A deft humorist and social critic, director Mike Nichols has managed to skewer mainstream sensibilities in crowd-pleasing work throughout most of his career. Collaborating with such renowned writers as Buck Henry and original stage partner Elaine May, the theatrically trained Nichols excelled at adapting plays and novels for the screen, and eliciting superb performances from his actors.
Born Michael Peschkowsky in Berlin, Nichols and his family emigrated to the U.S. in 1938, to escape the Nazis. Though his father's death several years later left his family poor, Nichols worked his way through college at the University of Chicago, where he decided to become an actor. After studying with Lee Strasberg in New York, Nichols headed back to Chicago, where he formed an improv group with several actors, including May and Alan Arkin. Their comic and critical sensibilities well matched, Nichols and May performed as a pair in the latter half of the 1950s, earning raves for their sharp, satirical routines. After their 1960 hit Broadway show, An Evening with Mike Nichols and Elaine May, closed in 1961, however, they parted ways.
Nichols began to direct plays in 1963, earning a sterling reputation for his work on a string of hits, including the Neil Simon comedies Barefoot in the Park and The Odd Couple. Not surprisingly, Nichols moved to films with an adaptation of a play, Edward Albee's scathing study of marital discord, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966). Making the most of a screenplay by Ernest Lehman that left Albee's taboo-breaking profanity intact, crisp cinematography by Haskell Wexler, and the casting of glamorous marrieds Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor as the warring couple, Nichols scored a critical and box-office success. The film earned 13 Oscar nominations, including Best Picture, Best Director, and acting nominations for the lead quartet, and won five. Nichols further staked his claim as one of the premiere avatars of Hollywood's new generation the following year with The Graduate (1967). Wittily adapted by Buck Henry and Calder Willingham, starring an unknown Dustin Hoffman, and directed with New Wave flair by Nichols, The Graduate's mordant portrait of youthful anomie and suburban sexual frustration spoke to late '60s disaffection with the Establishment, and the film became a landmark hit. Though The Graduate lost the Best Picture Oscar to In the Heat of the Night (1967), Nichols won for Best Director. Turning his attention from sex to war, Nichols seemed to be on target for another timely success when he and Henry decided to tackle Joseph Heller's sardonic anti-war bestseller Catch-22 (1970). Though Nichols and Henry managed to translate the book's surreal tone to the screen, and Alan Arkin proved an adept Yossarian, Catch-22 suffered in comparison to Robert Altman's pacifist farce M*A*S*H (1970) and became an expensive failure. Nichols quickly recovered with Jules Feiffer's acrid examination of male sexual gamesmanship, Carnal Knowledge (1971). Remarkable for its frankness (at least for Hollywood) and featuring career performances from Jack Nicholson, Art Garfunkel, Ann-Margret, and Candice Bergen, Carnal Knowledge became Nichols' third groundbreaking hit.
Nichols' film career, however, was comatose by the late '70s. The bizarre yet touching dolphin conspiracy drama The Day of the Dolphin (1973) flopped; not even 1970s supernovas Nicholson and Warren Beatty attracted audiences to the maligned period comedy The Fortune (1975). Except for lensing comedienne Gilda Radner's Broadway show Gilda Live (1980), Nichols stayed away from movies for almost eight years. He made an auspicious return to film, however, with the social drama Silkwood (1983). A biopic about the life and mysterious death of nuclear whistle-blower Karen Silkwood, Silkwood garnered raves for stars Meryl Streep and a de-glamorized Cher, and earned five Oscar nods, including Best Director. Though he didn't win the Oscar, Nichols did earn his sixth Tony Award in 1984, for directing Tom Stoppard's The Real Thing. Back to his comic ways after Silkwood's seriousness, Nichols bolstered his Hollywood comeback with appealing adaptations of Nora Ephron's autobiographical novel Heartburn in 1986, and Neil Simon's Broadway success Biloxi Blues (1988). Spinning 1980s corporate ambitions into a cynically charming fairy tale, made all the more winning by Melanie Griffith's star-making performance as the eponymous striver, Nichols notched another Oscar nominated hit with Working Girl (1988).
Nichols continued to deal with knotty questions of sex, ambition, and relationships throughout the 1990s. Directing Carrie Fisher's sharply funny adaptation of her novel Postcards From the Edge (1990), Nichols and stars Streep and Shirley MacLaine made comic hay out of Hollywood craziness. Male weepie Regarding Henry (1991), featuring Harrison Ford as a chastened Master of the Universe, became a moderate success, but the Jack Nicholson horror-comic sexual fable Wolf (1994) missed the mark. Reuniting with Elaine May after several decades, the pair crafted a slick remake of La Cage Aux Folles (1978), renamed The Birdcage (1996). Starring Robin Williams and Nathan Lane as a gay couple with an engaged son, The Birdcage poked fun at the conservative notion of family values and found blockbuster favor with the audience. After Nichols returned to acting on stage and screen in The Designated Mourner (1997), he joined with May to adapt Joe Klein's novel about Bill Clinton's 1992 Presidential campaign Primary Colors (1998). Though Primary Colors featured Nichols and May's customary intelligent wit, and star John Travolta virtually channeled the President, the real-life 1998 sexual drama involving Clinton and intern Monica Lewinsky proved to be a greater draw than the fictionalized Presidential shenanigans. Nichols' next film, Garry Shandling's send-up of masculine sexual cluelessness What Planet Are You From? (2000), was an outright flop. Turning to the more hospitable venue of cable TV's HBO, Nichols and Primary Colors star Emma Thompson masterfully adapted Wit (2001), the Pulitzer Prize-winning play about an imperious professor's eye-opening battle with cancer.
Nichols married his fourth wife, TV news star Diane Sawyer, in 1988. ~ Lucia Bozzola, Rovi