Thursday, November 20, 2014

Mike Nichols

I subscribe to a service with CNN that provides me brief email notices of "Breaking News". Mysteriously, I received a couple yesterday that were empty--no news item contained within.  I figure now that one of them must have been the notification of the death of Mike Nichols.

Let's call him a film director, as he was one of huge importance.  He, along with a few others--I would name Altman, Scorsese, maybe Coppola, Woody Allen, the odious Brian De Palma--were the key figures in the Renaissance of Hollywood film making in the late '60's and early '70's, a wave to which others gave additional impetus, and is just now, maybe, starting to break.  In his heyday, he made the big movies--movies with big actors, big scripts, big budgets--but they were not like today's movies, about Big Toys, or The Most Amazing Thing That Ever Could Have Been Accomplished If It Were True.  His characters were not superheroes; sometimes antiheroes, sometimes villains, sometimes just regular folks. His movies, without exception I would think, were stories of people, and the portrayal through people's actions of their motivations, their inner feelings, their place in society, their anger, their sense of humor.   His art was very humane.

His first films were like cannon shots:  "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf", "The Graduate".  If he stopped there, with that film (his only Academy Award winner), his place in film history would be secure.  Then he made "Catch-22" and "Carnal Knowledge"--at that time, the release of a Mike Nichols film was major entertainment news.  He would cool off, put out his share of flops, but still he came up with some winners through the decades:  "Silkwood", "Working Girl", "The Birdcage", and his last major release (in 2007), "Charlie Wilson's War", about the secret aid in the '80's to the Afghan rebels fighting the Soviets.

He was also much more than a film director, though I didn't know so much about the other parts. With Elaine May, he had a successful comedy team in the 1950's (!) and was instrumental in starting Second City, the improvisational troupe that sourced most of the stars of Saturday Night Live, through all of its run to date.  He was a producer of stage, very successfully, and movies as well. Most notably, he was the producer and director of the TV miniseries version of "Angels in America", one of the finest TV productions in the history of the medium.

We will probably now learn more about his life; he seems to have been a private person.  His biography points out that he was real name was "Michael Igor Peschkowsky", born in Berlin in 1931.  That should mean something that we should learn more about; how did he become "Mike Nichols"?

The younger generation may not know Mike Nichols.  They should watch some of his work, but doing so they should be careful not to conclude that he was just working the same vein as all the '60's rehash nostalgia stuff.  Instead, they should realize that, like the Beatles, or the Kennedys, his work is one of the motherlodes, where it all came from.

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