Mike Nichols: The Actors’ Director

When I first learned of Mike Nichols death, I was flooded by a wave of memories. Most of these were some of my favorite scenes of his: The awkward hotel tryst in The Graduate; Meryl Streep dumping a desert on Jack Nicholson’s head in Heartburn; “A mind for business and a bod for sin” in Working Girl; Streep and Shirley MacLaine arguing on a staircase in Postcards from the Edge; and so many more. Still, the image that most stuck in my head was Dustin Hoffman telling a story at Nichols’s American Film Institute Lifetime Achievement Award ceremony. Hoffman noted that he and Anne Bancroft had finished a take of a bedroom scene while filming The Graduate. Hoffman felt that he had blown the scene and started playfully banging his head against the wall. Nichols kept the camera rolling and included that moment in the film.

That’s a good story, but I wasn’t sure why it lingered with me as I read through the Nichols tributes. Most of the appreciations duly noted Nichols’s unparalleled versatility. He excelled at both comedy and drama, at both Broadway and film. He was one of only a handful of people ever to win the “EGOT,” an Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, and Tony award. Nichols also directed an astounding 17 Oscar nominated performances.

It is all too easy for people like me, who grew up on the auteur theory, to look for a common thread running through a directors’ films. The thread can be similar story themes or a certain visual style. Nichols’s work varied so much that grouping them together can prove difficult. Going back to those 17 Oscar nominations and Hoffman’s story, I asked myself what that shows about Nichols as a director and an artist. As I read the tributes to Nichols by the many stars he had directed over the years, I realized he was truly an actors’ director.

But what does that term mean? In its simplest sense it means that actors enjoyed working with him. We can only look at the actors who worked with him more than once: Meryl Streep, Jack Nicholson, Harrison Ford, Gene Hackman, Emma Thompson, Phillip Seymour Hoffman and Julia Roberts, just to name a few. Beyond just actors liking him, being an actors’ director meant that they trusted him and believed that he would work with them to craft a fine performance.

Nichols truly earned this trust, starting with his first film Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, in 1966. On paper this could have been a colossal disaster. Here was a first-time film director working with the world’s two biggest stars, Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. He was taking these profiles in glamour and turning them into this dowdy, bitter, disagreeable couple. Taylor was playing a character at least 10 years older than she was. To top that off, here was a black-and-white film in a time when most of the world had moved to color. Despite these obstacles, Nichols pulled off a masterful film, one that’s lost none of its bite today. He got Burton and Taylor to shed their celebrity personas and truly inhabit this battling husband-and-wife.

As much of a risk as his first film was, Nichols took a much greater one with The Graduate. The source novel set the main character, Benjamin Braddock, as a tall, blond California surfer boy. But Nichols saw something in an unknown New York stage actor, Dustin Hoffman, who was seemingly all wrong for the part. Nichols looked past the physical characteristics and saw that Hoffman could find the uncertainty, insecurity and desperation at Braddock’s core. That was hardly the only chance Nichols took. He cast Anne Bancroft, only six years older than Hoffman and best known for playing the heroic teacher in The Miracle Worker, as the scheming, shallow Mrs. Robinson. Hoffman and Bancroft’s chemistry made their scenes together crackle, and are among the main reasons this film remains a classic. When Nichols left in Hoffman banging his head against the wall, he did so because that moment was true to the character and the performance, whether Hoffman knew it at the time or not.

Those first two films do show some common traits that show up frequently despite Nichols’s eclectic filmography. Much of Nichols best work, be it comedy or drama, was character centered. Many of his films have people struggling to prove to others and themselves that they can be something different; a young man proving he can make his own choices; a nuclear power plant worker showing she can make a difference; a secretary showing that she is more than a pretty face; an actress proving she can stay sober. Many of his films also show men clashing with women, and vice versa. Regardless, they all focus on the characters and give their actors room to shine. Think about how many of his best scenes are simply two people talking. Nichols biggest flop was arguably the werewolf film Wolf. Nichols was not about the supernatural; he was about what real human beings do to each other.

Another quality Nichols showed, not only with his first films but throughout his career, was seeing something in actors that others did not, maybe even what the actors did not see in themselves. Burton, Taylor, Hoffman and Bancroft may be great examples, but so is Cher. Few people took her seriously as an actress when Nichols cast her as Karen Silkwood’s best friend, and a lesbian, in Silkwood. Melanie Griffith was known mostly for her looks, but Nichols saw that she could convey grit and intelligence in Working Girl. In that same film, Nichols also got Harrison Ford and Sigourney Weaver to do very different work than they had done before. Emma Thompson had garnered much critical acclaim, but much of it was in period pieces. Nichols saw that she could pull off a Hillary Clinton-type in Primary Colors. Under Nichols’s direction Thompson later gave the most brave, daring and moving performance of her career in the HBO movie Wit.

Talent and dedication with actors can translate to film, stage and TV, so it’s no surprise that Nichols succeeded in all three mediums. His stage work fills me with regret, only because I did not take the opportunity to see it. Unlike film and TV, there’s no second chances for viewing a play. So I read about Nichols directing Phillip Seymour Hoffman in a revival of “Death of a Salesman.” I saw the reviews and assume that it was a powerful, artful, and compelling rendering. With Nichols’s talent with actors, and Hoffman’s ability to convey broken men, how could it not be? Alas, I will never know.

Thankfully, I can revisit another Nichols/Hoffman collaboration, Charlie Wilson’s War, Nichols’s last film. As Nichols so often did, he guided Hoffman, Julia Roberts and Tom Hanks to fine performances unlike anything they had done before. Nichols showed a light touch for the comedic scenes, but also captured the heart of the characters. On one level, it was about funneling arms to Afghan rebels to fight the Soviets. But Nichols understood that it was just as much a film about a partying Congressman, a Texas socialite, and a frustrated CIA middleman trying to prove that they mattered. It is these characters, and the combined work of Nichols and his actors, that make Charlie Wilson’s War shine. It is a perfect closing to a film career that will resonate far beyond Nichols’s extraordinary life.

Adam Spector
December 1, 2014

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