I didn’t really get into Mike Nichols until really late – like around 2005-ish. I was working at a video store in a suburb of Milwaukee, which afforded me the opportunity to check out a lot of movies. I mean a lot – like three a night. The amount of films that I consumed working there was staggering, and I made it my mission to see all the must-sees while I had the free shot at them. I worked my way from the silent era all the way up through the fall of classic Hollywood, but eventually I got lost in foreign films. Just opening that door meant I wouldn’t be back stateside for a while.
Soon, I transferred to a video game store owned by the same company, and my viewing schedule took a hit as it was replaced by gameplay. I still got to rent movies, but I was more concerned with playing as many video games as possible. But one day, my brother called me up and asked me if I had seen a movie called Closer. “No thank you,” I probably remarked, as the sight of big name stars like Julia Roberts and Jude Law was often enough to turn me off completely to a movie. Yeah, I was a real pretentious prick back then. But my brother insisted – “no dude, you need to see this movie, it’s really good.” Alright, so after my shift, I picked up two Xbox games and grabbed Closer from the shelf. There were plenty of copies left. Normally, the most awful, mainstream shitshows were picked over by Friday night, so I was encouraged. Eric, the manager on duty, remarked that he wanted to pick the movie up and that he had heard good things.
I think I went to my buddy’s house after work and hung out for a bit before heading home close to midnight. I played one of the games first – I think it was God of War because we finally got a copy back into the store – but I decided to cap off my night watching this recommendation. Hey, if all else fails, it could put me to sleep.
Needless to say, I watched the whole thing. It was such a frank and honest movie. The word that came to mind at the time was “refreshing”, but not in the way that critics often find films refreshing. It was a serious film, but it also had this weird string of funny moments, and it accomplished so much without expanding beyond the four central characters. There were no crutches in the film – it was brutal. Refreshing.
I worked the next day and I sung the praises of this movie to anyone who gave me the time of day. I went on the computer in the back and checked out the director’s filmography. Two of his most famous films, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and The Graduate, were next in line during my self-education kick before I went down the wonderful road of Bergman, Godard, Fellini, and Tarkovsky. I remembered watching Primary Colors back in the late 90’s with my sister, who ate up anything with a political tinge, but I probably didn’t appreciate it as much as I could have. So, I decided to binge watch whatever the video store had from this director who had won me over with his wonderful little depressing drama.
We had a lot of his stuff, so I just went in chronological order. Obviously, The Graduate is a fantastically funny and subversive piece of filmmaking. You could see that Nichols appreciated a bedrock of solid writing, and I think that’s what saved him from never really making a truly atrocious film (the closest he came was with What Planet Are You From?, which isn’t good but it had its moments). The Graduate remains, to this day, a favorite film of mine and it is amazing that it holds up so well nearly fifty years later.
I’m going to throw in a special mention of The Day of the Dolphin, which has the distinction of putting forth the greatest tagline of all time (“Unwittingly He Trained a Dolphin to Kill the President of the United States”…I mean, c’mon now!) but is also not as bad as people think it is. George C. Scott puts in a great performance and some of the intrigue is well executed, but I think The Day of the Dolphin is a testament to how Nichols wasn’t scared of odd conventions. He tried a little bit of everything in his career, and while some films were more successful than others, he never let humor leave his movies. He’s a filmmaker that other filmmakers should emulate – just because you’re making a serious movie, doesn’t mean that it has to be completely devoid of humor.
If you look at the famous ending from The Graduate, you have a perfect encapsulation of this mantra. In any other movie, this would have been the hero’s triumphant rescuing of the princess and they would have rode off into the sunset while the music swelled. Instead, we get reality – life’s version of that fairy tale. Ben (Dustin Hoffman) is kind of pathetic in his pursuit, and his fight against his adversaries is hilariously slapdash, while Elaine (Katharine Ross) throws all reason to the side and joins her “true love”. All these overtures (“It’s too late!” “Not for me!”) look vaguely familiar but never put together in such a sarcastic way. As they ride away on the bus, the music does in fact swell, but not in the way that you expect. The film concludes quietly, as if the characters are contemplating “okay, now what?” The hard part is not the pursuit, and Nichols nailed that message better than anyone in the history of cinema.
He was a multidiscipline director as well, excelling on the stage far more than he did making movies, if you can believe that. He’s one of the titans of original theatrical productions, and has thusly been celebrated over the years for his accomplishments. One of his longest lasting legacies will be that he’s in the exclusive EGOT group – people who have won an Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, and Tony Award. That’s insanely hard to do, but Nichols made that look easy, taking only 34 years to achieve that feat.
It’s a shame that we don’t have Mike Nichols in the world anymore because he was crazy talented and an absolute original. Right now, we are living in a time where our most celebrated filmmakers are just shitty distilled versions of their idols and people like Mike Nichols are few and far between. On top of all of that, he was also a liked dude in the industry – you’d be hard-pressed to find something negative to say about the guy. So if you have never heard of the guy before today, I recommend that you do what eighteen-year-old Mike Votto did back in 2005 – get educated, and you will be rewarded for it. I promise you that.