Why Mike Nichols Was So Much More Than ‘The Graduate’

If you Google Mike Nichols today, the headlines for the top entries in the news wedge are unsurprisingly similar. “Mike Nichols, Acclaimed Director of ‘The Graduate,’ Dies at 83,” goes the New York Times. “‘Graduate’ Director Mike Nichols Dead at 83,” reports CBS News. The Hollywood Reporter: “Mike Nichols, Director of ‘The Graduate,’ Dies at 83.” And AP (via Huffington Post) writes, “Mike Nichols, Oscar-Winning Director of ‘The Graduate,’ Dies at 83.” It is, I suppose, a testament to the influence and importance of that 47-year-old movie that it’s pegged as his primary achievement; scroll past the lede and you’ll probably read about Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, and perhaps that he was married to Diane Sawyer. But a look at the entirety of Nichols’ five-plus decades in show business reveals much more than that; he was an innovative and brilliant artist whose influence was and is still felt across popular culture.

And it wasn’t just as a director. He started as a performer, one of the founding members of Chicago’s Second City — a group which begat not only SCTV but, directly or indirectly, Saturday Night Live and Upright Citizens Brigade and pretty much any and all sketch comedy since the 1950s. There, he began collaborating with the brilliant and wickedly funny Elaine May, forming the comedy team of Nichols and May, whose elegant two-handed sketches were masterful satirical snapshots of ‘50s mores and anxiety.

As Gerald Nachman writes in his book Seriously Funny: The Rebel Comedians of the 1950s and 1960s,

On just four albums, and in a few appearances, onstage and on television, Nichols & May established themselves as the leading social satirists of their generation, a title never seriously threatened in the forty years of sketch comedy since. Mort Sahl, Lenny Bruce, and Woody Allen left huge lasting imprints, but Nichols & May are perhaps the most ardently missed of all the satirical comedians of their era. When Nichols & May split up, they left no imitators, no descendants, no blueprints or footprints to follow. No one could touch them.

There is a popular perception of the 1950s as a time of vanilla conformity, among both those who sneer at the era and those who nostalgically long for it. But Nichols and May were part of a wave of comic performers who questioned that conformity, and in doing so, created a tremble that would culminate in the earthquakes of the 1960s. And their influence was felt well past that era in the world of comedy; as Nachman writes, “The Age of Irony, later personified by comics like Steve Martin, Bill Murray, and David Letterman, really began with Nichols & May batting contemporary banalities back and forth.”

But it wasn’t to last; after a wildly successful Broadway run (under the direction of Arthur Penn, who would later make 1967’s other groundbreaking film, Bonnie and Clyde) the pair split in 1961. Two years later, Nichols directed the blockbuster production of Neil Simon’s Barefoot in the Park and began a career as a Broadway director, which he would return to throughout his life (up to last year’s revival of Pinter’s Betrayal). He was such a sure bet, and his shows were so successful, that Warner Brothers courted him to direct the 1966 film adaptation of Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf. It was his film debut.

Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton in "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf"

Virginia Woolf, and The Graduate the year after, were (along with Bonnie and Clyde) the key early films in what would become the New Hollywood movement — pictures that upended cinematic traditions, altered standards for subject matter and language, and challenged audiences with new approaches to story, genre, and character. The Graduate would become the touchstone film for a generation of young people who steadfastly rejected the goals and ideals of their parents; Virginia Woolf would change forever the previously idealized way movies portrayed the transactions between men and women, which he’d begun exploring in Nichols and May. (That film, and Carnal Knowledge five years later, were the forerunners to the unforgivingly nihilistic relationship plays and films of David Mamet, David Rabe, and Neil LaBute; in 2004, Nichols would return to the form to make Closer, and prove that he could make a meaner, nastier movie than any of them.)

Those two films cast such a long shadow (over not only Nichols’ career but cinema in general) that they tend to dominate the conversation about him. But he continued to produce work that was not only excellent, but innovative. On stage, he directed the original Broadway productions of Streamers, Hurlyburly, Death and the Maiden, and Spamalot, as well as Whoopi Goldberg’s star-making 1984 one-woman show and well-received revivals of The Seagull, The Country Girl, and Death of a Salesman. His 1970 adaptation of Catch-22 was overshadowed by M*A*S*H, but has been subsequently recognized as a daringly bizarre attempt to translate an all-but-unadaptable literary classic (Steven Soderbergh is one of its most vocal admirers). His 1983 film Silkwood influenced decades of “based on a true story” social activism dramas. 1988’s Working Girl remains one of the defining films of the go-go ‘80s, a comic Wall Street that savvily comments on big business and gender roles. Primary Colors was one of the most thoughtful and quietly complex political films of the 1990s, still influencing how we think about campaigns in general and Bill Clinton in particular.

Nathan Lane and Robin Williams in "The Birdcage"

But perhaps most importantly, there are his 1996 adaptation of La Cage Aux Folles, The Birdcage, and his 2003 television rendering of Tony Kushner’s Angels in America, two vitally important moments for LGBTQ representation onscreen. Sure, The Birdcage was just a goofy comedy, a remake of an old French farce, but it was a mainstream studio production stocked with movie stars — and, lest we forget what actually gets things done in Hollywood, it was a tremendously profitable effort, grossing $185 million worldwide on a $31 million budget and proving that stories about gay characters didn’t have to be relegated to the art house. It played in Middle America, at a moment when that audience wasn’t always receptive to those themes. And with Angels, he took one of the most challenging works of modern theater, stocked it with famous faces like Al Pacino and Meryl Streep, and made an HBO two-parter that was more intelligent, powerful, and moving than anything in theaters — and that asked important questions and dramatized vital moments of the gay experience in America.

I have a vivid memory of seeing Spamalot on Broadway, thumbing through the Playbill, and settling on Nichols’ bio. He was such a quiet professional, lacking the flashy persona of many of his contemporaries, that he didn’t often get his due as one of our best directors and one of our finest artists. Yet looking over that long list of credits, spanning from nightclubs to stage to film to television, was awe-inspiring. Here was a man who’d played key roles in some of the most important moments in contemporary culture, just doing his work and producing nothing short of excellence. “Not a bad career,” I thought to myself, as the lights dimmed and the stage announcements began. I put away my program and sat back in my seat, eager to see what Mike Nichols was going to do next.