The spirit of Mike Nichols lives on in this year’s awards season
Mike Nichols’ death in November was a shock in part because the Oscar, Tony and Emmy Award-winning director — he also won a Grammy, making for a rare EGOT — had come to seem like someone who would simply always be there, an immovable part of the cultural landscape. That also partly meant he was someone who had long been easy to take for granted.
And though his body of films is notable for how extremely well so many of them have aged, only improving with time, he has also emerged as something of a quiet, key presence hovering over this year’s awards-season films.
Whether it’s intentional or not, a number of films in the awards lineup bear traces of similarity to his work. As an evening’s event may be dedicated in tribute to someone’s recent passing, it is as if somehow these recent films themselves have lined up in salute to Nichols.
His movies had a way of seeming smart but not off-putting, self-aware without being preciously self-regarding. The way that films like “Birdman,” “The Grand Budapest Hotel” and “Boyhood” all integrate their style into the fabric of the storytelling is similar to Nichols’ offhand sophistication, the director so often making it look effortless.
Nichols was also a wizard at capturing the psychic and emotional currents of the moment his films were made in, from the generational anxieties of “The Graduate” in 1967 to the self-defeating political idealism of “Primary Colors” in 1998. So less obvious parallels to Nichols can be read into movies such as “Gone Girl,” “Selma” or “American Sniper” for the way they seem to be talking to audiences directly about the here and now in ways so many recent studio films seem purposely averse to.
It is unlikely that all of these films’ creators consciously had Mike Nichols on their minds, which perhaps just goes to show how synonymous his work is with upscale, intelligent moviemaking. Once you start to think about it, it can actually become a fun parlor game to wonder what the Nichols version of “The Imitation Game” or “The Judge” or “Inherent Vice” or “Men, Women & Children” might look like.
“Birdman” is the film that bears the obvious marks of Nichols’ influence, in part because it is set within the Broadway theater world that was such a part of Nichols’ milieu but also because its cast and director have explicitly referred to him on multiple occasions.
Director Alejandro G. Iñárritu has been telling an anecdote that he had lunch with Nichols not long before filming began on “Birdman.” As Iñárritu began to explain the film’s inside-out storytelling, frenetic pace and ambitious, complicated staging, Nichols paused and told him not to do it before then encouraging him on.
Edward Norton, who is in “Birdman” as well as “Grand Budapest,” spoke warmly of Nichols during an appearance on David Letterman’s talk show shortly after the news of Nichols’ death broke. Recalling meeting Nichols while shooting his first film, Norton noted, “Every great actor and director and writer you’ve ever known at some point went to Mike for advice and got it.”
Norton brought up Nichols and his influence even before his passing, such as during The Times’ recent televised “Hollywood Sessions” conversations or when, in talking to Times reporter Rebecca Keegan a few weeks before Nichols’ death, he noted that he hadn’t followed a director’s specific suggestions because “he’s no Mike Nichols.”
The gentle, patient humanity of Richard Linklater’s “Boyhood” also seems to echo the spirit of Nichols’ filmmaking, though it is easy to imagine Nichols adding rougher edges or a slightly less wide-eyed view of its characters’ 12-year journey. In “Working Girl” or “Silkwood,” for example, Nichols always took seriously the aspirations of his female characters to make something more of their lives, an attitude also evident in the struggles of the mother played by Patricia Arquette.
It’s not entirely out there to picture director Wes Anderson preparing for “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” with its outsize cast and bustling locations, by watching Nichols’ “Catch-22.” That film likewise had a sprawling international cast and was stuffed with fleet, dazzling camera work. As a precursor to Anderson, Nichols treated his air-base set as something of a full-size diorama, as the camera might look past arriving aircraft to land upon a character in a building across the runway or, as in one of its most famous gags, present an elaborate crash landing as a piece of background.
For a remarkable five decades Nichols made films that were not so much timely as informed by their moment, seeming to capture the enthusiasms and anxieties of their times. From “Carnal Knowledge” in the 1970s, “Working Girl” in the ‘80s to his final film, “Charlie Wilson’s War” in the ‘00s, Nichols’ work ages remarkably well and seems to provide a series of cultural snapshots. (And that list leaves out plenty — Nichols’ filmography goes deep.)
If Nichols’ knack was for creating films that could often downplay their own sophistication — such as the complicated mix of door-slamming farce and political intrigue in “Charlie Wilson’s War” — it has made so many of his films all the more lasting.
It was uncanny how he was able time and again to both examine and define the cultural tides of the day, just as the recent “Gone Girl” became a conversation starter regarding the state of contemporary marriage, “Selma” has engaged thinking about race and political change in America past and present, or “American Sniper” seems to have captured a recent sense of wounded pride.
Though he was perhaps being a bit coy, Nichols himself seemed surprised by this lasting element of his work. In a 2004 onstage conversation recorded at the Film Society of Lincoln Center in New York, he spoke about how it is that his films so often seemed to capture the spirit of a moment. “These things just happen,” he noted. “The times sort of enter something and decide what it’s going to be.”
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