Saturday, November 22, 2014

Mike Nichols

Mike Nichols (1931-2014). He was engaged in every dramatic medium - even in radio, since his first award, a Grammy, was for his comedy recordings with Elaine May. The Graduate, which I saw when I was just 15, was so emotionally insidious that it put me under the radar for weeks. I still cannot hear several of Simon & Garfunkel's songs (especially "Scarborough Fair") without being instantly reminded of Benjamin Braddock's misadventures. Critics at the time called him "the new Orson Welles." When he followed The Graduate with the stupendously ambitious Catch-22, it spawned the story of "The Green Awning," about a bankable young movie director who convinces his producer to back his idea of a feature-length film about nothing but an awning overhanging the street. Catch-22 was one of the most resounding flops in Hollywood history. It was an expensive, all-star, hugely overweening nice try. It's critical failure seemed to take the Orson Welles out of him. 

It turned out that he made many more films than I wish he had, by which I mean that Regarding Henry (1991) and Wolf (1994) could've been made by anyone but Nichols, who failed to make them seem any better than they were. But he could also make some less than brilliant stage plays (Closer, Biloxi Blues) seem more worthy of attention than they were. His movie comeback - The Birdcage (1996) - was so over the top that I needed a telescope to find what was left of Francis Veber's hilarious La Cage aux folles (not much). Putting Robin Williams and Nathan Lane onscreen at the same time was far too much sail for the film's shaky hull.

I was in no position, living my life off-off-off Broadway, to know anything about his fabled theater work. Since I am more than willing to take the words of the handful of great theater critics who were spectators of his work on (to name but a few) Barefoot in the Park, The Odd Couple, and Death of a Salesman (the revival with Kevin Spacey) for Nichols's theatrical virtuosity, at least I know something of what I missed.

I will never forget the spectacle of Benjamin Braddock doodling the name Elaine again and again, or his stalking her to Berkeley, to spy on her from not so afar, or his taking a room in a boarding house on her campus to which Elaine tracks him down one night to confront him with the lies that her mother told her about him, then returning later in the night to ask him to kiss her. And the last scene of The Graduate, in which Ben rescues Elaine from her wedding, escaping with her by bus to an undisclosed future, is indelibly etched in my memory.

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