Mike Nichols - Director

Nationality: American. Born: Michael Igor Peschkowsky in Berlin, 6 November 1931; became U.S. citizen, 1944. Education: University of Chicago, 1950–53; studied acting with Lee Strasberg, 1954. Family: Married 1) Patricia Scott, 1957 (divorced), one daughter; 2) Margot Callas, 1974 (divorced); 3) Annabel (divorced), two children; 4) Diane Sawyer, 1988. Career: Member of Compass Players improvisational theatre group, Chicago, 1955–57; partnership with Elaine May, 1957–61; director on Broadway, from 1963; produced The Family for TV, 1976. Awards: 7 Tony Awards; Academy Award for Best Direction, Directors Guild of America Outstanding Directorial Achievement in Motion Pictures, Golden Globe Award for Best Motion Picture Director, and British Academy Award for Best Direction, for The Graduate , 1968; American Comedy Awards Creative Achievement Award, 1994; awarded Star on Walk of Fame, 1998. Office: c/o Marvin B. Meyer, Rosenfeld, Meyer and Sussman, 9601 Wilshire Blvd., Beverly Hills, CA 90210, U.S.A.

Films as Director:


Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?


The Graduate




Carnal Knowledge (+ pr)


The Day of the Dolphin


The Fortune (+ co-pr)


Gilda Live


Silkwood (+ co-pr)


Heartburn (+ co-pr)


Biloxi Blues ; Working Girl


Postcards from the Edge (+ co-pr)


Regarding Henry (+ co-pr)




The Birdcage (+co-pr)


Primary Colors (+co-pr)


What Planet Are You From? (+co-pr)


By NICHOLS: articles—

Interview with Barry Davy, in Films and Filming (London), November 1968.

Interview with Lillian Hellman, in New York Times , 9 August 1970.

Interview in The Film Director as Superstar , by Joseph Gelmis, New York, 1971.

Interview with D. Kennedy, in Listener (London), 16 March 1989.

Interview with Richard Combs, in Sight and Sound (London), Spring 1989.

"Without Cutaways: Mike Nichols Interviewed," by Gavin Smith, in Film Comment , May/June 1991.

"Mike Nichols: Working Man," an interview with Stephen Greco, in Advocate , 5 May 1992.

On NICHOLS: books—

Kiley, Frederick, and Walter McDonald, editors, A "Catch-22" Casebook , New York, 1973.

Schuth, H. Wayne, Mike Nichols , Boston, 1978.

On NICHOLS: articles—

Rice, Robert, "A Tilted Insight," in New Yorker , 15 April 1961.

Bart, Peter, "Mike Nichols, Moviemaniac," in New York Times , 1 July 1967.

Lightman, Herb, "On Location with Carnal Knowledge ," in American Cinematographer (Los Angeles), January 1971.

Mike Nichols
Mike Nichols

Brown, John, "Pictures of Innocence," in Sight and Sound (London), Spring 1972.

Rich, Frank, "The Misfortune of Mike Nichols: Notes on the Making of a Bad Film," in New York Times , 11 July 1975.

Sarris, Andrew, "After The Graduate ," in American Film (Washington, D.C.), July/August 1978.

Fieschi, J., "Hollywood '79: Mike Nichols," in Cinématographe (Paris), March 1979.

Combs, Richard, "Mike Nichols: Comedy in Four Unnatural Acts," in Monthly Film Bulletin (London), May 1989.

Farber, Stephen, "Waiting for Mike," in Connoisseur , June 1991.

Christiansen, Richard, "Behind the Camera with Mike Nichols," in Chicago Tribune , 7 July 1991.

Hale, C., "Mike Nichols," in Film Dope , December 1991.

Buck, Joan Juliet, "Live Mike," in Vanity Fair , June 1994.

* * *

The son of a Russian-Jewish emigré who fled the Nazis for the U.S. with his family in the 1930s, lived in some poverty, and died when his son was 12, Mike Nichols has displayed the drive, energy, and Jewish-influenced sense of humor germane to his background. A man of cultivated sensibilities and eclectic taste, and an outstanding director of actors on both stage and screen, Nichols also developed an adroit film technique. Fond of foreground shooting, long takes, and distorting close-ups to intensify the sense of his characters' entrapment, he also frequently employs overlapping sound and a spare, modernistic mise-en-scène (the latter at times reminiscent of Antonioni) to convey an aura of disorientation and sterility. In the underpraised and misunderstood Carnal Knowledge , Nichols uses whiteouts (also prominent in Catch-22 ) and Bergmanesque talking heads as structural and thematic devices to increase the viewer's alienation from the two central characters, Jonathan and Sandy—visually (and in Jules Feiffer's original screenplay) the most isolated and self-deluded of Nichols's characters and to ridicule notions of male sexual fantasy at the core of the film. Nichols made an awesome film directing debut in 1966 with Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? , earning nine Oscar nominations with a deserved win for Elizabeth Taylor. Thirty years on, he had accumulated sixteen films to his credit which, viewed as a body of work, reveal a range and, in general, a level of quality that places him firmly in the upper echelons of commercial directors working in the pre-high tech-special effects tradition of solid comedy and drama.

The films of Mike Nichols are guided by the eye and ear of a satirist whose professional gifts emerge from a style of liberal, improvisational comedy that originated in a Chicago theater club and developed into a performing partnership with Elaine May in the late 1950s and early 1960s. In clubs and recordings, on radio, television, and Broadway, Nichols and May's routines gnawed hilariously close to the bone. Aimed at literate, self-aware audiences, their skits (sometimes anticipating key elements of Nichols's films) gleefully anatomized family relationships, and men and women dueling in post-Freudian combat, by turns straying from the marriage bond and clinging to it for dear life.

Before entering films, Nichols earned a reputation as a skillful Broadway director with a particular flair for devising innovative stage business and eliciting unusually polished performances. That sure theatrical sense, honed by his subsequent direction of plays by writers as diverse as Neil Simon, Anton Chekhov, Lillian Hellman, David Rabe, and Tom Stoppard, combines in his best films with the sardonic attitude toward American life that underlies even the gentlest of his collaborations with Elaine May.

Several of Nichols's major films begin as comedies and evolve into mordant, generically ambiguous dissections of the American psyche. Their central characters exist in isolation from the landscapes they inhabit, often manufacturing illusions to shield themselves against reality (George and Martha in Virginia Woolf , Sandy and Jonathan in Carnal Knowledge ) or fleeing with mounting desperation societies whose values they alone perceive as neurotic (Benjamin in The Graduate ) or murderous (Yossarian in Catch-22 ).

Martha and George, Edward Albee's Strindbergian couple, flail at each other on their New England campus and reveal a tormented relationship which, although concluding with a faint glimmer of hope, seems nevertheless to imply the futility of monogamy, a view reinforced by Carnal Knowledge and The Graduate. In the latter, until he dates Elaine Robinson, Benjamin Braddock is segregated by script and camera from the company of friends: whether in a packed airplane, on the Berkeley campus teeming with students, or surrounded by his parents' partying guests, Ben is alone. His detachment, italicized by numerous shots within the film, permits him to function as the funnel for The Graduate's social satire. In this respect he is Nichols's surrogate, but the director complicates the viewer's empathetic response to Ben by scrutinizing him rather as an experimenting scientist scrutinizes a mouse darting about a maze, especially as he scampers in frantic pursuit of Elaine.

In Dustin Hoffman's memorable screen debut, Ben became the moralistic spokesman for a generation that mistrusted anyone over thirty and vowed never to go into plastics. But, like certain other Nichols heroes, Ben may be more than a little crazy, the inevitable child of a Southern California lifestyle that leads him to anticipate instant gratification. Nichols, moreover, intentionally undermines the comic resolution toward which the film has been heading through ambivalent shots of Ben and Elaine on their departing bus, implicating them in mutual recognition of a colossal mistake. At film's end, Ben Braddock still has considerable cause to be "worried about [his] future."

For Yossarian, worrying about the future means literally staying alive. To survive a "Catch-22" universe he behaves like a lunatic, but the more bizarrely he acts the more sanely is he regarded according to the military chop-logic that drives him toward madness. In Buck Henry's screenplay, time is fractured to retain the basic storytelling method of Joseph Heller's novel. Flashbacks occur within flashbacks. Conversations are inaudible (as in the opening scene), while incidents only partially revealed (as in the first Snowden sequences) are later replayed with deleted elements restored.

Things are seldom what they initially seem in this director's work. Like Nick and Honey, misled by George and Martha's pretense of hospitality in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? , the viewer may be easily lulled by a deceptively comic tone, enticing visual stylization, and innovative storytelling technique into misreading the bleak vision that the films often harbor. The Day of the Dolphin , for example, with its mythic qualities, concerns about good and evil, and a painful ending, is certainly more than just a story of talking dolphins. Even The Fortune , a farce in the screwball tradition, hinges on attempted murder and leaves its heroine's fate hanging in the balance. Nichols directs literate, intelligent scripts that pull few punches in their delineations of sexual, social or political themes.

While The Graduate continues to be regarded as an American classic, Nichols is sometimes undervalued for his film work because he prefers the New York theater and because his contributions to his pictures are periodically credited to their writers' screenplays (Buck Henry, Jules Feiffer) or their theatrical and literary sources (Edward Albee, Joseph Heller, Charles Webb). But Nichols is very much an auteur, working intimately with his collaborators on all aspects of his films, principally the writing and, as with many auteurs, using many of the same actors and technicians again and again.

Nichols's films uphold his original reputation as a gifted director of actors: Hoffman in The Graduate , Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? , Jack Nicholson in Carnal Knowledge, The Fortune, Heartburn , and Wolf , George C. Scott in The Day of the Dolphin , Alan Arkin in Catch-22 , Meryl Streep in Silkwood, Heartburn , and Postcards from the Edge , Robin Williams in The Birdcage , John Travolta and, indeed, the entire cast, in Primary Colors. The films also reveal, even in their intermittent self-indulgence and a very occasional descent into the trite or unfocused, a director of prodigious versatility and insight.

From Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? in 1966 to The Fortune in 1975, Nichols's films are pure fiction; with Silkwood in 1983, he moved into a second phase in which reality is rather closer to the surface of the plots. Silkwood itself, relating the experiences of nuclear-plant employee Karen Silkwood (Meryl Streep), stands alone as being based on a true story, but, despite its fundamentally grim and salutary subject matter it, like the several that follow, strikes a note of optimism that springs from the inner growth of characters as they shed illusions and achieve inner peace. Thus, even Karen Silkwood gains awareness and tries to help herself and her friends before her shocking death. Adapted from her own novel by Nora Ephron, writing from the fund of her personal experiences, Heartburn charts the breakdown of a marriage destroyed by a husband's infidelity but, once again, Rachel (Meryl Streep), the wronged wife, is able to grow and, with her children, move forward despite her shattered illusions. On this occasion, however, Nichols seemed unable to bind together Ephron's episodic tragi-comedy into a coherent whole and, despite the excellence of Streep and Nicholson, it is a tedious and unsatisfying film that counts as the director's one clear failure. Biloxi Blues , from Neil Simon's semi-autobiographical rites-of-passage comedy of nostalgia, is no more than a pleasing, workmanlike transposition of the Broadway play, but with Working Girl Nichols evinced a new ebullience. He created a sure-fire hit with a movie that combined a Capra-esque feel-good romantic comedy with an incisive look into the contemporary subculture of working women in Manhattan, satirising female power-hunger and striking a blow for the class war in the triumph of Staten Island secretary Melanie Griffith's tiumph over her bitch-boss (Sigourney Weaver). Written by Debbie Reynolds and Tony Curtis's daughter Carrie Fisher, whose credentials for an authentic exploration of her subject matter were impeccable, Postcards from the Edge deals with the explosively difficult relationship between a self-obsessed former Hollywood star (a tour de force from Shirley MacLaine) and her recklessly unstable daughter (Meryl Streep). Nichols directs this slightly overblown but absorbing and entertaining film with a confident sweep, once again pointing the road to inner growth and reconciliation as Streep's Suzanne Vale wins the battle for self-awareness. The next protagonist to earn a fresh appreciation of life was Harrison Ford, as he recovers from a serious head-wound in Regarding Henry , a film perhaps more personal to Nichols, who claimed to have made a similar inner journey after an illness.

From 1993 onwards, Nichols's eclecticism has been emphasized in his choice of projects, a choice he exercises sparingly. In 1993 his breadth of cultural interest was reflected in his choosing to produce the much-lauded film of Kazuo Ishiguro's deeply English and very fine novel, The Remains of the Day . In 1994 he directed Wolf , in which he ventured gently into the margins of horror fiction as a Manhattan book editor (Jack Nicholson), caught in middle-age crisis and a love-affair with the daughter (Michelle Pfeiffer) of the boss who has sacked him, is bitten by a wolf. Before the resulting lupine transmogrification takes hold, his senses become more acute and he fights for and regains his job. Entertaining stuff, with a script (on which Elaine May, uncredited, assisted) that hints at a profounder subtext concerning questions about aging, death, the limits of concrete knowledge, and the possibility of immortality. Drawing the best from Robin Williams, Nichols next made The Birdcage , an Americanized version of La Cage aux folles , and a piece of hilarious, sometimes farcical, frivolity which, again, contains a clear social comment aimed at puncturing pretension, exposing bigotry, and preaching tolerant understanding.

Working from Joe Klein's bestseller, scripted by Elaine May, Nichols made Primary Colors in 1998. This uncomfortable saga of the corrupt trappings surrounding a Clintonesque presidential campaign allowed him to exercise his grasp of both dramatic and satirical possibilities with theatrical flair, while drawing heavyweight performances from Travolta and Emma Thompson. With the new century came What Planet Are You From? which found Nichols entering the realm of comedy Sci-Fi with a tale conceived by the film's star Garry Shandling—an intriguing and appropriate pairing of two razor-sharp satirical minds and talents—in which an alien seeks an earthling wife in order to propagate his species and save his planet. The message is clear.

At the time of writing Mike Nichols was in pre-production for a film version of the play Wit , scheduled for release in 2001, with Emma Thompson chosen for the role created by Kathleen Chalfant on the New York and London stages. About a woman professor in process of coming to terms with her terminal cancer, the play is both searing and inspirational, but clearly too somber to serve the commercial interests of the big screen and is being made for television. It is, however, Mike Nichols's most uncompromisingly serious-minded venture to date, and indicative of why he holds a respected place as a director of true substance.

—Mark W. Estrin, updated by H. Wayne Schuth, further updated by Robyn Karney

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