News of the death of Mike Nichols ‒ award winning director, producer, writer, sometime actor, and one-half of a successful stand-up comedy team with Elaine May ‒ came as one of those expected, unexpected surprises. Expected due to age (83) and health, his having undergone bypass surgery just a few years prior; unexpected simply because the breadth and scope of his creative output over the years gave me the impression he possessed a kind of artist-granted immortality. An easy enough opinion to arrive at given how he managed to remain a dynamic force on Broadway for over forty years, winning the first of nine career Tony Awards in 1964 (Best Director - Barefoot in the Park) and his last in 2012 for his revival of Death of a Salesman; and how, as recently as last July, HBO announced he was to direct frequent collaborator Meryl Streep in that network’s adaptation of Terrence McNally’s play, Master Class.
As a filmmaker, he broke censorship barriers with his staggeringly accomplished debut film, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, and won an Oscar for his second film The Graduate (1967) which became one of the seminal, most influential films of the New Hollywood era. Over the years he divided his attentions between stage, film, and eventually television where his ambitious 2-part 2003 TV movie, Angels In America won him the first of two Emmys.
A versatile director (some would say uneven) whose genius accommodated flops (The Fortune -1975), mainstream boxoffice hits (The Birdcage - 1996), and revisionist cult favorites (the 1970 anti-war satire, Catch-22), Mike Nichols, no matter the subject, always strove to unearth what was real and truthful in the characters of his films.
While The Graduate is likely to be the film most people readily associate with the name Mike Nichols (and deservedly so), I personally think his bravest and most evocative work can be seen in three films which represent a kind of loose-trilogy treatise on the topic of the war between the sexes:
Carnal Knowledge 1971
Representing roughly three different eras of evolving sexual attitudes, these films explore what D.H. Lawrence called, “The Perpetual Struggle” between men and women. Each film trains its lens on the social and emotional interaction of four individuals, examining, with ofttimes lacerating frankness, the tragedy of what happens when the human need for love and intimacy collides with the equally human need for illusion and rewriting the truth.
Persistently throughout his career, perhaps more than any other director I can think of, Mike Nichols demonstrated a decided fearlessness in willing to go to the dark sides of what we charitably refer to as human nature. He wasn't afraid to “go there”: to explore the dark behind the light, the beauty behind the grotesque, and the vulnerability that always lay at the core of cruelty. He was a director who saw the value of truth, and for that alone he’ll be sorely and profoundly missed.
Born November 6, 1931, Mike Nichols died of a heart attack in his apartment in Manhattan on Wednesday November 19th 2013. Nichols is survived by fourth wife, former ABC World News anchor, Diane Sawyer; three children; a brother; and four grandchildren.