Mike Nichols was already a legend when he directed his first film, the 1966 adaptation of Edward Albee's Who's Afraid Of Virginia Woolf. As a member of Chicago's Compass Players, he had been at the forefront of the movement towards improvisational comedy, and as a result of that he formed a duet with Elaine May that quite simply helped change the form forever. From there he easily segued to directing for the theater, where he was responsible for, among other things, the original production of Neil Simon's The Odd Couple.
But all of Nichols' work to that point had involved connecting with a live audience. Film is a different medium, requiring a great deal more subtlety, and here he was directing a theater piece on celluloid, starring two of the biggest ham actors of all time, Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. There was almost no way this could work.
He knocked it out of the park.
Of course he did. Mike Nichols, who has died unexpectedly at the age of 83, was a professional. Yet he was kind of an odd duck as a filmmaker, since he was never quite an auteur. He never wrote his own scripts, and his films were often adaptations of plays or novels. There was no difference in his mind between directing for the theater or directing movies. The job was always to find the best way to interpret somebody else's material.
When the material was strong--The Graduate, Catch 22, Carnal Knowledge, Charlie Wilson's War--it inspired him to amazing heights, to create films that had tremendous influence of everyone from Hal Ashby to Steven Soderbergh to Wes Anderson (who gave Nichols a "Special Thanks" credit on Fantastic Mr. Fox). His mastery of the form could be breathtaking.
But then again, there's Day Of The Dolphin. And Heartburn and Working Girl and--shudder--Regarding Henry. You could probably argue that Nichols made the best possible movies he could from such awful material, but that doesn't change the fact that they weren't worth doing in the first place. Most of Nichols' worst work came in the eighties and early nineties, admittedly a bad time for the sort of literary, mid-budget film he did best, but surely he could have found better things to do than directing Wolf.
But he rebounded, with The Birdcage and Primary Colors, and a fine adaptation of Tony Kushner's Angels In America for HBO. Plus more work for the theater, and occasional reunions with Elaine May. And he'd return to Who's Afraid Of Virginia Woolf, which he'd later direct for the stage and even played the lead in one production. And why not? It's the quintessential Mike Nichols work--caustic, cruel and way more sentimental than it dares admit.