I regret that I know the work of Mike Nichols primarily — almost entirely — from the movies he made. That’s no slight on his cinematic output. Nichols signed his name to a multitude of classic films, consistently bringing a distinctive sense of style to his efforts, one paradoxically defined most by its tricky invisibility. Nichols didn’t really have a signature, at least not one beyond a crisp mastery of the visual language of film. There was a spacial airiness to his compositions that made the films feel as though they’d been shorn of clutter. He had the efficiency of a poet, which often emphasized the distance his characters felt from the rest of the world. No one else made existential angst so comically beautiful. That thesis wasn’t present in all of his films, but the more evident it was, generally the more likely it was that he was dancing on the precipice of a masterwork. Find Benjamin Braddock alone at the bottom of a pool or settling into empty victory on the back of a city bus, and you’ve found the work of an unassuming genius of the cinematic form.
Instead of some dissatisfaction with the work I do know, my lament is spurred by the certainty that I was only able to witness of part of his accomplishments, like seeing only one exterior wall of every Frank Lloyd Wright construction. Though I’ve had plenty of exposure to Nichols’s inspired comic collaborations with Elaine May in the nineteen-fifties and nineteen-sixties, I feel overly distant from the social context in which their partnership was launched. The same year that Lenny Bruce released the album The Sick Humour of Lenny Bruce, Nichols and May were honing their act in the Village Vanguard and other New York clubs, waging the remarkable revolution in comedy with an entirely different set of weapons. Urbane and meticulous, the two made their way to an acclaimed Broadway show, An Evening with Mike Nichols and Elaine May, that lasted for more than 300 performances and gave Nichols entry to the theatre community. Once May ended their collaboration — at least that version of their collaboration, as they would work together in different capacities down the line — he turned to directing for stage. He made his name directing plays by Neil Simon, but the vast list of productions he presided over reads like the canon of theatre. In the process, he won an astounding nine Tonys, the last of which came for a revival of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, starring Philip Seymour Hoffman. That trophy was no knee-jerk genuflection to a titan of the off-stage. Nichols’s take on Salesman was widely acclaimed. While he had some reservations, Ben Brantley wrote in The New York Times, “it is perhaps the most lucid ‘Salesman’ I’ve ever seen.”
Except through wholly inadequate video clips, I never got to see any of the theatrical creations of Nichols. That leaves me with the films, beginning with the sensational, seismic Whos’ Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, released in 1966. Nichols was far less prolific behind the camera, but that choosiness generally served him well. Of the twenty-one features he directed (including the remarkable Wit and Angels in America, made for HBO), roughly half of them pushed toward greatness. He could deliver the twisty, sexually-charged experimentalism of Carnal Knowledge and the stern, smart docudrama Silkwood with equal authority. It’s the director’s earlier films that are the consensus classic, but fine efforts also came later, including his astute film version of Primary Colors (with a screenplay by May), which somehow managed to be both cynical and warmly funny, and the big-screen version of Patrick Marber’s play Closer, bracing and challenging in its vivid bluntness. The latter of those two perhaps provides the clearest evidence that Nichols wasn’t interested in contentment as a filmmaker. Imperfect in exciting ways, Closer was the work of someone who wanted to challenge himself, to push into artistic avenues that might be uncomfortable. He was in his seventies when he made it. If I was sadly deprived of the totality of Nichols as an artist, at least I can be grateful that he was one of those who never stopped giving, never stopped pushing. A fraction of his output exceeded the life’s work of most.