Thursday, November 20, 2014

Look Around You / All You See Are Sympathetic Eyes

This is my favorite bit from The Graduate, and within it much of why I so admired Mike Nichols.

First, that he was such a meticulous observer of character, and more than that, such a celebrator of the slightly off-center, the eccentric, the memorable.  What other director would set up such an elaborate little sequence just to take his protagonist out of the story for a moment, have him share his befuddlement (to him an existential crisis; to Miss DeWitte just another passing bemusement) with the hosts of a genteel evening out?

Second, that he gloried in and glorified his female characters, letting them be fully human, generously endowed with virtues and faults alike - and here, in miniature, is that gift, just a couple of shots and a few throwaway lines creating a little sketch that, however slight, puts Miss DeWitte and Mrs. Singleman in the company of titans like Martha, Mrs. Robinson, or the remarkable roles he gave to Miss Streep to play.

Finally, that he let music play such a prominent role in his films, the studiously generic party music here as much a character in The Graduate's hotel scenes as the various staff and guests - the hapless Singleman family chief among them - whom Benjamin encounters.  The Graduate is full of music, of course, but so are most of Nichols's films; I'm especially fond of his work with Carly Simon in the '80s.  "Let the River Run" turned New York Harbor into a key location in Working Girl, like the divider between the Real and Green Worlds in Shakespearean comedy, while Heartburn's "Coming Around Again" untangled Nora Ephron's tragicomedy into something both elegiac and oddly encouraging: yes, one love fails, but love survives.  On film, Nichols never made a full-on musical, but few directors had more music in them - who else could have deployed "We Are Family" to such gleefully anarchic effect as did Nichols at the end of The Birdcage?

All of that made him a central player almost from the moment he first appeared, with major Broadway hits spanning six decades and era-defining films in three, along with genuinely accomplished ones for two more (later Nichols, on film, is to an extent lesser Nichols - but then there is, for television, Angels in America, which did as well by Kushner's vast, knotty, unfilmable play as one could possibly imagine)

Nichols's going on to Fabulon makes me especially sad, as he was one of those public figures, New Yorkers all in one way or another, who I believe really helped me shape what I will grandly hazard calling my world view.  Not just in the work, although that was key, but in his and their way of living, their associations with one another as the other great and good of Manhattan Island, how he and they served as exemplars of a very particular kind of Good Life:  from generations before, people like Dorothy Parker and Will Cuppy; from my parents' era, big guns like Comden and Green and all their collaborators, Walter and Jean Kerr, Moss and Kitty Hart; in the younger set, upstarts like Fran Lebowitz and Frank Rich.  Witty; literate; well-living - admirable.

In my New York days I had glancing associations, one way and another, with that now so quickly vanishing beau monde, and Nichols and his glamorous anchorwoman of a wife were among the people who sometimes came and went in the gracious, high-ceilinged rooms where this friend or that employer or another would have a party.  I got to see that world in action, and it was all my fancy painted it and more.  Almost as glamorous as a party hosted by Miss DeWitte...


  1. Such an amazing body of work! He will truly be missed.

  2. Speaking of that clip, I adore Marion Lorne. But I found it a bit eerie. Marion played Aunt Clara, the sweet but befuddled witch, on Bewitched. She died shortly after appearing The Graduate and was replaced with Alice Ghostley, who is also in this scene.

  3. A man whose career went all the way from "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf" to "The Birdcage", and from "The Graduate" to "Working Girl" had to be recognised as a genius! As for "never made a full-on musical" - he directed "Spamalot" which, albeit only on the stage, was nevertheless a worldwide smash hit....

    Here's to you, Mr Nichols! Jx

    1. Of course, he also gave us Annie, so he does have some things to answer for...

  4. I've almost wrecked my car laughing a few times listening to my Nichols and May albums on the iPod. Their Noel Coward spoof, The Dentist, was (and is) a masterpiece.