Oscar-winning director Mikhail Igo Peschkowsky (or Mike Nichols as we all know him) has passed away at 83.
Born in Germany, 1931, Nichols escaped the Nazi regime with his family and moved to America. In 1958 formed a very successful comedy duo with Elaine May, having three of their routines become best-sellers and starring in the Arthur Penn’s Broadway show An Evening with Mike Nichols and Elaine May which lead them to win a Grammy for Best Comedy Album.
After their split, and some theater productions that guided him to the director’s chair, Nichols moved to the big screen with an A-list project that ended up giving Elizabeth Taylor her second Oscar (and another nomination for Richard Burton) in his 1966 adaptation of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf. But he got international recognition for his juggernaut success The Graduate, which still resonates in pop culture today.
After these two projects, Nichols had carte blanche to do anything he wanted, so naturally he helmed the star-studded adaptation of Joseph Heller’s Catch-22, a film that was coveted by many another directors (Orson Wells among them) with an even bigger attraction to actors. The final result did not convince the audiences who were already backing up a similar film that captured their feelings M.A.S.H.
In the 70’s and 80’s, Nichols had better luck with numerous hits from real life adaptations (Sikwood, Heartburn) to fiction (Working Girl, The Birdcage) to even a take on the white house antics (Primary Colors). He has always been a magnet to popular actors, working several times with Meryl Streep, Jack Nicholson, Emma Thompson, Harrison Ford and Julia Roberts.
The many awards and recognitions can only begin to say how much his work influenced our lives and will keep his memory alive.
Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf (1966)
Nichols’ first film, the adaptation of stage play by Edward Albee, hit it big, earning thirteen Oscar nominations, one for each eligible category, including its four main actors: Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton, Sandy Dennis and George Segal (the actresses took home the statuette)
The Graduate (1967)
With his second film, Nichols became an international sensation, confectioning a film of universal resonance that would become a benchmark of quality in the American Film Industry as well as speaking to a society in turmoil. Still considered one of the 100 Best American Films by the AFI (No. 17), it cast Dustin Hoffman in a role that asked for the looks of Robert Redford and gave pop culture two important entries: Mrs. Robinson and Plastic.
The first collaboration between Nichols and Meryl Streep, it touched on the delicate subject of a real-life woman who tried to corner the company that put her health on the line, just to be mysteriously “killed”. This film gave Cher her first Oscar nominated role as Karen Silkwood’s lesbian roommate, apart from being one of Streep’s most haunting characterizations as an everyday hero.
Based on Nora Ephron’s autobiographical account of her much publicized breakup from journalist Carl Bernstein, it also marked the first time Meryl Streep and Jack Nicholson worked together, after Dustin Hoffman turn down the role. After all he had already played Carl Bernstein in All The Presidents Men and he and Streep had starred in another breakup film (Kramer vs. Kramer).
Working Girl (1988)
Roger Ebert wrote, “The plot of Working Girl is put together like clockwork”, and the film gave its three leads (Melanie Griffith, Sigourney Weaver and Harrison Ford) some of their best work (with the two actresses being nominated to the Oscars). Working for the second time with Nichols, Carly Simon composed the theme song “Let the River Run”, which went on to win an Oscar.
Postcards from the Edge (1990)
The third collaboration with Streep is an adaptation of Carrie Fisher’s semi-autobiographical novel of the same title, with Meryl doing the Carrie part and Shirley McLaine being Debbie Reynolds. The film was even shot in Reynold’s house and it includes surreal scenes in its more realistic structure.
The Birdcage (1996)
This is the American remake of the successful French comedy La Cage aux Folles, and it features the work of Robin Williams and Nathan Lane in the lead, and Gene Hackman and Dianne Wiest supporting it. To this date, it is one of the most beloved films within the LGBT community.
Like many other filmmakers, Nichols was brought to the small screen to work on projects that could not find backing for the big screen. In 2001 he directed Emma Thompson as the title role in this strong drama about a woman confronting the deadliest stage of her ovarian cancer, based on the Pulitzer Prize winning play by Margaret Edson. The impact of this “made-for-television” movie was such that Roger Ebert included it in his Best Films of 2001 list, even if it never opened theatrically.
Angels In America (2003)
Right after Wit, Nichols was hired again by HBO to work on the mini-series adaptation of Tony Kushner’s play of the same name, dealing with a man dying of AIDS who is visited by an angel, as an excuse to give a wider view of Regan era politics. The film features Emma Thompson, Meryl Streep, Al Pacino and Mary-Louise Parker in the main roles.
This romantic drama features four strong actors (Julia Roberts, Jude Law, Natalie Portman and Clive Owen) in a story taken from the award-winning play by Patrick marber, which has been regarded as a modern take on Mozart’s Cosí fan tutte. Portman and Owen earned Oscar nominations and won the Golden Globes for their roles, in this story of switched couples and destiny in modern times.
Charlie Wilson’s War (2007)
This is Nichols’ last film and one of his late career successes: a biographical comedy-drama about the true story of U.S. Congressman Charlie Wilson’s partnership with the CIA to support the Afghan during the Soviet war in Afghanistan. This is the second collaboration with Julia Roberts and first time with Tom Hanks and Philip Seymour Hoffman (who also got an Oscar nomination).