ALWAYS KEEPING AN EYE ON HOLLYWOOD!!!

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

JOHNNY CHAZZ' TURN: RECOGNIZING DIRECTOR MIKE NICHOLS

JOHNNY CHAZZ: Let's pay tribute to another director this week - this time in the name of.......Mike Nichols. This week it is my honor and privilege to discuss his works, film style and his viable career.

Perhaps what I really enjoy about the films of Mike Nichols is the fact that his genre is dramatic in nature while maintaining interpersonal relationships as the main premise. Nichols loved the line from “Philadelphia Story” stating “The time to make up your mind about people is…..never.” What a great line - and how appropriate that someone like Mike Nichols would be impacted by it. Nichols uses characters in his films and their quirky and questionable relationships as teaching tools and as mirrors per se for his audiences to reflect on as well as identify with. Simply put, Nichols always seemed to have a knack for what the film-going public both wanted and needed to see on the screen.

His first film “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” (1966) is not only what I would consider a perfect film in every way, but presented audiences then and today with the harsh truth of what lies beneath oft seen destructive marriages. It was mainly Nichol’s theater background that led him to this project. Richard Burton, Elizabeth Taylor and the small, yet supportive cast were a phenomenal foursome turning the screen into a stage production and back again. The lighting, the music, the timing and the screenplay were first-rate. This film took home five (5) awards including costume, cinematography, art direction and two acting awards. As a side note, on the set of “Who’s Afraid….”, when asked about Mike Nichols, Richard Burton was quoted as saying “He appears to defer to you and in the end gets exactly what he wants. He conspires with you rather than directs you to get your best.”

Nichols then followed with “The Graduate” (1967), and albeit although it does not qualify as a “cult” film, it is one that will go down as symbolic of the time period and symbolic of what every teenager and adult either goes through or years for. Nichol’s received an Academy Award for best director for this film. It is debatable whether this film was meant as a mockery or as a celebration of such counterculture, but the film remains nothing short of outstanding.

How interesting these first two films were as they really were quite similar. We have primary characters that are tied to their families, but long to be independent at any cost. The idea of having a love affair is simply taboo and the emotional timing in both films are paralleled. Characters are caught in an endless maze leading to virtual insanity. The attitude is, in essence – satirical and sardonic. This continual focus on political, social and gender themes that makes the films of Mike Nichols work time and time again. Sexual tension and saying those things that should not be said are other themes we are faced with when viewing his work on screen.

It is probably the theatrical background of Nichols that allows him to direct film so well. Let’s be real honest – some of your best films ever to hit the big screen are shot with minimal sets, low lighting and on limited locations. The focus and intensity remains on performance, character motivation, timing and adaptation.

Nichols also has worked with such tremendous performers who have carried his plots such as: Dustin Hoffman in “The Graduate”, Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton in “Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”, Jack Nicholson in “Carnal Knowledge”, George C. Scott in “The Day of the Dolphin”, Alan Arkin in “Catch-22”, Meryl Streep in “Silkwood”, and “Postcards from the Edge”, Robin Williams in “The Birdcage” and more.

Director Mike Nichols is what I would call a “serious” director with an eye for talent, and ear for what is in tune and a sense of what audiences identify with, fear and crave. Nichols has always taken real chances on screen and dives into the personal lives of his characters head first. Additionally, Nichols always felt that his job as a director was divided into a multitude of facets: Working with the crew, working within the budget, working with the studio and marketing & promotion. Thus, the idea of Nichols as a “celebrity” really is something he has never felt I would imagine. This is precisely the reason why I pay tribute and homage to this individual this week and hope that you will have a chance to re-visit or to see for the first time any of the films I have listed below.

Here are some of my favorite Mike Nichols films during his career and my assigned ratings for each:

1966 Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? – Picture Points (10/10)

1967 The Graduate - Chazz's Picture Points (8/10)

1973 The Day of the Dolphin - Chazz’s Picture Points (7.5/10)

1983 Silkwood - Chazz’s Picture Points (8/10)

1988 Biloxi Blues - Chazz’s Picture Points (7/10)

1988 Working Girl - Chazz’s Picture Points (6.5/10)

1990 Postcards From the Edge - Chazz’s Picture Points (7/10)

1996 The Birdcage - Chazz’s Picture Points (7.5/10)

1998 Primary Colors - Chazz’s Picture Points (7/10)

2004 Closer - Chazz’s Picture Points (8.5/10

JER: A notable recognition to a very worthy and respected director in my eyes. I was a little taken back with the small number of films Mike Nichols has directed, but it only holds forth that “less is more” with the impact those few films have made in American cinema. My unfortunate conclusion with his catalog of films is that, like Woody Allen (discussed in the previous blog posting of HANNAH AND HER SISTERS) Nichols’ films began to lose its credibility in the later years…leaving his earlier films as notable gems!

My contemporary knowledge of films introduced me primary to Nichols by way of GILDA LIVE (1980). This documentary “live in concert” showpiece was a capturing of one of the greatest female comedy character actresses coming from the original ‘Saturday Night Live’ cast; Gilda Radner. The film explored several sketches of her more memorable comedic creations, while also giving us a peak at the backstage mayhem that kept the sanity on stage together. This was Gilda’s shining moment captured wonderfully with great documentarian skill.

SILKWOOD (1983) was his cinematic follow- up. With a strong cast represented by Meryl Streep, Kurt Russell and Cher; SILKWOOD focused on actual events that occurred at a plutonium processing plant and how Karen Silkwood (Streep) blew the whistle on the questionable operations. Nichols would soon become not only a director of some great comedies, but of such dramatic achievements as well.

Shifting gears, I hate to be the ‘kill-joy’ of the group, but I must mention two films that were most displeasing to me by Nichols. A literal one-two punch with back-to-back disappointments.

The much anticipated arrival of 1994’s WOLF seemed to have had all of the right elements: Jack Nicholson and Michelle Pfeiffer, a modern- day werewolf film with state-of-the-art special effects for its day and a notable director helming the project. How could this go wrong, right? Good question! It was bad right from the beginning only to continue a quick decline with a laughable duel between Nicholson’s wolf character and another ‘wolf’ played by James Spader!

After finally spitting up the last of this nauseating experience, I am force fed another tainted plate of bile with the indigestible presentation of 1996’s THE BIRDCAGE. I know this film has a particle following of sorts, but I was a huge fan of the original French LA CAGE AUX FOLLES and I just couldn’t sit still for this apparent passable ‘comedy’…using the term loosely.  Robin Williams and Nathan Lane are great comics and actors, respectfully. The use of Williams’ ad-lib improvisational skills and Lane’s blubbering antics just didn’t size up the way the original cast portrayed this lovable characters. Sorry, but someone should have padlocked that cage!

OK, now that I got that out of my system…let me touch on some of my favorites without sounded redundant to JC’s list.

THE GRADUATE (1967) seems very dated by today’s means, but the storyline still works well with the acceptance of ‘cougars’ perusing younger men. Great acting from Dustin Hoffman and Anne Bancroft.

I loved GILDA LIVE (1980) and I hope it makes its way to a decent anniversary DVD edition sometime soon. Moving on!

HEARTBURN (1986) A great blend of comedy and drama supported by the dueling forces of Jack Nicholson and Meryl Streep!

BILOXI BLUES (1988) The second of the semi-autobiographical events on Neil Simon’s life, Matthew Broderick plays Eugene as he goes from young boy to young man while serving in the trenches of WWII.

WORKING GIRL (1988) Nominated for BEST PICTURE, yet another superb blending of comedy and drama is stirred and served in the telling of a young secretary (Melanie Griffith) who has more than just a ‘body for sin.’ The cast is rounded off nicely with Harrison Ford and Sigourney Weaver.

With that said. I share my final thoughts… Nichols is still a very highly respected director, but might have fallen from cinematic grace, to a certain degree. But don’t worry, Sir…for you are not alone. Your unfortunate companions include Woody Allen, John Landis, Brian DePalma, Francis Coppola…just to name a few.

The curtain draws on another passionate presentation of our love for cinema and the players responsible. Join us next week when I, Jer, takes the wheel on a ‘bumpy ride’ through that wacky road we call HOLLYWOOD! As always we will SEE YOU NEXT WEDNESDAY!

10 comments:

  1. Jer, you didn't like the Birdcage?? I loved it! Robin & Nathan were great together. The Graduate is also one of my favorites as is Working Girl & Heartburn. Good review you too, keep up the good work! =)
    Norma V.

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  2. Just wanted to say that this week's posting in honor of Mike Nichols, the director is a good one. I agree that his films like many directors have gone downhill over time but who can forget those early works such as Who's afraid of Virginia Woolf? and The Graduate and even Catch 22? Nichols was great in the eighties too - so I will always view him as a director who really had an eye for talent and plot and knew how to use it on screen.

    TOM - Westminster, California

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  3. I really liked Biloxi Blues and The Graduate. I never saw Who is Afraid or some of these other Mike Nicols movies, but would like to. Good posting this week Cinema Counterpt.!

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  4. Hello Cinema C - I posted a couple of time before and thought I would come back to add my thoughts this week. What a great director you recommended this week! I have always enjoyed the films of Mike Nichols and strongly agree with both of you that his movies of the 1970s and 1980s were the peak of his directing career. I also liked 'Closer' and 'Charlie Wilson's War' as for some of his more recent movies. *Alan, North Bend, OR*

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  5. Nichols movies and films are almost invariably based on excellent scripts with little idosyncrasies. His films are consistent and always are on-point with what people want to see. I would classify this director as someone who has a vision and is both retrospective and contemporary in his technique. - Terry from Visalia, CA.

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  7. I would like to add that both 'The Graduate' and 'The Birdcage' were the most entertaining of the Mike Nichols movies. 'Virginia Woolf was probably his best film though. He is not the best known director out there, but he remains one of the best. Richard - LAKELAND, FL.

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  8. I think that the last ten years director M. Nichols has done magnificently well with some recent works including Closer, and the HBO mini-series Angels in America. His early films were also quite good, but he has stood the test of time in my mind up to and including the current decade. JEFFREY - FARMINGTON, MO.

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  9. Hi CinemaCounterpoint: another awesome blog again this week and I posted here a few weeks ago when you were discusing the martialart movies. Mike Nichols directed some of my favotire movies and even some that my family loves (Birdcage, Closer, The Graduate and Biloxi Blues). Liked the topics this week ^ thanks -Owen @ Raleigh, NC

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  10. WOW! Thank you all for your comments and feelings about director Mike Nichols and his films! We always want this forum to be an open opportunity for expression: pro or con!
    Both I (Jer) and JC have taken that approach with each other and we invite you to do the same with us and our reviews or your own thoughts! We especially want to thank our returning and new readers! We always look forward to you stopping by and saying hi.
    Again, we thank you all for sharing with us!

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