Mike Nichols’ life in the trenches

Special to The Times

From the very beginning of his moviemaking career, director Mike Nichols has displayed an extraordinary knack for knowing what the adult moviegoing public of America wants to see, even before said public knows it wants to see it. Given the indifference and/or hostility the American moviegoing public, adult and otherwise, has shown to movies that have even a peripheral connection to the current war in Iraq, his zeitgeist-assessment talents ought to comfort the money men behind “Charlie Wilson’s War,” Nichols’ latest film.

“War,” which stars Tom Hanks, Julia Roberts, and Philip Seymour Hoffman and opens Friday, is a fleet, witty, not-quite satire about a real-life maverick Texas congressman’s campaign to fund and arm the mujahedin resistance to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in the early to mid-’80s. Given that even “The Kingdom,” a relatively rah-rah action flick about the U.S.’s Middle East travails, failed to scare up even $50 million at the box office, fleet and witty might not cut much ice. But one shouldn’t underestimate the Nichols touch.

After all, moviegoers weren’t actively clamoring for a picture defining an emerging generation when Nichols sprang “The Graduate” on them in 1967.


The Berlin-born Nichols, whose family emigrated to the U.S. in 1939, had already made a name for himself on the stage, creating an almost instantly legendary comedy team with future filmmaker Elaine May in the mid-’50s, and moving to Broadway, he directed, among other productions, Neil Simon’s wildly popular “Barefoot in the Park” and “The Odd Couple” in the early ‘60s.

Hollywood beckoned about that time, and Nichols made his film debut with an adaptation of Edward Albee’s “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?,” with Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor in the leads. The piece was an envelope-pusher on Broadway and Nichols was determined to keep it so for the screen, but the picture is mostly notable for demonstrating a particular Nichols knack that goes hand in hand with his other one: “Woolf” -- even more than Taylor’s Oscar-winning performance, in 1960’s “Butterfield 8” -- proved that the movie megastar could “really act.” Ever since, Nichols has been coaxing sometimes surprising performances from movie folk better known as stars than actors -- Ann-Margret in 1971’s “Carnal Knowledge,” Cher in 1983’s “Silkwood,” and Melanie Griffith in 1988’s “Working Girl.”

“The Graduate” itself seemed to come out of nowhere. (That despite its being adapted from a well-regarded novel by Charles Webb.) Nichols’ ultra-modern account of disaffected young Benjamin Braddock and his romantic entanglements with a girl next door and her predatory mother catapulted Dustin Hoffman to stardom and became the “It” movie of 1967. If you hadn’t seen “The Graduate,” you were out of the conversation -- not just about movies but also about American culture and politics. “One word -- plastics” became the ubitquitous mantra to sum up the superficiality encroaching on countless suburban lives.

Nichols’ success made him the first director to get a $1-million fee -- for his “Graduate” follow-up, an adaptation of Joseph Heller’s “Catch 22.” An even more ambitious picture than “The Graduate,” it was either too much, too soon, or wrong place, wrong time. “Carnal Knowledge” also fizzled with audiences, but the character study of sexual revolution fallout holds up; the harsh light it casts on male mating habits is still bracing.

In a 2000 profile in the New Yorker by John Lahr, Nichols describes the waning inspiration that struck him in the years after his steep ascent. He also reveals that in the ‘80s he struggled with a Halcion dependency that induced a breakdown. Those not in the know, however, might look at his filmography and see him making the switch from enfant terrible to eminence grise with a break -- he made no films between 1975 and 1983 -- but without a hitch.

With ‘83’s “Silkwood,” he served up a fact-based thriller that ran on star power. He celebrated aspirations to yuppiedom with 1988’s “Working Girl,” then turned around and delivered a ruthlessly heart-tugging money-isn’t-everything parable with 1991’s “Regarding Henry.” He sold the case for gay rights by being funny about it with 1996’s “The Birdcage,” which grossed almost $200 million worldwide, practically unheard of for an R-rated comedy. His ease with topicality made him a natural for “Primary Colors,” the scandalous novel of an even slicker Willie (John Travolta) than Bill Clinton himself. Nichols’ second-wind golden touch extended to the stage as well, as with the Monty-Python-meets-Broadway smash “Spamalot,” which he directed.


In his comeback, Nichols’ onetime edge was replaced by a born showman’s confidence, and the pictures he’s made in that time seem to bear out critic Andrew Sarris’ 1968 assessment of the director in the book “The American Cinema,” written when Nichols had only two films under his belt: “No director since Orson Welles had started off with such a bang, but Welles had followed his own road, and that made all the difference. Nichols seems too shrewd to ever get off the main highway.”

In the current phase of his career, the now-76-year-old Nichols takes a near-defiant pride in his ability to stay on that highway. And even while it touches on a delicate subject, as the main highway goes, “Charlie Wilson’s War” belongs in the HOV lane; its script is by Aaron Sorkin, of “A Few Good Men” and TV’s “The West Wing.” And then of course there are Hanks and Roberts, two huge draws who’ve never acted together before.

And while other Middle East-themed pictures toe a relatively generic antiwar line, “Wilson’s” politics are somewhat more, shall we say, nuanced; the picture in fact looks kindly on the real Wilson’s actions. It celebrates American humanitarianism in a direct, unpretentious way, by focusing on the good hearts of its hardly picture-perfect characters; sure, Hanks’ Wilson is a bit too much of a ladies’ man and drinker, and yeah, Roberts’ millionairess Joanne Herring’s a bit of a proselytizing two-face. But their quirks make them fun movie characters. In fact, until a perfectly placed stinger in its coda, Nichols’ film is a deliberate crowd pleaser, from a director who knows how to pick ‘em.