“Genius is a word oft overused in our world, but surely not in the case of Mike Nichols,” said Stringer. “His artistry has spanned the mediums of modern storytelling — movies, television and the stage — and his gifts across five decades continue to inspire artists and audiences alike. It is AFI’s honor to present him with its 38th Life Achievement Award.”
Born Michael Igor Peschkowsky to an intellectual Jewish family in Berlin, 7-year-old Mike Nichols made it out of Germany in 1939, alone with his younger brother, on one of the last refugee boats to dock in New York harbor.
His Dalton School classmate and later collaborator Buck Henry remembers that Nichols was “as outside as an outsider can get,” and Nichols jokes that the only two sentences he knew in English were “I do not speak English” and “Please do not kiss me.” But he was determined to fit in as quickly as possible. So he started listening.
“I think there is an immigrant’s ear that is particularly acute,” Nichols reflected. “At its highest and most extreme form, it leads to great artists like Joseph Conrad and Stoppard and Nabokov. They’ve digested a new language and culture and made it more expressive in some way. You’re forever looking at something as someone who just got here.”
Nichols put his feel for American speech to work in his groundbreaking partnership with Elaine May. They got their start in Chicago’s Compass Players and, by 1960, their brilliant, acerbic routines had made them the hottest — and most sophisticated — ticket on Broadway. John Lahr remarks: “With Nichols and May, Jewish angst, Freud, literacy, irony, and sex were ushered into the discourse of mainstream comedy.”
By the time their partnership ended in 1962, Nichols had absorbed lessons that would last throughout his career: “Elaine and I had a motto, which applies to this day: The only safe thing is to take a chance.” But Nichols didn’t know what to do next, and his pal Leonard Bernstein told him, “Oh, Mikey, you’re so good. I don’t know at what, but you’re so good.”
What he was good at, it turned out, was directing. When theatrical producer Saint Subber asked him to direct Neil Simon’s Barefoot In The Park, Nichols realized he had found his calling: “In the first fifteen minutes of the first day’s rehearsal, I understood that this was my job, this was what I had been preparing to do without knowing it.”
The play would lead to an astounding theatrical career, including eight Tony Awards, as well as memorable stagings of plays by Lillian Hellman, David Rabe and Tom Stoppard, and most recently Eric Idle’s “Spamalot.” Neil Simon has said, “I have never worked with anyone in my life, nor will I ever work with anyone, as good as Mike Nichols.”
Nichols’s growing reputation as a theater director led to his first film job and it was baptism by fire. Controversy over the language in Edward Albee’s play and the personal lives of its stars had ensured that WHO’S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF? would be among the most anticipated films of 1966, and some Hollywood insiders doubted that a first-time director could handle it. To prepare, Nichols spent weeks locked in a screening room, poring over films by Fellini, Truffaut, Elia Kazan, and George Stevens, while soliciting advice from established filmmakers like Billy Wilder.
His preparation paid off, and the film stunned critics with a tactile, kinetic camera that captured the timeless work of an ensemble for the ages, led by the raw, transfixing performance by Elizabeth Taylor. Throughout the production, Nichols sought to stay faithful to the play’s ambiguities, over the objections of studio head Jack Warner. The triumph of this landmark film lies in the searing portrait Nichols draws of a couple who are at once so violently at odds and yet so deeply in love.
Nichols received an Oscar nomination for VIRGINIA WOOLF, but with his next venture, he both won the Oscar and carved out an everlasting place for himself in film history. “THE GRADUATE is one of those movies that feel at once brilliantly original and inevitable,” writes San Francisco Chronicle critic Steve Winn, who describes the film as “hard-wired into the culture’s filmic DNA.”
Viewers are still debating whether THE GRADUATE is a mockery or a celebration of the counterculture, whether Benjamin Braddock is (in Roger Ebert’s words) “an admirable rebel” or “a self-centered creep,” and whether any happiness truly awaits Benjamin and Elaine in the film’s “happy” ending.
Nichols’s artistic audacity lies precisely in this refusal to explain the deeper implications of these films that seem so perfectly lucid in every other way. In SILKWOOD he brought us an outspoken heroine whose humanity threatened to undermine the integrity of her crusade. In CARNAL KNOWLEDGE, he outraged many by casting a savage eye on male sexual conquest. And in WORKING GIRL, he had us rooting for a screwball heroine in a modern world. It is a film that ultimately celebrates the immigrant experience and all the tiny tales that make up the American dream.
In 2003, just when the world had defined the boundaries of theater and film, Nichols astounded us again with the visual inventiveness of ANGELS IN AMERICA, translating Tony Kushner’s masterpiece of theater into a masterpiece of cinema. Dreams and reality are conflated in a way that is at once extravagant and naturalistic; hope and despair fuse as one. For critic A. O. Scott, Nichols’s ANGELS “is about the decision to live as though the world were comic — which is to say, secular, forgiving, forward-looking — in the face of growing evidence that it is, more often and more fundamentally, the opposite.”
Mike Nichols likes to quote his favorite line from THE PHILADELPHIA STORY: “The time to make up your mind about people is never.” Perhaps what we can wish for is that Mike Nichols will continue to surprise us with the tremendous chances he takes — and hope the day never comes when he decides to make up his mind about us.