Virginia Woolf, and The Graduate the year after, were (along with Bonnie and Clyde) the key early films in what would become the New Hollywood movement — pictures that upended cinematic traditions, altered standards for subject matter and language, and challenged audiences with new approaches to story, genre, and character. The Graduate would become the touchstone film for a generation of young people who steadfastly rejected the goals and ideals of their parents; Virginia Woolf would change forever the previously idealized way movies portrayed the transactions between men and women, which he’d begun exploring in Nichols and May. (That film, and Carnal Knowledge five years later, were the forerunners to the unforgivingly nihilistic relationship plays and films of David Mamet, David Rabe, and Neil LaBute; in 2004, Nichols would return to the form to make Closer, and prove that he could make a meaner, nastier movie than any of them.)
Those two films cast such a long shadow (over not only Nichols’ career but cinema in general) that they tend to dominate the conversation about him. But he continued to produce work that was not only excellent, but innovative. On stage, he directed the original Broadway productions of Streamers, Hurlyburly, Death and the Maiden, and Spamalot, as well as Whoopi Goldberg’s star-making 1984 one-woman show and well-received revivals of The Seagull, The Country Girl, and Death of a Salesman. His 1970 adaptation of Catch-22 was overshadowed by M*A*S*H, but has been subsequently recognized as a daringly bizarre attempt to translate an all-but-unadaptable literary classic (Steven Soderbergh is one of its most vocal admirers). His 1983 film Silkwood influenced decades of “based on a true story” social activism dramas. 1988’s Working Girl remains one of the defining films of the go-go ‘80s, a comic Wall Street that savvily comments on big business and gender roles. Primary Colors was one of the most thoughtful and quietly complex political films of the 1990s, still influencing how we think about campaigns in general and Bill Clinton in particular.
But perhaps most importantly, there are his 1996 adaptation of La Cage Aux Folles, The Birdcage, and his 2003 television rendering of Tony Kushner’s Angels in America, two vitally important moments for LGBTQ representation onscreen. Sure, The Birdcage was just a goofy comedy, a remake of an old French farce, but it was a mainstream studio production stocked with movie stars — and, lest we forget what actually gets things done in Hollywood, it was a tremendously profitable effort, grossing $185 million worldwide on a $31 million budget and proving that stories about gay characters didn’t have to be relegated to the art house. It played in Middle America, at a moment when that audience wasn’t always receptive to those themes. And with Angels, he took one of the most challenging works of modern theater, stocked it with famous faces like Al Pacino and Meryl Streep, and made an HBO two-parter that was more intelligent, powerful, and moving than anything in theaters — and that asked important questions and dramatized vital moments of the gay experience in America.
I have a vivid memory of seeing Spamalot on Broadway, thumbing through the Playbill, and settling on Nichols’ bio. He was such a quiet professional, lacking the flashy persona of many of his contemporaries, that he didn’t often get his due as one of our best directors and one of our finest artists. Yet looking over that long list of credits, spanning from nightclubs to stage to film to television, was awe-inspiring. Here was a man who’d played key roles in some of the most important moments in contemporary culture, just doing his work and producing nothing short of excellence. “Not a bad career,” I thought to myself, as the lights dimmed and the stage announcements began. I put away my program and sat back in my seat, eager to see what Mike Nichols was going to do next.