When the great Mike Nichols passed away on November 19, 2014, it was a very shocking blow to not just film world, but basically Arts and Entertainment as a whole. He wasn’t just a talented director; he was also a gifted actor, writer, producer and comedian who broke the mold of how eclectic a man of the arts can truly be. When you think of amazing men, his name usually comes up and rightly so because he was one of the great ones, a man with no equal. Directed by Elaine May, his former comedy partner from the late ’50s and early ’60s, this new American Masters documentary reveals the many facets of this legendary artist.
With his usual charm, intelligence, and wit, Nichols talks about his life and his renowned five-decade career as a performer and director, who shares what it was like as a boy from Berlin, Germany being sent to the United States with his brother alone to live with his father, in order of avoiding capture by the Nazis when Hitler’s reign of terror went sky high during the late 1930s. He also shares in great detail about growing up in New York City where he had a limited stint at New York University before dropping out to enroll at the University of Chicago. This was a time of great revelation for him because he found people who were just like him, strange but intellectual thinkers who had the same ideas as he did.
There are also details about his young adult years during the 1950s, when he moved back to New York City to join the Actors Studio under the guidance of Lee Strasberg, where he wasn’t able to find his calling. Because of this, he went back to Chicago, where he and Elaine eventually became a famous comedy team, winning a Grammy in the process. But after their falling out, he went to direct plays where he would eventually win nine Tonys, and this led him to be a film director.
My favorite segment is the movies that he made and how he made them, especially two of his first and best films: Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and The Graduate (the film that won him his one and only Best Director Oscar). There is also emphasis of some of his not-so-great and not-so-greatly received movies in the ’70s such as Catch-22, The Day of the Dolphin and The Fortune. His one great film from that decade was his highly controversial 1971 film, Carnal Knowledge, which earned Ann-Margaret her first Oscar nomination, and also starred Jack Nicholson, Art Garfunkel, Candice Bergen, and Carol Kane.
His career rebounded in the 80’s with acclaimed films such as Silkwood and Working Girl, where he would receive two more Oscar nominations as Best Director. In the ’90s, he made more well-received films like Postcards from the Edge, Primary Colors, and The Birdcage (the smash hit remake of the 1978 French classic La Cage Aux Folles).
In the 2000s, he directed Closer and Charlie Wilson’s War (his final film), which were both Oscar nominees. He won two Emmys for directing Wit and Angels in America, which were big hits for HBO. During the early 2010s, he won a Tony for directing an adaptation of the famed Arthur Miller play, Death of a Salesman. It was obvious that he was very successful and beloved, judging by the many awards and accolades that deservedly came his way. He not only had talent for directing actors, but he also had remarkable ability in real dialogue.
It’s no surprise that he was extremely loved and respected by many of his collaborators, such as Meryl Streep, Tom Hanks, Robin Williams, Steven Spielberg, Dustin Hoffman, Paul Simon, Frank Langella, Alec Baldwin, Matthew Broderick, Nathan Lane, Bob Balaban and Neil Simon, who share their own stories and thoughts about working with him.
Overall, this was a terrific documentary about a great man and groundbreaking artist whose legacy will continue to live on forever. It is also a great testament to PBS programming. This is definitely a must see!