Some are truly gifted, and if those in that small, choice fraternity are tenacious and lucky and sometimes scrappy enough, they get to develop their gift and turn what they have inside into works that matter for people of all stripes and philsophies. And then there are those gifted types who are fortunate enough to catch a certain inspiration at the right point in their lives, which turns into a wave that carries and defines their finest work for all time to come. This was how things pretty much went for the late and great Mike Nichols, who passed yesterday from a heart attack.
His film-directing career (which alternated from time to time with directing and producing hit Broadway plays), which was flourishy and satisfying and sometimes connected with the profound, lasted from the mid ’60s to mid aughts. Nichols had a touch and a style that everyone seemed to recognize, a certain mixture of sophisticated urban comedy and general gravitas. His first gusher was Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolff in 1966, and his last truly excellent film was HBO’s Angels in America. If you add Nichols’ brilliant early ’60s stand-up comedy period with Elaine May he really was Mr. King Shit for the better part of a half-century.
But Nichols’ most profound filmic output lasted for eight or nine years, or roughly ’66 through ’74 or ’75 — a chapter known for a certain stylistic signature mixed with an intense and somewhat tortured psychology that came from his European Jewish roots. Longtime Nichols collaborator Richard Sylbert, whom I knew fairly well from the late ’80s to the early aughts, explained it to me once. Nichols had developed that static, ultra-carefully composed, long-take visual approach that we saw in The Graduate, Catch 22, Carnal Knowledge, Day of the Dolphin and The Fortune, and this signature was, Sylbert believed, what elevated Nichols into the Movie God realm.
And then Nichols suffered a kind of crisis or collapse of the spirit after the double-flop of Dolphin and Fortune, and he withdrew from feature films for eight years, doing little or nothing for a certain period and then focusing on plays for the most part. He rebounded big-time with Silkwood in ’83, but the way he shot and paced that successful, well-reviewed drama showed that the great stylistic signature of his mid ’60s to mid ’70s films was no more. The ever-gifted Nichols never lost his sensitivity or refinement, but the anguished artist phase had ended.
I spoke three or four times to Nichols over the least 15 years, but only in a glancing, party-chat way. I never really sat down with the guy and talked, certainly not in the way that Steven Soderbergh did when he recorded that legendary DVD commentary track with Nichols for the Catch 22 DVD. (Which reminds me that an HD version of that flawed but brilliantly shot and designed anti-war film, released in 1970, is viewable on Vudu.) Then again Nichols was so in touch to that eternal pool within that he had a way of making brief, chatty conversation seem almost profound.
On top of which I talked about Nichols a lot with Sylbert, the legendary production designer who worked with Nichols on Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, The Graduate, Catch-22, The Day of the Dolphin and The Fortune. Sylbert really laid it all out. He was there. He saw. He knew.
Here’s a little red-carpet chat I did with Nichols on 4.19.09 prior to a MOMA tribute. Here’s an mp3 of that tribute, which mostly consisted of a discussion between Nichols, Buck Henry, Meryl Streep, Elaine May and Nora Ephron. Here’s a discussion between Nichols and Judd Apatow at a subsequent MOMA tribute, which was mainly about promoting Apatow’s This Is Forty.
I’ve posted the Carnal Knowledge argument scene between Jack Nicholson and Ann-Margret (above) three or four times over the last decade. I worship this scene. I return to it every so often. Richard Linklater came close to matching it in the big Before Midnight argument scene at the end. Ann-Margret‘s portrayal of Bobbie-the-alleged-ballbuster delivered in a way that was raw, vulnerable, pathetic.
I’ll always admire Catch 22, mainly for the elaborate and carefully planned choreography that went into the cinematography, and for Sylbert‘s production design, but with reservations — reservations that are not minor in nature. Nichols himself had problems with this film all his life, and he admitted to most of them in his DVD audio-track discussion with Soderbergh. He spoke at one point about how Catch 22 has very little in the way of unspoken undercurrents or, as he puts it, “the things that [characters] do not say” which are often what films are finally about.