This has been a tough year for celebrity deaths, and it’s only getting worse. Yesterday we lost the visionary director and filmmaker Mike Nichols. Nichols had a way of bringing truth to the surface of a project so deftly that each project had an unique voice that seemed to sing with the pantheon of his work in gorgeous unison. His work helped to establish legends like Meryl Streep, Jack Nicholson, Robin Williams, and even Liz Taylor.
If you’re not familiar with Nichols take this as an opportunity to catch up on his iconic films that will be here long after he’s left us. Here are ten highlights (in no particular order) that you should know.
1. Angels in America – This two part film is based on a play by visionary writer Tony Kuchner. The film sees Al Pacino, Meryl Streep, Mary-Louise Parker, Justin Kirk, Patrick Wright, Jeffrey Wright, Emma Thompson, and James Cromwell working to paint the portrait of AIDS ravaged Manhattan in 1985. As in the play, many of the actors are playing multiple roles over both acts of the project. A master class in how to bring the stage to the screen without losing a single crucial arc of the story.
2. Closer – This 2004 film is also based on a play of the same name. It tells the story of journalist Dan, played by Jude Law, who cannot decide between his girlfriend Alice, Natalie Portman, and his photographer lover Anna, Julia Roberts. Anna herself is torn between Dan and a doctor named Larry, played by Clive Owen. The film takes each of it’s four characters, who are so tightly woven together, slowly and expertly apart. Another flawless transfer from the stage to the screen for Nichols.
3. Wit – This 1995 play by Margaret Edson was taken to screen by Nichols and actress Emma Thompson. Thompson plays Vivian Bearing, an English professor, who is diagnosed with terminal ovarian cancer. Supported by Christopher Lloyd, Eileen Atkins, Audra McDonald, and Jonathan M. Woodward, this film is perhaps Thompson’s best role to date (which is absolutely saying something). The film is a gripping, difficult watch but buy a box of tissues and hunker down one night: it’s worth it.
4. The Birdcage – This is one of the many Nichols projects that may have actually had a measurable impact on social change following it’s release. This gay masterpiece tells the story of cabaret owner Armand, Robin Williams, and his partner and drag star Albert, Nathan Lane, as they attempt to fool their son’s fiancé’s parents, Dianne Wiest and Gene Hackman, into believing that they are a heterosexual couple using only the drag tricks they have on hand. Hank Azaria complicates things as the sexy but inept Agador. This film using expert comic timing and a fantastic setting to help show a generation of people that gay families and straight families have a lot more in common then they’d expected.
5. Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf – It’s hard to believe that a movie this pitch-perfect could have been Nichols first directorial project. The 1966 film stars Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton, George Segal, and Sandy Dennis as two couples, one young and one old, who use alcohol and conversation to air heir respective hopes and grievances. The charged dialogue and interaction whip you around the film from the very first moments it opens. This is Elizabeth Taylor’s defining work as an actress and perhaps the greatest first project a Hollywood director has ever produced. An absolute must see for anyone working in the creative arts.
6. The Graduate – “Mrs. Robinson, you’re trying to seduce me.” By now we all know the legend of Mrs. Robinson, played by Anne Bancroft, and Benjamin Braddock, played by a young Dustin Hoffman. A recent college grad is trapped in an affair with the wife of his business partner and the mother of his crush. The film was released in 1967 and it’s charged story became an anthem to an America turning away from it’s conservative and prudish approach to sexuality and diving into the waters of seduction and temptation head on. Also, Dustin Hoffman is irresistible.
7. Silkwood – Long before there was Julia Roberts parading around in hot pants as Erin Brockovich, we had Nichols’ retelling of the real life story of Karen Silkwood. Silkwood was a metallurgy worker at a plutonium plant who may have been purposefully exposed to radiation in order to prevent her from exposing worker safety violations. Meryl Streep tackles the titular role with costars Cher and Kurt Russell. The direction is, as always, completely stunning is it’s ability to facilitate both the performances and the flawless script by Nora Ephron and Alice Arlen.
8. Working Girl – This lighthearted 1988 film’s themes makes it the younger sister to 1987’s Wall Street. When a secretary, played by Melanie Griffith, has her idea stolen by her boss, Sigourney Weaver, she takes the opportunity of a lifetime to pretend she’s been promoted to her boss’s position and execute her own idea. Not only is the film a fun ride, it’s also the quintessential late 80’s film for a young person starting out in the new world built by Reaganomics. The style is so shockingly eighties that it looks like a parody today… but completely worth it for Joan Cusack’s insane hair.
9. Postcards from the Edge – This was one of the less beloved of Nichols’ films upon it’s release but in my opinion needs to be revisited by modern audiences. The film is based on a book and screenplay of Carrie Fisher’s real life experiences with her mother Debbie Reynolds. Meryl Streep takes the driver’s seat as our Fisher stand in as Shirley MacLaine takes the place of Reynolds. Together they paint a story of a mother and daughter as tightly entwined with addiction and men as they are with each other. Their frustration with their dynamic is both as hilarious as it is frustrating and touching. Nichols’ deep understanding of women, especially women in Hollywood, is on immaculate display.
10. Heartburn – Based on the novel and screenplay by Nora Ephron. Heartburn is the opposite of a love story. It’s an romanticized and triumphant story of divorce that strikes down at hard the truths every person in a relationship grapples with at one point or another. Meryl Streep and Jack Nicholson aren’t two actors I would have pictured making sense as a screen couple but thankfully Mr. Nichols knew better. Another film that wasn’t as successful in it’s time as it would have been today.