For me, there’s every film Mike Nichols ever made, then there’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, which is as fine a debut film as I’ve ever seen. Every single minute of this movie flies off the screen. Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, both never better, are sensational as Martha and George, the married couple from hell. The film is essentially a two hour and 15 minute long argument that more or less takes place in real time. Martha (perpetually drunk and lewd) and George (consistently resentful and angry) are hosting a small party for a young couple, Nick and Honey. Everything that can go wrong, does. And by the end of the movie, the lives of the four people involved are irreversibly altered.
There’s nothing about Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? that doesn’t work. The script and performances are the most prominent showstoppers, but it’s all at the helm of Nichols’ reserved direction. This is the kind of movie I watch and think, how in the hell did something this emotionally vulgar get made in America in 1966? Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is funny, brutal, and, in a word, perfect. A+
In what will always be considered one of the greatest one-two punches in American cinema history, Nichols’ followed up his first flawless film with an arguably more iconic masterpiece, The Graduate. Though the scope of The Graduate is far more expansive than Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, it is similar to Nichols’ first film in that everything in The Graduate works even better than it intends do. Dustin Hoffman delivers a performance that epitomizes the sexual awkwardness of young men, while Anne Bancroft’s Mrs. Robinson is, well, Mrs. Robinson. There’s so much of The Graduate in our modern pop culture. The film was released nearly 50 years ago, but its impact is timeless. A+
The best and worst part about Nichols’ Catch-22 is that the movie itself is a catch-22. The film is a paradoxical farce that succeeds at times, but is too cleaver for its own good. The editing speaks best to the film’s overall tone. Many of the scenes are quick and do not appear in any sort of coherent order. We’re often shown the same scene multiple times, though they tend to make slightly more sense every time we see them. The film is a nonsensical circus show that has a blast being a nonsensical circus show. That’s part of what makes the movie so much fun. But the jig is up far before its two hours have concluded. While I appreciate its unique humor and superb who’s-who of a cast, I “got” what the film was doing far before it was done. B-
Carnal Knowledge is a great film, one that combines the best aspects of Nichols’ most accomplished work. The name of the game here is sex, specifically, what men will do to get it, and what they’ll do to drive it away. This is a deeply funny, terribly vicious, and shockingly fearless portrayal of sex in the mind of man. The film begins with an off-screen conversation between best friends and college roommates, Jonathan (Jack Nicholson) and Sandy (Arthur Garfunkel). By the end of their lengthy chat, we gather that both men are virgins, more or less willing to do and say anything to get laid. From there, the film gently spans 25 years, from lost virginities to marriages, courtships to infidelities.
It’s funny, as I watched Carnal Knowledge for the first time this weekend, I was puzzled that some of it reminded me of my upcoming film, Wait. How can this be? How can a movie I’ve never seen influence a film I’ve already made? Easy, because Carnal Knowledge is so significant, it has influenced other films that have influenced my career. To watch this film is to go back to the source, and revisit the pain of love in all its bitter glory. A+
The Day of the Dolphin has a few things going for it, namely the greatest movie tagline of all time. Seriously, what could possibly go wrong when your film is backed with the description: “Unwittingly, he trained a dolphin to kill the President of the United States”? But really, this was written by Buck Henry, the same man who penned The Graduate, so it can’t be that bad, right? Well, it’s said that New Yorker critic Pauline Kael suggested that if the best subject Nichols and Henry could think of was talking dolphins, then they should quit making movies altogether. Thankfully they didn’t, but the final point is that this film is a mess, one plagued by what Nichols described as the worst production of his career. It shows. D+
A movie about Jack Nicholson and Warren Beatty as ‘20s-era scam artists who are both after a pre-Grease Stockard Channing should work, but very little of The Fortune does. I’ve only seen this purposeful farce once, a few years ago in college. And because it is difficult to get ahold of today, I saw no point in seeking it out for a rewatch. Ultimately, given the talent involved, The Fortune should’ve worked out a lot better than it did. C-
Gilda Live is a filmed stage play of actress Gilda Radner recreating her most famous Saturday Night Live characters for a Boston crowd. At 96 minutes long, the film runs entirely too long and makes us thankful for those briskly paced sketches we find on SNL. Don’t get me wrong, there are certainly a few laughs to be had from Gilda Live, but if you’re interested in the comedy, I suggest you check out some of Radner’s SNL highlights on YouTube instead. C-
Silkwood is the type of completely decent, totally safe whistle blower film that we saw a lot of in the late-‘70s and ‘80s. Like most of these films, Silkwood is based on a true story and features a strong female lead character fighting for justice. Meryl Streep plays Karen Silkwood, a factory worker who made plutonium fuel rods, and became increasingly vocal about the levels of radiation she and her fellow employees were exposed to on a daily basis. The movie itself is just okay. It feels like it could’ve been made by most anyone, which is another way of saying that it lacks Nichols’ trademark charm and wit. The cast is uniformly excellent, namely Streep, who wisely doesn’t paint Karen out to be a saint, and Cher, who plays Karen’s best friend with more restraint than she ever played anyone. The performances alone make Silkwood worth it. B
If nothing else, Heartburn is a great example of how adept Mike Nichols is at conveying the passage of time. Never a director to rely on timestamps, if you want to know how much time passes in Heartburn (or Carnal Knowledge, or Closer), you have to pay attention to the details – listen intently to the dialogue, make note of the production design. It’s actually a rather difficult thing to pull off well.
The main problem with the film, however, is that we’ve all seen movies that capture a marriage in disarray, and Heartburn isn’t nearly as compelling as the bottom half of all the others. Jack Nicholson and Meryl Streep (as thinly vailed surrogates for reporter Carl Bernstein and writer Nora Ephron) are solid, but the film essentially carries no weight. Ephron wrote the script based on her divorce from Bernstein, and while I give her credit for candidly sharing her story with the world, Heartburn is simply too plain to standout. C+
My feelings on Biloxi Blues are rested firmly between the opinions of New York Times film critic Vincent Canby (who loved it), and Roger Ebert (who detested it). I see where both of those critics were coming from. Biloxi Blues is an at times concise and intelligent comedy, anchored by Matthew Broderick’s ‘80s innocence and Christopher Walken’s boundless oddity. But I also have trouble buying what the film is selling, especially toward the end, when Walken’s drill instructor character appears to go insane and threaten his men at gunpoint. I see the humor in that extended sequence, but for me, it never fully lands. Before writing this post, I had only seen Biloxi Blues once, several years ago. I rewatched it this weekend with hopes of finishing the film with a changed perspective. Sadly, I remained underwhelmed. C-
Working Girl is one of the funnest movies Mike Nichols ever made. This is partly because Nichols cast every significant role to utter perfection. Melanie Griffith has arguably never been better. She uses her big blonde hair and stunning good looks to fool the audience into thinking her Tess McGill is a floozy. But she’s not. She’s business savvy, determined and educated. She nails everything that is required of the role. Sigourney Weaver, as Tess’ cutthroat boss, proves exceptional at playing a grade-A bitch. Keep in mind, Working Girl was Weaver’s first film after Aliens and Gorillas in the Mist, two movies in which Weaver earned Oscar nominations for playing women everyone can root for. Harrison Ford as a hot shit executive, Alec Baldwin as a Staten Island douchebag, Joan Cusack as a zany friend – everyone in Working Girl performs at their peak, resulting in Nichols’ best film since Carnal Knowledge. B+
Postcards from the Edge is similar to Heartburn in that it is based on a semi-autobiographical novel about a famous woman struggling through a relationship. In Postcards, Meryl Streep plays a surrogate for the film’s writer, Carrie Fisher, while Shirley MacLaine steps in for Debbie Reynolds. The film is about an actress named Suzanne Vale trying to refocus her career following a stint in rehab. But, if Suzanne wants to work again, she must temporally live with a responsible adult, which, after some hesitation, ends up being Suzanne’s overbearing mother, Doris.
Streep and MacLaine are great in the film; both have a ball relishing in their characters’ eccentricities. But overall, Postcards from the Edge is lacking a much-needed bite. It never pushes as hard as it aims to, leaving its exceptional cast undervalued. B-
Ruthless attorney and lousy husband/father, Henry Turner, is shot during a robbery and wakes up not remembering anything. He has to restart his life, first learning how to walk and talk, before getting acclimated with his family and job. It’s not a terribly unique concept, and ultimately, Regarding Henry does exactly what you think it’s going to do. Within days, the kinder Henry is questioning his practices as a lawyer, spending more time with the daughter he previously neglected, loving his wife (Annette Bening) in all the right ways, and, you get it. Harrison Ford is good as the “new” Henry, but the performance is essentially Tom Hanks’ adolescent charm in Big mixed with Robert De Niro’s self-discovery in Awakenings. Regarding Henry is a generic feel good movie that has nothing new to offer the generic feel good movie. C+
Wolf is a traffic accident of a film that I can’t take my eyes off of. To his credit, Mike Nichols may be the only guy who would create a horror film set around inner office politics. But the film’s thrilling first half is tarnished greatly by its increasingly baffling conclusion. After Will Randall (a surprisingly restrained Jack Nicholson) is bitten by a wolf, we watch with joy as the most famous actor in the world slowly transforms into a wolf himself. His senses are drastically heightened, which provokes Will to issue gems like, “How the fuck can you drink tequila this early in the morning?” to his co-workers. But as Will’s transformation becomes more apparent, the film grows more mindless. Its climatic slow motion showdown (set to Ennio Morricone’s puzzlingly ill-fitting music), for example, is a laughable misfire. Few actors play corporate slime better than James Spader, and Michelle Pfeiffer enjoys her mild femme fatale, but everyone involved here was let down by the material. Still, I fully admit that I have more fun with that film than not. B-
Like many people, I spent much of this past August making (read: crying) my way through the bulk of Robin Williams’ filmography. Rewatching The Birdcage days after his death was a bittersweet experience, because I couldn’t stop myself from laughing. And laughing hard. It was my first time watching the film in years, and I was thrilled that, as I have gotten older, the film has gotten wiser. It’s the other way around, of course, but what I mean is that the humor in The Birdcage is so significant, that I’m certain its laughs will always land. Every time Williams was on screen, my heart sank a little, knowing that he’s gone. But then I was reminded that his work will live on. “He made us laugh,” Billy Crystal said of Williams during his Emmy tribute. He did, certainly. Did, and does, and will. A-
My only real criticism of Primary Colors is that it runs a little too long. It tends to get weighed down with sub plots that aren’t nearly as compelling as its main figure, the Bill Clinton-esque Jack Stanton (John Travolta). That quibble aside, Primary Colors is a funny, engaging, and intelligent political satire (though, at the same time, not a satire at all) about Clinton’s first campaign for President. Leave it to Mike Nichols to refuse to pull punches. And although names were changed and details were smudged, Travolta inhabits “Clinton” with such unapologetic candor that you can’t help but love him. Kathy Bates is also on fire in the film. Her final showdown with Travolta and Emma Thompson is one of the finest scenes each actor has been involved in. That scene is Mike Nichols at his best: a few actors, one room, little camera movement, and the words. The verbose and devilishly precise words that Nichols loves so much. B
What Planet Are You From? is the worst film Mike Nichols ever made. It’s as simple as that. The movie, about an alien sent to Earth to impregnate a woman and bring the child back to his planet, is a miss at most every turn. Not even the talented cast can save it. It’s almost as if most everyone involved was eager to work with Nichols for the first time (save Nichols vet Annette Bening), and didn’t really care how good or bad the final film turned out. Look, any movie about an alien whose crotch vibrates violently whenever he’s aroused is bound to have some faults, right? It’s best that we just pretend What Planet Are You From? never happened. D+
Nichols followed his career low the best way you can follow a career low, by delivering three modern masterworks. First up was Wit, which Nichols made with writer/star Emma Thompson for HBO. The film is about an English professor with ovarian cancer, but, in an interesting twist, instead of getting increasingly frail by her affliction, Vivian Bearing gets more humorous and insightful as she gets sicker. It’s the kind of role only Emma Thompson could play so well. Honestly, I’m not sure the actress has ever been better. And her teleplay (co-written with Nichols, which marks the sole writing credit of his career) is thoroughly engaging. As I said on my list of the best HBO films, Wit is a film for people who love watching other people talk, and talk well. A
Mike Nichols’ Angels in America is a masterpiece. Fully and truly, an uncontested masterpiece. If it somehow played theatrically (which would admittedly be impossible, as the HBO miniseries ran nearly six hours), it would’ve been in serious contention for every Oscar it was nominated for. Instead, it rightfully swept the Emmys, Golden Globes, and Guild Awards. In recreating the 1980s AIDS epidemic, Nichols and writer Tony Kushner crafted an epic tale, one that’s massive in scope, but brutally personal in execution. This is a very big miniseries, but compassion and personality bleed through every frame.
Choosing a highlight from the cast is impossible. Al Pacino (delivering what could be his last truly great performance), Meryl Streep, Jeffrey Wright, and Mary-Louise Parker justly reaped much of the awards attention, but everyone here is perfect. Similar to the stage experience, many of the performers in the film played multiple roles, some more obvious than others. Doesn’t matter whether you notice or not, everything and everyone works to service the material impeccably. If you haven’t seen Angels in America, do seek it out immediately. I enjoyed Nichols’ final two films, but Angels in America is his real swan song. A+
I am an unapologetic fan of Closer. Patrick Marber’s script is the prominent reason for this. His words roll off the vicious, resentful tongues of his characters, cutting through each scene like a razor blade. The film is a deeply pessimistic, fiercely cruel take on love in the modern world. Two couples whose lives are perpetually intertwined, because none of them understand the value of fidelity.
Julia Roberts, as the seemingly innocent, but deeply cold Anna; Jude Law as slimy rat Dan; and Clive Owen as ferocious caveman Larry, have never been better. I can’t say that Natalie Portman is better here than in Black Swan, but I would offer another, more suitable comparison. If you’re up for it, watch Garden State and Closer back to back, then try to fathom how in the hell those movies came out in the same year. In Zach Braff’s film, Portman plays a girl, young and in love. In Closer, she’s a woman, street wise and ready for whatever comes at her. It’s a startling transformation, one that, like Closer itself, I remain in awe of. A
I suppose Charlie Wilson’s War escaped me when I first saw it in theaters. I wasn’t hip to Aaron Sorkin’s writing style, Nichols’ penchant for subtlety, or Philip Seymour Hoffman’s deeply intelligent humor. I mean, I was aware of all of those things, but not as much as I am today. In short, I watched the film two days ago and was pleased by how much I enjoyed it. Hoffman is the clear winner here, as the film ignites with fury whenever his character, CIA agent Gust Avrakotos, appears on screen. Tom Hanks has a ball as the title character, but it’s really Hoffman’s show. It’s as if Sorkin’s words were written specifically for Hoffman’s sensibilities. Nichols was adamant about finding the proper material to work with Hoffman again. They found it, with their Tony-winning production of Death of a Salesmen in 2012. Charlie Wilson’s War, however, represents their sole film work together. And that’s certainly all right by me. B
Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
Angels in America
Postcards from the Edge
Charlie Wilson’s War
Just Plain Bad
The Day of the Dolphin
What Planet Are You From?