Hollywood’s A-List turns out to celebrate Mike Nichols at AFI tribute

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If it’s true that a man can be judged by the company he keeps, Mike Nichols must be a whale of a guy.

The gala to present the 38th AFI Life Achievement Award to the director on Thursday evening was so star-studded, it could have vied with the Oscars for sheer wattage. As the director of such films as “The Graduate,” “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?,” “Carnal Knowledge” and “Silkwood” looked on with his wife, Diane Sawyer, a steady parade of Hollywood A-listers — several of whom were AFI Life Achievement Award-winners or had seen their careers launched by his films — stood up to make warm and often hilarious remarks: Dustin Hoffman, Harrison Ford, Meryl Streep, Julia Roberts, Tom Hanks, Warren Beatty, Annette Bening, Elaine May, AFI Board of Trustees Chairman Howard Stringer, Calista Flockhart, Candice Bergen, Shirley MacLaine, Natalie Portman, Cher, Nora Ephron, Aaron Sorkin, Kevin Spacey, Robin Williams and Emma Thompson.

And that didn’t even include Eric Idle performing a song from the Nichols-directed Broadway hit “Spamalot” — while wearing wings that referenced Nichols’ HBO work “Angels in America” — or such distinguished audience members as Oprah Winfrey, Morgan Freeman, Tim Curry and Wallace Shawn.


As last year’s AFI honoree, Michael Douglas, quipped, “Where the hell were all of you last year?”

But the ambiance at the Sony Pictures Studios soundstage, where Judy Garland once walked down the Yellow Brick Road, had a couple of differences from the Academy Awards: The tribute for the 78-year-old was more intimate and, as Helen Mirren said while waiting for her car after the festivities, “there was lots of love in the room.”

How much?

Enough to warrant a surprise appearance by Simon & Garfunkel performing “Mrs. Robinson” from 1967’s “The Graduate,” on the eve of the pair’s next concert tour.

Even more surprising? Nichols lured Lakers fan Jack Nicholson, who starred in his 1970s movies “Carnal Knowledge” and “The Fortune,” even though Game 4 of the NBA Finals was on that night. (Nicholson appeared midway through the evening.) The actor capped off stream-of-consciousness remarks about oysters and inadequate pay with the apt conclusion that he was “feeling pretty good — a little bit Jackie, a little bit Norman Maine,” alluding to 1954’s “A Star Is Born” and James Mason’s scene as a drunk, fallen matinee idol disturbing an event honoring his wife.

Indeed, several intriguing snippets of film history were revealed in moving moments throughout the evening.

Streep, who appeared in the director’s “Postcards From the Edge,” “Silkwood” and “Heartburn,” told the black-tie crowd that Nichols’ nickname on the set is “God.” And she announced she’d recently discovered that, like Albert Einstein, she was distantly related to him. “Five to seven generations ago, we shared a common mother,” she said. “Mike was disappointed that she was common.”

Hoffman disclosed the creative machinery that produced the memorable scene in “The Graduate” in which his character, Benjamin Braddock, first goes to a hotel room with his parents’ friend, Mrs. Robinson (Anne Bancroft). In it, he stood at a distance holding her right breast while she obliviously rubbed a spot from her clothes.

During rehearsal at Nichols’ suggestion, Hoffman re-created the first time he ever touched a woman’s breast. He hit on a vocalist who was in blackface because she was about to sing Al Jolson’s “Mammy,” and he stood at a distance so he wouldn’t get makeup on his clothes. Bancroft improvised rubbing her clothing, which made Hoffman laugh so hard he had to walk away and bang his head against the wall. Nichols put that in the film.

“You’re a great artist down to your toes,” Hoffman said.

In presenting the award, Streep explained why Nichols was able to attract his pick of actors, writers and composers. Working on his films, she said, felt like “an impromptu gathering of the most interesting, inventive people in the world,” and his focus on his actors “makes you feel you are the only person in the world, and that makes you believe in yourself.”

“Over the years, many people have asked me what makes Mike a great director,” she said. “All I really, really remember is being happy, just happy and laughing really hard even after a difficult day.”

As Nichols accepted the award, he voiced his gratitude to the many people who’ve worked on his movies. “If I thanked everyone who contributed over the years,” he said, “we’d be here until Miley Cyrus received an AFI Life Achievement Award.”

Also honored was cinematographer Janusz Kaminski. The event will air on TV Land on June 26.

-- Irene Lacher


Photos: Red carpet arrivals at AFI Life Achievement Award honoring Mike NicholsPhotos: AFI Lifetime Achievement Award honoring Mike Nichols

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