of the more sinister perspective of her character’s reality.
And then there were many, many others: “Working Girl,” a charming comedy about the rise of a secretary with a little audacity; “Postcards from the Edge,” about a competitive mother/daughter relationship; “The Birdcage,” the popular comedy starring Nathan Lane and Robin Williams as flamboyant personas who use their knowledge of stage theatrics to inform the uncultivated lives around them; and “Closer,” about four sexually-motivated adults who intercut their passions with calculated manipulation when the thrill of physical satisfaction is deadened by problematic life choices. While others momentarily tarnished that pace – including the painfully unfunny “What Planet Are You From”, the worst of his movies – there were few as consistently dedicated to the nature of the craft, even towards the end of a lengthy career. His last picture was “Charlie Wilson’s War,” and though it was hardly in a class of some of his greater screen achievements, it nonetheless left us with one critical underlying sensation: as life continues to challenge us even in the most urgent professional realms, we can only be expected to remain true to ourselves if we are able to successfully move through the challenges.
Nichols died on Thursday at the age of 83, and though he had not made a film in seven years, that overreaching thumbprint carried through in ways that paved the way for a handful of our most important modern filmmakers. Nearly any director or writer who has ever walked the path of character engagement has, at one point or another, basked in the glow of his tremendous influence. Robert Altman. Woody Allen. Steven Spielberg. Spike Lee. David Lynch. Paul Thomas Anderson. Alexander Payne. The most gifted of names in the modern lexicon of film creators owe a silent debt of gratitude to the man that was, and the filmmaker that remains in the echoes of celluloid. It is a frequent impulse for those dwelling within the sensationalized umbrella of our culture to reduce the individualism of ordinary people for the sake of unending visual assaults. As long as Nichols’ films continue to be seen, someone, somewhere, will be empowered to recognize that there is no greater power we instill upon ourselves than our own individuality, and perhaps our collective influence is ultimately what will give this crazy world we live in some sense of meaning.
Written by DAVID KEYES