Goodbye to Half of Nichols and May

Nichols and MayAs you have probably heard, Mike Nichols died on Wednesday. Much has been made of his career as a film director. And he did direct some great films. Of particular note to me are: Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Catch-22, and perhaps oddly, Primary Colors. There are a lot of other fine films too. The one film I’ve never really appreciated is the one that people are most impressed with, The Graduate. For its time, it probably was great, but I have found it impossible to integrate it into its time. And I just don’t think it stands up to In Cold Blood, Bonnie and Clyde, or Cool Hand Luke. And that doesn’t even consider films outside the country like Samurai Rebellion, Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Oedipus Rex, or most especially La Chinoise. But that isn’t to take anything away from Nichols.

What I most remember him for was his sketch comedy work with Elaine May. When I was a teen, I found a whole bunch of records that must have belonged to by parents. It included most especially Shelley Berman and Mort Sahl. And that introduced me to other more edgy acts like Lenny Bruce — and Nichols and May. Of course, I had remembered comedy duos while growing up like Rowan and Martin, Stiller and Meara, and Burns and Schreiber. The two latter groups came out of Second City, just like Nichols and May. But none of them — funny as they were — compared to Nichols and May in terms of brilliance.

I’m very fond of this following “watercooler” routine. It involves the game show controversy, which you probably know from the film Quiz Show. But it is amazingly fresh because we are still as easily distracted by nonsense as ever. I remember during the OJ trial how people were so wrapped up in that, despite the fact that it had nothing to do with anyone’s life. One line really stands out, “If there was a war tomorrow, I couldn’t think about it.” The reason that the networks didn’t cover Obama’s immigration address last night was because they didn’t want to interrupt the prime time lineup. I mean, just imagine if Grey’s Anatomy had been delayed by a half-hour? Well, I suppose that would have given people something to talk about at the watercooler this morning.

Anyway, it is sad that Mike Nichols is dead. There was really no warning. He just died of a heart attack. He was 83, but that isn’t that old at this point. Still, I’ve always thought that Elaine May was the greater talent. She wrote two of Nichols’ better films, The Birdcage and Primary Colors. She also wrote and directed two comedy classics: Mikey and Nicky and Ishtar. The second film is not only great but an excellent example of how film critics are useless. Check out the review of Rotten Tomatoes and you will see the usual: a bunch of critics who have decided to not like a film and come up with reasons to justify it, “The performances are endearing enough, the pacing is actually quite crisp and there is no shortage of zany silliness in the story. It just never gels.”

Clearly, I will never be able to separate Mike Nichols from Elaine May. And now half of it has died. It’s sad. You really should run out and get The Birdcage for two hours of comedic genius. But I can’t offer you that. But I can offer you something just as good. The following video is from the American Masters series: “Mike Nichols and Elaine May — Take Two.” Well over half of it is just them performing. It’s great fun:

It is sad that Mike Nichols is dead; long live Elaine May!

4 thoughts on “Goodbye to Half of Nichols and May

  1. “Primary Colors” might be my favorite Nichols film. It’s so much better than the book. It eliminates the sleazy “what’s true and what isn’t” aspects of the book to make the story not about the “real” Clintons but how psycho-guessing the motivations of political figures like the Clintons is more important to our politics now than, say, the laws they might pass once in office. It’s my favorite Travolta performance to watch, for sure.

    Nichols’s movies always hovered for me on this fine line between too earnest and too cynical. It was an interesting line but it makes a lot of his films emotionally unsatisfying for me. “Primary Colors” is one that has the satire, the bite, the humor, but doesn’t in the end feel defeatist. I’d throw “Postcards From The Edge” in there, too. Never a dull filmmaker. (I never saw “The Day Of The Dolphin,” that might be a hoot!)

    • He was a far better director than most. Mostly, he was a good actor’s director. But in later years, he got a bit too much into directing “technique.” But I don’t ever recall seeing a film of his that wasn’t decent. And that says a lot. I’ve really been wanting to watch The Birdcage again. I haven’t seen it since it was in the theater.

  2. Here’s an interesting, if typically florid, piece by Wesley Morris on Nichols:

    I’d forgotten that Nichols directed “Charlie Wilson’s War.” The politics in that movie are a bit of a mess, but it has the best spy-guy performance I’ve ever seen in Philip Hoffman’s CIA dude. He’s not a Bond or even a Bill Nighy Worricker. He’s a vulgar schlub who has dirt on his international contacts and uses it. It’s a great role, and thanks to Nichols for making it happen.

    • I noticed that too when researching this. I didn’t see it because I think Charlie Wilson is kind of an idiot. But it looked good. I will probably watch it sometime soon.

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