Everyone eventually finds out that Mrs. Robinson was indeed trying to seduce Benjamin Braddock in The Graduate, and some are privy to Alice’s secret in Closer. But few have a clue about the scandal surrounding Karen’s death in Silkwood. These iconic films, however, all directed by Mike Nichols, remain decidedly unshrouded in obscurity.
MoMA’s two-week retrospective of director Mike Nichols’s films—including the three mentioned above—offers viewers the chance to appreciate 17 films spanning more than 40 years of Nichols’ legendary career. Screenings include the rarely shown classics Catch-22, based on Joseph Heller’s cult novel, as well as the film that made Jack Nicholson famous—Carnal Knowledge. Other films include Nichols’ first, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, the recent Charlie Wilson’s War, and the lauded HBO series Angels in America.
Retrospective organizer Rajendra Roy told the New York Times that Nichols is “an example of how popular cinema can be vision based.” In the present heyday of shallow, lucrative flicks like Hannah Montana: The Movie and The Haunting in Connecticut, it seems that a director’s only long-term vision is profit, not a thought-provoking product. Not so for Nichols—his films attempt to provide not only pop entertainment through action and sex, but also stimulation of the mind.
In addition to Nichols’ film screenings, the retrospective includes an informal discussion with Nichols and a number of his collaborators, including performer Elaine May and screenwriters Nora Ephron and Buck Henry. Each collaborated with Nichols on some of his major works—May on his Broadway career, Ephron on Heartburn and Silkwood, and Henry on The Graduate.
Born in Berlin as Michael Igor Peschkowsky, Nichols began his career as a comedian. He composed one half of a Broadway comedy act with Elaine May titled “An Evening with Mike Nichols and Elaine May.” Splitting with May in 1961, Nichols began directing
Broadway performances, including the widely acclaimed The Odd Couple, and later, feature films. Symbolic of his immense success, Nichols has won every major American entertainment award—an Oscar, a Grammy, four Emmys and eight Tony awards.
Nichols’ films have significantly influenced American culture in general and film culture in particular. In 1996, The Graduate was inducted into the National Film Registry, a registry of films with cultural, aesthetic, or historical significance preserved in the Library of Congress.
Nichols set the film industry aflame with Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, a case study of an older and younger couple based on the play by Edward Albee. Drinks and genteel discussion between the two couples quickly disintegrate, the façade of bourgeoisie perfection is razed, and vitriol spills forth from all the spouses.
The film was radical in the ‘60s, due to a then-unconventional level of sexual innuendo and profanity. Nevertheless, Virginia Woolf was approved for moviegoers despite violating the strict Production Code censorship of the time. The approval of Virginia Woolf was a significant step in the abolishment of the stringent Production Code in favor of the well-known MPAA film rating system implemented in 1968, only two years later.
Nora Ephron recently called Nichols’ movies “really smart movies about smart people. They’re about something.” Something present-day moviegoers sadly see too little of.