Comedian, actor, writer, director Mike Nichols is truly a man of many talents. In regards to his career in cinema, with the odd exception here and there (1986’s “Heartburn” springs to mind), he is a director that you can on the whole trust to provide entertaining and, in some cases, enlightening cinema.
Born in 1931, Nichols made his name on stage and in comedy, being one half of the famous duo Nichols and May, along with fellow comedienne/writer/director Elaine May. He moved behind the camera in the mid-sixties, making his cinematic debut an extraordinary one: “Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf?”
He is also one of an incredibly small group of artists that has one an Oscar (for directing 1967’s “The Graduate”), an Emmy and a Tony Award.
Over the past five decades, he has made films that are consistently a cut above most of the product out there, ones that distinguish themselves with their wit, intelligence and grace. Here are ten selections from the man’s back catalogue that are well and truly worth your time.
12. Charlie Wilson’s War (2007)
The last film directed by Mike Nichols to date. This sees him in fine form, finding comedy in the darkest of circumstances.
Political satire at its finest, this is the cinematic equivalent of short, sharp ‘jab’ punches. A film that runs for just over ninety minutes, it never overstates its points or outstays its welcome. The plot is somewhat Byzantium and impossible to describe in a few mere words.
Best advice once can give is to go with the masterful direction of Nichols and the utterly blazing scripted from severely gifted screenwriter Aaron Soarkin. “Charlie Wilson’s War” is a late career gem for Mr Nichols.
11. Working Girl (1988)
Using his considerable gifts as a comedic veteran, Nichols creates a concise and cutting comedy based in the working world. Melanie Griffifths, in a fine turn, plays a business neophyte attempting to work her way up the corporate ladder.
By turns funny and satirical, “Working Girl” was a rather timely comment on the yuppie mentality and philosophy of the mid to late Eighties. This is something, like “Carnal Knowledge”, of an underrated gem that commented on the current life and times of the day and age in which it was made.
10. Catch-22 (1970)
With a big Hollywood budget at his disposal, Nichols, along with his writer from “The Graduate”, Buck Henry, set about filming the Joseph Heller novel that had been called ‘unfilmable’. Changing the complex structure of the novel dramatically, Nichols nonetheless created a vivid, chaotic vision of war and madness.
Bolstered by a cracking performance from Alan Arkin in the lead role of Yossarian, although nowhere near the commercial success of its spiritual counterpart of the time, Robert Altman’s “M*A*S*H*”, it showed how Nichols was developing and deepening as an artist.
9. Wolf (1994)
A creative, hugely enjoyable take on the ‘werewolf’ genre, Nichols displays a great ability and skill to take a trope of cinema that has been done to death and offer a new spin on the material.
Deceptively clever and involving, what really makes “Wolf” fly is its subtext about the corporate world, namely the ‘kill or be killed’ mentality. Jack Nicholson excels in the lead role of publisher Will Randell, the victim of said werewolf bite.
8. Carnal Knowledge (1971)
After the somewhat mixed blessing that was “Catch 22”, Nichols created something more intimate and daring. A look at two best friends, played by Jack Nicholson and Art Gufunkel, and their attitudes towards to opposite gender, “Carnal Knowledge” proved to be a spiky, controversial affair in its upfront, unabashed look at sex and sexuality, especially from an American perspective and point of view.
Ambitious in the way it spans a twenty-five year period, “Carnal Knowledge” is a deeply affecting comedy-drama with a beautiful balance to it. This is a somewhat underrated entry in the work of Mike Nichols as a director.
7. Primary Colors (1998)
A cinematic adaptation of the infamous novel by “Anonymous”(AKA Joe Klein) , which was a thinly veiled look at the Clinton Administration in America in the Nineties,
A very Clinton-esque Southern politician, brilliantly ed by John Travolta, is seen trying to rise to the top of the pack, avoiding a sex scandal on the way. This is politically astute and smart cinema at a very strong level.
The material seems to fit the style and approach of Nichols in a very comfortable way and fashion. He elicits the best from his cast, especially Emma Thompson in the Hilary Clinton-like role. For those who like their comedies relevant and with something of an edge to them, then this is for you.