I can’t suppress a couple of responses to Glenn Kenny‘s L.A. Times profile of Charlie Wilson’s War director Mike Nichols, which ran yesterday.
Kenny cautions that “one shouldn’t underestimate the Nichols touch” in having made War into a potentially popular “sand” movie, despite Americans having said “no way” to every ’07 film with the slightest whiff of any Middle Eastern elements. Maybe Charlie Wilson’s War will be the exception — it’s certainly entertaining enough. But nobody has a “touch” to have and to hold. Artists are touched by inspiration like lightning — it passes through them, and they are nothing more than lucky conduits when this happens.
The exceptional, long-lasting artists are those with a knack for keeping themselves open to inspiration, or who at least know how to position or trick themselves into the right state of mind so that lightning comes their way more often than not. The fact that creative lightning touched Nichols repeatedly from the days of his Nichols & May routines in the early ’60s until the end of his Phase One career caused by the total crash-and-burn reception to The Fortune, or that he got a version of it back in his Phase Two career with Biloxi Blues, Heartburn, Silkwood, The Birdcage, Primary Colors, Closer and Angels Over America is no indication, much less an assurance, that the lightning was still with him when he shot and edited Charlie Wilson’s War.
Kenny mentions a profile piece by the New Yorker‘s John Lahr in which Nichols “described the waning inspiration that struck him in the years after his steep ascent” and that “he also reveals that in the ’80s he struggled with a Halcion dependency that induced a breakdown.” But Kenny doesn’t acknowledge the extreme unusualness of Nichols’ career in that his Phase One brushstrokes — his signature style as a filmmaker from The Graduate to The Fortune — had totally disappeared when he returned to filmmaking in ’83 with Silkwood. He had literally abandoned his muse of the ’60s and early ’70s and become an entirely different (one could say less distinctive and more accomodating) man.
The late Richard Sylbert, the fabled production designer who worked for Nichols on Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolff, The Graduate, Carnal Knowledge, The Day of the Dolphin and The Fortune and obviously saw it all first-hand, explained this directorial-personality-change arc a few years ago over a lunch at Swingers.