A Critic Remembers Mike Nichols's Ear for Language and Eye for Talent

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Mike Nichols 

People often talk about a movie director’s eye. But what Mike Nichols, who passed away on Wednesday at the age of 83, had more than anyone else was a director’s ear. He was the keenest of listeners. English was his second language (he was born in Germany and immigrated to the US at age 7), and he made cabaret, movie, and Broadway audiences listen to its nuances. In all of his creative endeavors, the peculiar cadences of tragedy, deceit, and comedy, were often stirred together and poured into one potent cocktail of a sentence.

Take that famous scene in Working Girl, the 1988 comedy (reportedly script-doctored by Elaine May, his partner in standup comedy). Melanie Griffith, a working-class girl from Staten Island, returns home on the ferry from her secretarial job on Wall Street. She opens her apartment door to see her fiancé, Alec Baldwin, in flagrante with one of her friends. A beat of horrified silence. Baldwin looks at Griffith with the innocence of an altar boy and says, with a smile, “I can explain.” Betrayal with a punchline.

Or take that scene in The Graduate when Dustin Hoffman comes to a hotel for an assignation with Anne Bancroft, wife of his father’s partner. People are drifting in the lobby for a wedding when Hoffman checks in at the front desk. The clerk asks, “Here for an affair, sir?” A simultaneously benign and paranoia-inducing question.

Related: From ‘Virginia Woolf’ to ‘Charlie Wilson’s War’: Where to Watch the Films of Mike Nichols Online

Not only did Nichols have a heavenly ear — he also possessed a nose for talent. He launched the careers of Hoffman, Robert Redford (in the Broadway triumph Barefoot in the Park), and Whoopi Goldberg (he directed her one-woman Broadway show). He could make plays cinematic on both the big screen (Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?) and the small (WitAngels in America). Likewise, he could make plays from Annie to Death of a Salesman cinematic on stage.

Nichols had a wildly diverse filmography, from the corrosive marital drama Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, his rookie film starring Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton; to the whistleblower tragedy Silkwood with Meryl Streep; to his under-appreciated political satire Charlie Wilson’s War with Tom Hanks, Julia Roberts and Phillip Seymour Hoffman. It was so diverse, it’s sometimes hard to see a unifying theme, but I’d submit that the thing he returned to again and again was duplicity — both of the sexual and political kind — and how it’s communicated and acted out. He ushered in a new candor along with New Hollywood — just another of his many achievements.

Related: Hollywood Mourns the Loss of Mike Nichols

Photo credit: Getty Images