Thursday, November 20, 2014

R.I.P. Mike Nichols

Mike Nichols, director of The Graduate and Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? died Wednesday at the age of 83.

I was fortunate enough to grow up with grandparents who had the means and the time to take me to the theater now and again. From a young age, I was exposed to a wide variety of musicals – “The Producers,” “Phantom of the Opera,” “Jersey Boys,” etc. Each left me with a distinct memory such as the chandelier crashing down on the stage at the act break or the first time Frankie Valli sings “Can’t Take My Eyes Off You.”

When I was 20 and living in Northern California, a friend and I headed into the city to see “Monty Python’s Spamalot.” It was revelatory. To choose a moment, a memory, from “Spamalot” is to recount the play in full. Each song, each scene, each set piece landed perfectly. The actors were wonderful and script sparkled, but what I remember most is the staging, that glorious direction by the incomparable Mike Nichols.

The famed Academy Award-winning director died Wednesday of cardiac arrest. He was 83. Not known necessarily for his visual flare or an auteurist stamp one could identify on his work, Nichols’ gift was to find the heart of a scene and dig it out. No one set a stage like Nichols. In play after play and film after film, he created spaces that showcased often-brilliant actors and stellar writing, propping them up with just the right moves at just the right times.

In a career that spanned genres from comedies and musicals to thrillers and horror, he did not try to make the work fit his style. Rather, like a chameleon, he fit his style to the material, always playing to his strengths and the strengths of his collaborators. No matter what he was working on, he never seemed out of his element because he made his environment work for him.

Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton star in director Mike Nichol's debut film, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
His opening one-two punch of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and The Graduate ranks alongside the best first two films of any director in cinema history. If he had stopped then and there, he would still be remembered as a legend, but for 40 years, he produced and directed a seemingly endless array of audience-beloved and critically hailed classics both on stage and on screens big and small.

It is difficult sometimes to properly eulogize someone such as Nichols, who constantly produced solid work over the course of decades. In our culture, we tend to lionize people who flame out, the artists who arrive in a brilliant flash of light then collapse back into darkness just as quickly. In contrast, Nichols has been a point of light on the horizon for longer than many of us can remember. He was a brilliant comedian and biting satirist whose work has been around more than twice the span of my lifetime.

Now, he is gone, and our sadness is for the loss of an artist and all the great art he will never make. Our sadness is for the wife, children, and grandchildren he leaves behind. Our sadness is the same as when any great person passes away. But, this is different. This is the sadness of missing someone who was a constant in our lives. His work made us laugh, made us cry, made us think, and it is easy to feel as though it always would. Instead, we are left with a hole, and to fill it, we have 40 years of beautiful art.

Katherine Ross and Dustin Hoffman consider the future in one of the great film endings of all time in Mike Nichols' The Graduate.

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