Earlier this week, the director Mike Nichols passed away at the age of 83. Nichols, who was a premed at the University of Chicago during the 1950s, was an audience favorite and received critical acclaim but had some vocal detractors. In his famous tome The American Cinema: Directors and Directions 1929—1968, Andrew Sarris placed the director in the “Less Than Meets the Eye” category, right next to Stanley Kubrick and Norman Jewison. David Thomson (The New Biographical Dictionary of Film) once wrote that Nichols’s films inspire little more than the audience’s desire to leave the theater. Sarris and Thomson were no strangers to controversial critical stances, but I’m receptive to the idea that Nichols isn’t a great filmmaker. Since his background was primarily in theater, occasionally his films had a stagnant, staged air. Like his post-Code peers Martin Scorsese and Arthur Penn, Nichols was enamored with the European standard of auteurism—but the latter’s films rarely exhibited the understanding and application of auteurism that exists in the films of the former.
Basically, he came of age in a filmmaking era that didn’t suit him, which is why his work from the 80s and 90s is so vastly superior to his supposed heyday in the 60s. During the Reagan years, when the country’s moral tenor was shifting back to a decidedly pre-Code mentality, the director’s view of society sharpened, and his comedic jabs at benign middle-class mores—college and career choices, the perils of dating, pleasing one’s parents, self-affirmation; the kind of stuff he and Elaine May satirized during their time as a performance duo—became more pointed as their ironies became more pronounced. Below, you can find my five favorite Mike Nichols films.
5. Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966) More than The Graduate, the film that many say started the New Hollywood era, this chamber drama represents a new style of American mainstream filmmaking, dealing in biting humor and self-reflexive editing techniques. Adapted from Edward Albee’s absurdist play, the film’s characterizations often resemble the capriciously cynical flourishes of Roman Polanski’s early work. (Nichols’s The Day of the Dolphin was originally a Polanski joint, but the Polish filmmaker dropped the film after Sharon Tate’s murder.)
4. Gilda Live (1980) Nichols was a great director of actors; the people who starred in his films sometimes gave iconic performances. His understanding of and appreciation for actors is foremost in this live-performance doc starring Gilda Radner. Radner deserves sole credit for the peformance, obviously—she performs in character as her various SNL personalities—but the director’s purposefully unadorned framing and naturalistic compositions offer her the ideal stage, so to speak.
3. Working Girl (1988) Along with Postcards from the Edge Nichols proved himself one of the few mainstream directors interested in exploring female characters faced with difficult decisions and complex goals. This is mostly a work of entertainment—Nichols’s films are usually funny, this one especially—but there’s a self-referential quality as well. The climax resembles The Graduate‘s famous wedding scene.
2. Primary Colors (1998) That one of Nichols’s best films arrived near the end of his career is a testament to his vitality as a filmmaker. An ode to the bygone era of New Deal leftism, this film à clef, which benefits from one of Elaine May’s best scripts, had the unfortunate honor of being released around the same time as the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal, registering it in the minds of audiences as a mere nostalgia piece rather than what it actually is: a trenchant and deeply human look at the constantly shifting apparatus of American politics.
1. Carnal Knowledge (1971) A scathing deconstruction of chauvinistic male sexual attitudes in an age of free love, this is Nichols’s most ambitious film, a brutally funny tragicomedy that purposefully alienates its characters from the audience by pointing them in direct opposition to a shifting zeitgeist. In a deflating yet oddly optimistic ending, Nichols’s dual antiheroes—played with venom and passion by Jack Nicholson and Art Garfunkel—aren’t offered a chance at redemption. The world leaves them behind, and it’s all the better for it.