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.