TBT: Mike Nichols
5 years ago today, one of the greatest directors of all times died after a decade-spanning career which made him one of only 16 people who accomplished to win an Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony Award. Let’s take a closer look at the life of Mike Nichols, born in Berlin in 1931 as Michail Igor Peschkowsky, whose movies received 42 Academy Award nominations and won 7:
His first years in life had been a difficult time as he has lost his hair after an inoculation for whooping cough and had to wear false eyebrows and wigs for the rest of his life. In April 1939, when the Nazis arrested Jews in Berlin, the family fled to the United States and changed their names. Five years later his father, who worked as doctor, died of leukemia with only 44 years. At that time nobody was aware that X-ray machines needs to be shielded to prevent radiation which will most likely cause cancer. Following in the footsteps of his father, Nichols enrolled in the pre-med program at the University of Chicago and life seemed to be clear: Becoming a doctor as his dad as well.
But one day at the theater changed everything – he visited a Chicago production of Miss Julie and managed to make eye contact with Elaine May, the main actress. A few weeks later they ran into each other in a train station and Nichols pretended to be a spy and May playing along. This funny coincidence unraveled to a brief romance, but Nichols left Chicago to study method acting. Together with May he performed as a comedy duo which was well known for their satirical approach and success came soon – but in 1961 they broke up and left a gaping hole in the American comedy landscape.
In the upcoming years Nichols made himself a household name when it came to highly successful plays at the Broadway with winning nine Tony Awards and took the inevitable next step in 1966: he directed his first Hollywood movie – and although he had no experience in filmmaking, his first movie, the screen adaptation of “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” became an instant classic and the Number 1 at the box office in that year. The movie garnered 13 Academy Award nominations and won five. “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” is one of only two movies which have been nominated in every eligible category. It was also the first movie ever where the entire cast has been nominated for acting Oscars.
With his next movie “The Graduate” Nichols conquered Hollywood once and for all: It became the highest grossing movie of 1967 and Nichols won an Academy Award as Best Director. Both movies were critically acclaimed for their sexual innuendo which was total unique and groundbreaking at that time. No other director before had dared to bring such a level of profanity to the big screen. “The Graduate” made Dustin Hoffman a star overnight and originated with “Mrs. Robinson” from Simon and Garfunkel one of the all-time pop songs for eternity.
Nichols always switched back and forth between cinema and stage, working for Broadway and Hollywood, never compromising on his visions: “I never understand when people say, 'Do you do comedy or tragedy?' I don't think they're very much different. They both have to be true, and there isn't a great play in the world that doesn't have funny parts to it. The whole idea is to reflect life in some way, which means surely you have to have both.”
That’s why his filmography is so rich of different genres and experiences: there’s a werewolf horror movie with Jack Nicholson as well as an exuberant comedy like “The Birdcage” or the biopic on Karen Silkwood, a whistleblower who died in a car collision while investigating alleged wrongdoing at a plutonium plant.
Nichols was an auteur wo worked intimately with his writers and actors and was always looking for an opportunity to brush Hollywood against the grain. With movies like “Closer”, “Angels in America” and “Catch-22” he analyzed the American psyche and once said: “A movie is like a person. Either you trust it or you don’t.”
And trust us: There’s hardly any other director who has been such a visionary and if you want to have a happy ending for your day today, treat yourself with a movie of Mike Nichols.