Mike Nichols, Oscar-Winning Director of ‘The Graduate,’ Dies at Age 83
“Mrs. Robinson, you’re trying to seduce me...”
That is one of the most famous lines from one of the most famous scenes in all of cinema: Dustin Hoffman’s Benjamin trying not to be seduced by Anne Bancroft’s Mrs. Robinson, his father’s partner’s wife in 1967’s ‘The Graduate.’ The film was just the second directed by Mike Nichols, the enterprising comedian turned theater and cinema director, who died Wednesday at the age of 83. For half a century before his death, Nichols’ created some of the most seductively popular films and plays in history.
‘The Graduate’ remains his most famous and iconic onscreen work; it also won him his only Best Director Oscar, although he was nominated four other times. But Nichols career was long and fruitful, and he remained a vital voice in Hollywood well into his 70s. His last film was the Tom Hanks comedy biopic ‘Charlie Wilson’s War;’ three years before that he got some of the best reviews of his career for his adaptation of the Patrick Marber play ‘Closer.’ That, in turn, came on the heels of his 2003 HBO miniseries adaptation of Tony Kushner’s play ‘Angels in America,’ which won the Emmy for Best Miniseries and Best Miniseries Direction. And he was as good as adapting film for the stage as he was adapting the stage for film and television; his musical version of ‘Monty Python and the Holy Grail,’ ‘Spamalot,’ won the 2005 Tony for Best Musical and ran for more than 1500 performances.
His favorite film quote, according to an AFI tribute, was from ‘The Philadelphia Story’: “The time to make up your mind about people is never.” Nichols remained curious about people and about film and theater through his entire career, never staying too long in one genre (or, indeed, one artistic medium). Although his strongest works were comedies, he tried his hand at almost every kind of film. He made dramas, he made histories, he made concert docs. He even directed a horror movie (‘Wolf,’ with Jack Nicholson). That’s on top of the dozens of Broadway plays and musicals he directed and produced, everything from the original Broadway production of Neil Simon’s ‘The Odd Couple’ to the hugely successful revival of Harold Pinter’s ‘Betrayal,’ starring Daniel Craig and Rachel Weisz. He was simply one of the most versatile directors in history.
He was born Michael Igor Peschkowsky into a Jewish family in 1931 Germany. He and his brother escaped the Nazis and fled to America. (He credited his ‘immigrant’s ear,’ the particular attention he paid to his surroundings as he learned English and grew up in the United States, with much of his later success.) Before his directing work he became a star in a comedy team with Elaine May; after their acclaimed partnership ended, he turned to directing theater. He transitioned to film with the 1966 version of Edward Albee’s ‘Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?’ Controversial in its day for its strong adult language, the film was nonetheless a major critical and commercial hit, and won five Oscars.
Nichols may still be best known in film circles for ‘The Graduate,’ and that will likely be the movie he’s best remembered for. But even casual movie lovers have seen much more of his work, possibly without even realizing it. Nichols made 1983’s ‘Silkwood,’ and 1999’s ‘Working Girl.’ He directed ‘The Birdcage’ in 1996, and ‘Primary Colors’ in 1998. True, he had a few flops along the way. But he also made some of the most watched and beloved films of all time, movies that will be discussed and cherished for decades to come.