What a sad loss that director Mike Nichols died the other day. He’s one of those geniuses you wish could – somehow – live forever. Still, it’s a consolation several of his movies will be around – and enjoyed – for a very long time.
Two of his best, two of my all-time favorites, have long been established as bona-fide classics: Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and The Graduate.
Way back in 1965, I’d read Mike Nichols was preparing to direct Edward Albee’s stunning Broadway play, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Why, I wondered, is comedian Mike Nichols going to direct a movie, his first one, and why in the world did he choose such a heavy-duty powerhouse like Virginia Woolf? I’d read the play that year and thought Nichols was sure to make a mess of it. Oh, boy, was I wrong!
Up to that time, I’d known of Nichols only as one half of the comic duo, Nichols and (Elaine) May. They were both comedic pioneers in the late 1950s and early 1960s, doing innovatively brilliant and funny duo-logues together on TV shows. Great stuff.
When Virginia Woolf was released in 1966, it astonished critics and was later nominated for 13 Academy Awards, five of which it won. The movie was one of the news events of that year, partly because Elizabeth Taylor as “Martha” gained a lot of weight for the role and looked almost trampy squeezed into her tight clothing like a plump sausage ready to burst its casing. The film also generated controversy because of its “adult” language, words that had never been heard on-screen before, which shocked audiences who watched the torrents of words, peppered with obscenities, spewing from the boozy battler Taylor/Martha.
Virginia Woolf, for those who haven’t seen it, is a grueling battle of wits between a professor (George, played by Richard Burton) and his wife (Martha) during a long, dark, merciless night of boozing and vicious mind games. Their two guests (a young professor and his wife), whom they use as targets and as their “audience,” become entangled in the verbal nastiness. George and Martha have long developed a private, secret fantasy that they have a son. The shattering climax of the battle is when George threatens and then follows through with his intention to reveal their secret to their guests, thus rendering Martha’s precious, carefully nurtured illusion null and void. Their fantasy was only sustainable if it would not be shared with others.
Despite the grim verbal battle, there are many funny lines in the movie. George and Martha, after all, are very adept with cunning wit and devastating words – words that scratch and cut like knives and wound like bullets. They’re pros at the art of domestic verbal warfare. And yet, under the cruelty are some very tender, moving moments between these two weary warriors. Like all great dramas, the movie is filled with “pity and terror,” as the ancient Greek dramatists and philosophers called it.
Virginia Woolf was filmed in stark-contrast black-and-white, with large close-ups of the actors spewing their vitriol. All four performances are riveting, jaw-dropping, unforgettable. After nearly 50 years, that stunning movie still packs a punch.
And so does The Graduate, Nichols’ second movie released in 1968, starring a movie newcomer named Dustin Hoffman, giving what is one of the best – and funniest – performances of all time. In just two weeks in the summer of ’68, I went to that movie five times. The more I saw it, the more I laughed. Goofy, mixed-up, angst-ridden, awkward Benjamin Braddock (Hoffman) – the total schlepp being seduced by sultry Mrs. Robinson (the great Ann Bancroft). It’s got to be the funniest seduction scene in movie history.
The Graduate was another brilliant coup from Nichols.
A sure sign that you have just seen that rare thing – a truly great film – is when you walk out of the theater with the movie filling your mind, and for days you can’t get that movie experience out of your head. That is how I felt for many days after seeing those two completely original movies. Both are in a class by themselves.
Nichols made so many other good movies, like Silkwood and Working Girl. He had an impressive range from grim drama to fizzy comedy. He made a few clunkers, too. However, if he had made only two movies – Virginia Woolf and The Graduate – his cinematic immortality would have been ensured.
If you haven’t seen those films, check them out on Netflix. You’re in for a treat – no, wait, two great big treats.