Mike Nichols

  • Born:  1931
  • Rank:  45
  • Score:  584.25
  • Awards:  Oscar / DGA / BAFTA / Golden Globe / NYFC
  • Nominations:  4 Oscars / 3 DGA / BAFTA / 5 Golden Globes
  • Feature Films:  18
  • Best:  Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf
  • Worst:  What Planet Are You From

Top 5 Feature Films:

  1. Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf – 1966
  2. The Graduate – 1967
  3. Closer – 2004
  4. Charlie Wilson’s War – 2007
  5. Primary Colors – 1998

Top 10 Best Director Finishes (Nighthawk Awards):

  • 1966 – 1st – Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf
  • 1967 – 3rd – The Graduate
  • 1983 – 7th – Silkwood
  • 2004 – 7th – Closer

Fred Zinnemann made many good films (though few great), but never a bad film.  Mike Nichols made his first film in 1966 and lost the Oscar for Best Picture and Best Director to Zinnemann; ironic, in that Nichols’ film was better than any film Zinnemann would ever make.  Of course, Nichols has made a bad film (and many mediocre ones); he directed What Planet Are You From, the single worst film by any director on the Top 100 list (yes, even worse than North).  What is strange is that he didn’t make it during his long decline into mediocrity, but rather later in his career in the midst of a critical and artistic rebirth.

Nichols began his career with a bang – two quick Oscar nominations, even winning Best Director for his second film, The Graduate.  Then he followed that up with the slightly uneven but still good Catch-22 and the bitter but very good Carnal Knowledge.  But then he headed out into the wilderness.  Of his next nine films, only one can I truly recommend (Silkwood).  He obviously had talent still and the Academy gave him a respect they rarely granted – they admired his comedies.  He is one of only three directors to win Best Director for a comedy without winning Best Picture (Capra and Ford are the other two).  Comedies are far more respected for their writing, yet he is also one of only four directors to earn a Best Director nomination for a comedy film (this time for Working Girl) without the film getting a Screenplay nomination.

Yet, the Academy, and indeed, most Awards groups have overlooked his recent comeback.  After making Wolf in 1994, completing a string of relentlessly mediocre films, he followed it up with The Birdcage.  And it clicked, both with critics and with audiences.  And he seemed to be reborn.  Yes, in the midst of the last 13 years, he did make What Planet Are You From, a stunningly awful film, but consider the rest of his track record since 1996 – The Birdcage, Primary Colors, Wit and Angels for America (both for HBO, so not feature films) Closer and Charlie Wilson’s War.  Two very good satiric films, a great tv movie, two great films and the single greatest TV film ever made.

Angels in America – the greatest made for TV film ever

“We won’t die secret deaths anymore.  The world only spins forward.  We will be citizens.  The time has come.  Bye now.  You are fabulous creatures, each and every one.  And I bless you: More Life.  The Great Work Begins.”

It took 12 years from the first staged reading in San Francisco until the debut on HBO as a made for television film.  But was the wait because it was a two-part six hour play or because it was about gay men with AIDS and the refusal of a society to adapt to this change?

In the end, it didn’t seem to matter.  It won 11 Emmys, 5 Golden Globes, the DGA and the WGA.  The only Golden Globes and SAG losses it had were actors in the cast losing to other actors in the cast.  It reminded us that Mike Nichols is an Oscar winning director, that Tony Kushner is a writer to be reckoned with, that Emma Thompson has not been used properly in a long time, that Jeffrey Wright and Mary-Louise Parker are ridiculously under-rated and that Meryl Streep and Al Pacino would be the first ones up if American actors could be knighted.

It is so many things all at once.  It is a powerful drama that looks at the way people choose to live their lives and the price they can pay.  It looks into relationships, between husband and wife, mother and son, lovers, friends.  It is the “gay fantasia on national themes” of its subtitle that deals with the literal angel that comes down to Earth.  It is a social commentary that addresses not only AIDS, but religion and politics the hypocrisy of all sides.  Yet, it has wit in its substance, right down to the very end (“right, Louis, like not even the Palestinians are more devoted than you . . .”).

Many directors were attached to the project over the years, the most important being Robert Altman in that he convinced Al Pacino to play Roy Cohn, in the best performance Pacino has given since the seventies, but in the end, it was Mike Nichols who again teamed with Emma Thompson and HBO (as he had two years before for Wit) and brought the play to life.  Of course, by making an HBO film they never got a national release, didn’t make large amounts of money or win any Oscars.  But it never would have made much money and it got enough awards, and in making it for HBO, they were able to do full justice to the play and make use of all of it, not having to cut characters or scenes.  In fact, even with the full length and a solid budget, they still decided to go with Kushner’s original doubling up of roles, including the very smart use of Meryl Streep as a rabbi and Justin Kirk as the one night stand for his own lover.

Though it is the direction and the acting that bring Angels to real life, the power is in the words, especially the final words in the film.  It is here where Angels, like Longtime Companion and Jeffrey before it offers so much more than a film like Philadelphia ever could.  At the end of Philadelphia we have the videotape of the young Andy, the kid who will grow up to be Tom Hanks with AIDS.  We look backwards.  But what do we have at the end of the other films?  In Jeffrey, we have two potential lovers, one with HIV, pushing a balloon up in the air (“that’s God,” it’s been explained “the good in all of us”).  In Longtime, we have the four friends on the beach who look back at their friends who are gone, but who are hoping for the day when AIDS is gone.  “I just want to be there.”  Then we have Angels.  We have one character who flees a city she hates and a husband she doesn’t love, who says “In this world there’s a kind of painful progress.  Longing for what we’ve left behind, and dreaming ahead.  At least I think that’s so.”  She looks ahead.  And then we have the final scene and the final words.

Prior is right.  The world only spins forward.  And those could have been the last lines for Milk, had Harvey Milk not been killed before all this began.  It could be the last lines for so many social dramas about so many different repressed groups.  But he looks forward to what could be.  He hopes and he prays and best of all, he blesses.  And it is a good blessing, the best blessing, the thing we all need.

More life.