An Appreciation: Mike Nichols (1931-2014)

I know that this is a bit of a departure from the usual topics here at Pop Rocking Culture, as well as a bit late, but I wanted to write about the late director Mike Nichols.  Nichols passed away earlier this month at the age of 83.  Among other things, Nichols attended the University of Chicago, although he dropped out to pursue an acting career.  (As an aside, I have a degree from the U of C.  Over the years, I’ve noticed that the University of Chicago, like Harvard, is one of those places where the dropouts are as famous as the grads.) Nichols had a successful career as part of a comedy duo with Elaine May during the late 1950s and early 1960s.

But when I think of Mike Nichols, I think of a couple of my favorite movies:  The Graduate (1967) and Postcards from the Edge (1990).  To me, The Graduate is one of the rare movies that is better than the source book.  Mike Nichols’ directing gave The Graduate a needed lighter, more comedic touch (Nichols received an Academy Award for Best Director).  The casting was also a great contribution to the movie’s success.  Much has been mentioned about Dustin Hoffman’s replacing the originally-intended Robert Redford in the part of Benjamin Braddock.  Hoffman, with his earnest, somewhat naive persona and his “average guy” looks, made the character of Braddock sympathetic.  As Nichols eventually realized, it would have been more difficult to get an audience to sympathize with a circa-1967 Robert Redford.  And although Anne Bancroft still played Mrs. Robinson as the self-absorbed predator of the book, her comic timing in the scenes with Hoffman rendered her somewhat likable.

Postcards from the Edge is based on Carrie Fisher’s semi-autobiographical novel.  (An aside for those of you who only think of Carrie Fisher as Princess Leia, go read Postcards.) Meryl Streep and Shirley MacLaine play daughter and mother (based on Fisher’s real-life mother, Debbie Reynolds) in the film.  Although Postcards the movie isn’t as good as the book, it’s still pretty funny.  The interplay between Streep and MacLaine is classic, and puts a humorous spin on an otherwise tense relationship.  (For those who care, this film passes the Bechdel Test.)  And watch for the bit where Streep “hangs from a building” during a movie shoot.

Mike Nichols also worked with Meryl Streep on the great, but very serious, Silkwood (1983) as well as the comedy Heartburn (1986), adapted from Nora Ephron’s semi-autobiographical novel (yes, another one) about the dissolution of her marriage to famed journalist Carl Bernstein.  In Heartburn, as in The Graduate, casting plus directing are key elements.  The last time movie audiences saw the character of Carl Bernstein, he was portrayed by a still “earnest and somewhat naïve” Dustin Hoffman in All the President’s Men (1976).  Casting Jack Nicholson as the “Bernstein character” is a 180 degree shift from the earlier film.  Although, like Postcards, Heartburn the movie doesn’t measure up to the book, Nichols’ direction makes it entertaining.

I think that because of his earlier work with Elaine May, Mike Nichols the director had an awareness of women as “real people”, and therefore was able to bring forth fully-formed female performances.  I am sure that it wasn’t hard to do when working with good source materials such as Postcards and Heartburn. However, Nichols’ directing abilities were apparent when it came to fleshing-out the relatively flat character of Mrs. Robinson, as well as later on with the more challenging real-life personas of Karen Silkwood and her friend Dolly Pelliker in Silkwood (screenplay co-written by Nora Ephron and Alice Arlen).

With Nichols’ death, Hollywood has lost a true talent.

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This Black Friday the world awakens to The Force Awakens

The “nonsensical villain lightsaber” may be there to appeal to a certain demographic…my nine year old son thought it was cool! And therefore, it will sell a lot of toys! (BTW, like the name of the blog!)

blog into mystery

The more I think about it, the more it seems that the title The Force Awakens has a meta component to it, a subconscious signalling that a franchise which slept through its last three film installments has had a jolt of caffeine. And the above teaser furthers that thinking.

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Review: LEGO Marvel Super Heroes for Xbox 360

While Blue Striker awaits his Christmas gift of LEGO Batman 3, he weighs in with a review of LEGO Marvel Super Heroes:

This entry is about the video game LEGO Marvel Super Heroes.  I liked the game because it is fascinating and hard, but simple. One fact about the game is that you get to have vehicles.  There are three types of vehicles, boats, cars and jets.  Another fact is that some characters, like Iron Man and the Human Torch, can fly.  The game has only 15 levels, then you get to go to New York City, which is very exciting.  This game has the S.H.I.E.L.D. Helicarrier, where you can “spawn” [customize] new characters, and replay levels.  And last, but not least, LEGO Marvel Super Heroes have the Guardians of the Galaxy!

Relevance is Comin’ to Town: Rankin/Bass Productions and Santa Claus

Earlier this year, Arthur Rankin, one of the founders of Rankin/Bass Productions with Jules Bass, died at age 89.  Rankin/Bass Productions (“RBP”) is probably best known for its Christmas TV specials, such as Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town and The Year Without a Santa Claus.  These specials have become so much a part of American pop culture it seems that a Christmas season doesn’t go by without a spoof of one.  One of the things that made the specials appealing at the time they were originally broadcast, and which contributes to their continuing appeal, is the parallels of the story lines to what was happening in the United States at the time.

Although Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer (1964), based on the popular song, focuses on the titular reindeer, Santa Claus plays an important role.  Rudolph, first broadcast during the time of the Civil Rights Movement, presents many lessons in acceptance.  When Santa at first rejects Rudolph based on his appearance, it reminds one of the real-life intolerance many authority figures of the 1960s had towards those who looked different.  (One could go further with this idea – was the Island of Misfit Toys a ghetto?) Once Santa recognizes Rudolph’s abilities, he realizes that Rudolph, given the chance, can be a productive member of North Pole society.  Similarly, the subplot regarding Hermey, the elf who wanted to be a dentist reflected the increasing desire of young people of the time to follow a path different from that of their parents.  That Hermey was able to work at the North Pole fixing dolls’ teeth showed that even the most traditional of places can find room for those who have different ideas.

In contrast to the authoritarian of Rudolph, Santa is downright rebellious in 1970’s Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town (“SCCT”).  SCCT, first shown during the height of the “youthquake” of the Baby Boom generation, is the story of how the young and cute Kris Kringle becomes the jolly old elf we all know so well.   Kris, with his long, almost Beatlesque red hair and his sunny demeanor, spurs an uprising against the old uptight ways of the establishment – personified by the grumpy, anti-toy Burgermeister Meisterburger.  Along the way, Kris manages to find romance with the lovely town schoolteacher Jessica. In a scene that has been cut from recent showings of SCCT, Jessica sings about the changes Kris has brought to her and her town.  This reflects the real-life changes that youth brought to American life during the 1960s and early 1970s.

SCCT also draws a parallel between Santa and another iconic figure – Superman.  Both Santa and Superman were foundlings adopted by elderly couples.  Both assume an identity (Kris Kringle/Clark Kent) separate from their true identities (Claus/Kal-El).  Both have special powers that don’t manifest themselves until adulthood.  SCCT manages to wrap the heretofore mysterious Santa in a cloak (or cape, as it may be) familiar to many viewers.

A few years later, in 1974, RBP introduced The Year Without a Santa Claus (“YWSC”).  Departing from the generally “known” aspects of Santa’s world, and based on a book by Phyllis McGinley, YWSC was released at a time of moral crises in the United States.  The events of Watergate and the subsequent resignation of President Richard Nixon, as well as the withdrawal of American troops from Vietnam, were on the minds of the American people.  Meanwhile, at the North Pole, Santa sees the increased disbelief in the spirit of Christmas.  Disappointed and discouraged, Santa decides to take a (permanent?) vacation instead of delivering toys.  It’s up to Mrs. Claus, with the help of a couple of elves, the reindeer Vixen, and a bunch of kids in a small Sunbelt town, to get her husband back in the sleigh.  The casting of Shirley Booth, TV’s “Hazel” from the 1960s, as Mrs. Claus is appropriate here. (This was also Shirley Booth’s last acting role.) Just as Hazel the maid took charge of a dysfunctional household, Mrs. Claus takes charge during the chaos.  In real life as well, women were beginning to take charge in many ways.

But despite the fact that Santa is encouraged enough to resume his duties (of course), YWSC may have been seen as too cynical for some people.  Network TV hasn’t shown this off-canon look at Santa Claus since 1980. The cable channel ABC Family does show YWSC as part of its “25 Days of Christmas”.  This hasn’t affected the popularity of YWSC one bit – there are regular references to it in other parts of pop culture.

Rudolph, SCCT and YWSC demonstrate that Rankin/Bass Productions, and in turn Arthur Rankin and (the still living) Jules Bass, recognized that American society was undergoing a shift.  Rankin and Bass were aware as well of the pop culture of the time, and of the need to be relevant to television viewers, no matter what their age or knowledge of current affairs.  For many of us who, as kids, sat in front of the television in our pajamas year after year, the underlying themes of these shows sunk in.  In any case, we continue to hold these shows dear in our hearts.

Lynne a.k.a. Poprocker1

Top 10 Women in Pop Culture – Reader’s Choice!

Interesting choices — definitely reflects a younger audience. If it were my list (hmm, an idea for my blog, Pop Rocking Culture?), Wonder Woman and Hermione Granger would definitely be closer to the top, and it would be Catwoman and Storm rather than Harley Quinn and Rogue on this list. And Emma Peel would have to be somewhere!

Funk's House of Geekery

Based on the numbers our readers enjoyed the 100 Women in Pop Culture as much as we did. We’re very happy with that, and we enjoyed looking at how the reader votes fell. We’ve taken a look across the results and put together this Top 10 ranked list – so if you don’t agree with the list you have no-one to blame but yourselves!

That said is not a definitive result with the polls divided into five parts and some being available for longer.

#10 – Wonder Woman

Wonder Woman

It’s not surprising to see Wonder Woman appear on the list, scrapping in at only number 10. This is possibly down to her long term standing in the comic medium. Now more than ever she stands alongside her team-mates as one of the most powerful superhero around. Hopefully the upcoming movie appearances can help the mainstream understand why she’s such a highly regarded…

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