R.I.P. Mike Nichols

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Only recently I made a notation to write soon about my second experience in the cinema and its great power over me. Sadly now there’s an occasion that makes it topical. The first movie I saw in the theatre (which I’ve written a lot about) was 1972’s The Poseidon Adventure. The second was The Day of the Dolphin (1973), directed by Mike Nichols, who passed away yesterday.

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At the age of seven, when “directed by Mike Nichols” scrolled by on the movie screen, the words meant nothing to me. I was a child, and open to ANY experience. Indeed, it occurs to me in retrospect, ALL movies seemed to have the power to shake me to the core when I was that age, to affect me in the very way that the artists who created them intended. I went along for the entire ride of The Day of the Dolphin. It’s a story about a husband and wife team of scientific researchers, played by real life couple George C. Scott and Trish Van Devere. They are bankrolled by a shadowy foundation to teach a pair of dolphins named Alpha and Beta (nicknamed “Pha” and “Bee”) to speak. Not just with symbols, but vocally. Unfortunately bad guys (led by Fritz Weaver) kidnap the dolphins and train them to place an explosive on the underside of the President’s yacht. In order to save the President, Scott must let go of the dolphins he has come to love so much. The tearful goodbye scene hit me like a freight train when I was a kid.

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Now, you’ve read my description. You don’t need to have seen the film to have gleaned that this is a really silly, not to say “bad” movie. I watched it again a few years ago and the scales have fallen from my eyes. But I’ll never forget how I felt when I first saw it.

When I grew up, I learned something about this film. It was a pivotal one for Mike Nichols. It’s the one that changed his public image forever. For something like 15 years previous to this, Nichols had seemed something like an infallible giant. With Elaine May he had reinvented American comedy, and set the entire tone for the 1960s, satirical, intelligent, and topical, bringing to popular culture expectations and values one associated with art and literature. And (this is too seldom stressed): he was one of the great comedy straight men of the twentieth century — he was a very funny performer. His ascension to the director’s chair was kind of a loss, or rather, a trade-off, for comedy fans. Then in short order, he conquered both Broadway and Hollywood, directing the original stage productions of Barefoot in the Park (1963-67), Luv (1964-67), The Odd Couple (1965-67), Plaza Suite (1968-70) and The Prisoner of Second Avenue (1971-1973) among others, and the films Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf (1966), The Graduate (1967), Catch-22 (1970), and Carnal Knowledge (1971).

And then…The Day of the Dolphin, which ended the illusion of infallibility, the legendary streak. In retrospect, the leap seems insane. At the time, at first maybe it didn’t seem so crazy. Buck Henry (who’d written The Graduate) wrote the screenplay and it was based on a French novel. It’s not totally unlike the sort of project the highly respected Alfred Hitchock might undertake. Come to think of it The Day of the Dolphin  is way better than Topaz.

I read somewhere that Nichols made a conscious choice. He wasn’t an auteur. He wasn’t going to be ambitious in that way, he was done with aiming at “masterpieces”. He now pursued the philosophy of a stage director, or an old school studio film director, someone who gets an assignment and directs it the best he can, whatever it is. If you think about it, most stage directors at the professional level pursue their careers in that fashion. They don’t have the luxury of a “voice”. They go where the jobs are, and they do the jobs. It was surprising and confusing though to have someone as intelligent as he was, as fine an artist as he was, and as powerful as he was voluntarily do that in films. After those first four movies and those early stage productions, you could forgive the public for thinking they knew what the Nichols voice was. He worked with the best writers of the day. He did work that seemed in tune with the counter-culture, was just edgy enough to be topical while still remaining commercial. After the shift, there was no pigeon-holing him, no figuring his work out. He did work that tended to be fairly impersonal. I use that word rather than the more derogatory “superficial” because it isn’t necessarily a slight to say that someone’s work is impersonal. A stage director directs Tartuffe — how much of his autobiography does he put into it? Not much. For God’s sake, Nichols was a refugee from Nazi Germany and the Holocaust! But unlike Roman Polanski, say, Nichols’ work never ever went anywhere anything like that, although after seeing Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? you might be forgiven for suspecting that his future work might.

So, oddly, the films after The Day of the Dolphin are a hodgepodge, mostly light entertainment, ranging from the excellent (Working Girl) to the pretty bad (Wolf).  Look at it this way, unlike another theatre director who held on to a unique artistic vision, Orson Welles, Nichols got to keep making movies.

 And anyway, in the theatre, he remained a giant. He produced the long-running Annie (1977-1983), directed and produced The Gin Game (1977-78), The Real Thing (1984-85), Hurlyburly (1984-85), made a star of Whoopi Goldberg in her self-titled solo show (1984-85), directed Spamalot (2005-2009), and the 2012 revival of Death of a Salesman starring Philip Seymour Hoffman. And he directed film and tv productions that brought theatre to the masses, like Gilda Radner’s solo show (1980), Wit (2001) and Angels in America (2003).

This is a breath-taking litany of accomplishments and I don’t think I’ve listed a fifth of it. This was a noble, awe-inspiring body of work, and my respect is unbounded for the talent that made a seven year old boy cry with what turns out to have been one of the least of his vehicles. I think I can confidently predict the lights on Broadway will be dimmed tonight.

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