The comedy world went into mourning Thursday morning with the news that legendary comedian, theatrical producer and filmmaker Mike Nichols had died Nov. 19 of a heart attack. He was 83.
Nichols was one of 12 people in the world who can claim an EGOT. Here are five essential Nichols movies (and yes, there are more than five).
1. “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” (1966): The debut. Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor star in an adaptation of Edward Albee’s brutal play. One of the most exhausting movies ever made, it won five Academy awards (though not one for Best Director) and has freaked out married couples for nearly 50 years.
2. “The Graduate” (1967): The career-maker and the Best Director Oscar winner. Of course Dustin Hoffman was entirely too old to play Benjamin Braddock, but Hoffman’s presence remains one of the canniest bits of casting of the era — nobody from Southern California had ever looked like that on-screen before (and, frankly, not all that many since). From its tight script to its visionary use of pop music to the way it nails down an apparently ageless sense of 20-something ennui, generations of filmmakers have been remaking “the Graduate” or stripping it for parts ever since (hello, Wes Anderson!).
3. “Silkwood” (1984): The oddly forgotten drama. Meryl Streep plays nuclear power whistle-blower Karen Silkwood, who died in 1974. A nerve-wracking film even if you know exactly how it ends (spoiler: not well) featuring strong performances from everyone involved, including Kurt Russell and Cher. Not a bad movie to watch when you are feeling nostalgic for 70s and 80s left-wing activism.
4. “The Birdcage.” The underrated comedy masterpiece (1996): After a few duds (“Wolf” is hilariously weird, “Regarding Henry” is just plain lousy), Nichols reteamed with his former comedy partner Elaine May, who wrote the script, on this English language remake of the French farce “”La Cage aux Folles.” The result contains what might be Robin Williams’ single finest performance. As Armond Goldman, Williams is forced to play it straight (literally, for a spell) and creates something wonderfully nuanced and thoughtful. As Nathan Lane flutters about like, well, an uncaged bird, Williams has to keep it together, which makes his comic explosions (“MarthagrahamMarthagraham Marthagraham!”) all the funnier. Stellar performances abound, including Gene Hackman, Dianne Weist and Hank Azaria.
5. “Charlie Wilson’s War” (2007): The last blast. Nichols final film as director hasn’t entered the same rarefied air as “the Graduate” or anything, it’s a terrifically enjoyable movie, with top flight turns from Tom Hanks as the hard-partying Texas Congressman who almost personally amped up American involvement in Afghanistan, Julia Roberts as conservative socialite and an amazing Philip Seymour Hoffman as a blustering CIA agent.
Thanks for everything, man.