Missing Mike Nichols

The esteemed Mike Nichols died late last year at the age of 83.  At the time I didn’t write anything about it.  Nichols left behind a body of work that most anybody in show business would kill for: this is a man who came out of the gate in the late 1960s with the one-two punch of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and The Graduate, ended his career in the early 2000s having helped make HBO Films a major player, and won an Oscar, a Grammy, four Emmys and nine Tonys along the way.  Even so, he was always a filmmaker that I respected more than I loved, and while I was sorry to hear of his passing I wasn’t moved to reflect on it.   

This week, watching Nichols’ Primary Colors (1998) for the first time, it struck me just how much his loss means.  This film—which is one of those that I’d been meaning to watch for years and had never gotten around to seeing until now—is a particularly fine example of Nichols’ genius for directing actors (Emma Thompson and Kathy Bates in particular, but also great bit players like Caroline Aaron and Larry Hagman and Alison Janney); for honoring a crackerjack script (it helps when the script is by Elaine May); and for handling the whole production with a professionalism and an intelligence that have come to feel old-fashioned.  Primary Colors may not be visionary cinema, but it’s the kind of well-made film that doesn’t get made much anymore, perhaps because Nichols roots were in the theater, where it's harder than it is in the movies to pass off something that's not well-made for something that is.  You can virtually feel the intelligence of the people on the production team coming through the screen, and you’re aware of how many smart decisions those people have made in order for the movie to work as well as it does.  Nichols’ style may look invisible, but it’s there in the economy and poise and elegance of the films.  Like Billy Wilder, he made comedy look easy.  I miss him already.

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