For the past 37 years, I have received knowing smirks from everyone I meet--and Mike Nichols is to blame. Whenever I tell strangers that I am Washington reporter for "Rubber & Plastics News," their lips curl into a mocking grin, and one word explodes from their lips: "PLASTICS!"
I could blame Dustin Hoffman just as much, but Nichols was the genius behind "The Graduate," his second film, which won him an Oscar and remained the signature work of his career. Given the fecundity of that career, it's actually rather amazing that "The Graduate" maintained its high place in his resume. Nichols' first film was "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?", which won Elizabeth Taylor her second Oscar, and after "The Graduate" he went on to direct a glorious roll call of hits including "Catch-22," "Carnal Knowledge," "Silkwood," "Heartburn," "Working Girl," "Biloxi Blues," "The Birdcage," "Primary Colors," "Charlie Wilson's War" and the HBO version of "Angels in America." His stage career was, if anything, even more distinguished, beginning with the original production of "Barefoot in the Park" and continuing through the 2012 revival of "Death of a Salesman" starring Philip Seymour Hoffman.
Yet "The Graduate" can honestly be said to encapsulate everything that made Mike Nichols great. Even more than capturing the spirit of its times, "The Graduate" presented, like all of Nichols' best work, the tragicomic absurdity of existence. All you need to remember to confirm that is the final image of "The Graduate," with Dustin Hoffman and Katharine Ross sitting in the back of the bus--Ross still in the wedding dress she wore to marry someone else. They are elated, victorious, terrified, and wondering what the hell they are going to do next.
This same absurdity is rampant in the work Nichols did with his longtime writing and performing partner, Elaine May. (I'm old enough to remember the animated commercials Nichols and May voiced for the now-defunct Wiedemann Beer brand; I would love to know if they are available anywhere.) Their classic "$65 Funeral Sketch"--in which the grieving Nichols is eventually broken down by the maddeningly, inappropriately efficient funeral home secretary played by May--is a perfect and hilarious snapshot of how the exigencies of business co-opt EVERYTHING. (John Cleese and Graham Chapman ramped up the gruesomeness in their own, later funeral sketch, but they owed an obvious debt to Nichols and May.)
In a 2012 NPR interview, Nichols explained his attitude toward directing. It isn't enough to have the actors speak the words, he said; they have to express the meaning behind the words. The greatest plays, he added, can never be exhausted for the meaning behind the words. Mike Nichols lived by that idea, and his body of work is proof of that. He was one of the greats, and he will be sorely missed.