Born in Berlin, Germany on 6 November 1931, Mike Nichols started his entertainment career in the 1950 as a standup comedian alongside partner Elaine May. He made his directing debut with 1966’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, a drama starring Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor as a bickering couple. Nominated for 13 Academy Awards, and winning five, the film set Nichols’ directing gear in motion.
However, it was Nichols’ next film which would change the face of cinema forever. The Graduate starred a then unknown Dustin Hoffman in the lead role of Benjamin Braddock, a university graduate aimlessly wondering his way though life. Nichols film captured the late ‘60s zeitgeist, mobilising a disenfranchised youth to the sound of a Simon and Garfunkel soundtrack. The film banked over $100 million at the US box office (in 1967 money) and turned Hoffman into an unlikely star.
Nichols faultered in a creative and financial sense with his next film, an adaptation of Joseph Heller’s Catch-22. While the film failed to capture Heller’s frenetic prose, it holds up as a curiosity and a product of its time. He went on to team Art Garfunkel and Jack Nicholson in Carnal Knowledge, before pairing Nicholson with Warren Beatty in The Fortune. While The Fortune may not be either of the trio’s finest film, it’s an interesting period farce that makes for interesting watching today.
The next 20 years would see Nichols have a monumentally impressive run, helming the assorted likes of Silkwood, Heartburn, Biloxi Blues, Working Girl, Postcards From The Edge, Regarding Henry, Wolf and The Birdcage. 1998 would see him tackle the Bill Clinton sex scandal in the form of a screen adaptation of Primary Colors. He faltered once more in 2000 with Gary Shandling’s What Planet Are You From? before doing some impressive work on television with Wit and Angels In America. Nichols rounded out his cinematic career with 2005’s Closer and the 2007 Tom Hanks starrer Charlie Wilson’s War.
As a director of cinema, Nichols knew how to capture iconic visuals, but it was his career as a stage director which taught him how to get impressive performances from his actors. He also had a keen ear for dialogue, working with scripts that could deliver a strong punch when delivered well. It’s a skill that few directors have in this age of franchise filmmaking.
Mike Nichols died from at heart attack at the age of 83 on 19 November 2014.