As Dustin Hoffman’s deadpan profile glides past us in the opening sequence of The Graduate, the sweet tones of Simon and Garfunkel’s The Sound of Silence caressing our ears, we realise with total certainty that we are in the hands of a master of his craft. Director Mike Nichols has taken The Graduate, a little-known novel by Charles Webb, and transformed it into an Oscar-winning picture destined to achieve classic status, and speaking to a whole new generation of film-lovers.
The Graduate encompasses all of those Mike Nichols traits that identified his particular brand of film-making: intelligence, wit, compassion. He acknowledged the similarities between comedy and tragedy in all of his pieces, and we – the audience – laugh and cry in equal measure at the very human foibles on display.
Although born in Germany, Nichols was very much a director of American subjects and sensibilities. And like many other great European directors who conquered Hollywood (Lubitsch and Wilder to name but two), it was that all-important detachment – the outsider looking in – that enabled him to present such a rounded and realistic portrayal of his subjects.
Having already proven his credentials as both performer (he was in a comedy double act with Elaine May) and theatre director, his first venture into film was definitely a challenging one, taking the theatre hit Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? by Edward Albee onto the big screen, starring no less than Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, and winning him his first Oscar nomination.
Nichols always showed tremendous courage in his directing choices, and never seemed tempted by the easy option. Who else would dare to even attempt to make a picture from Joseph Heller’s seminal novel Catch 22? Yet in 1970 this is exactly what he did, and with great success. He also tackled contentious political subjects with great humanity, such as Silkwood in 1983 – the true story of a Nuclear Power worker (played by Meryl Streep) who was thought to have been murdered by her employers after attempting to expose their practices.
One of his most popular films was the comedy farce Working Girl, which burst onto our screens in 1988. But despite the lightness of touch and the truly hilarious performances by stars Harrison Ford, Melanie Griffith and Sigourney Weaver, it still makes a serious point about feminism and big business, and has us rooting for the underdog.
Proving that he was still as relevant in later years, Nichols adapted the Patrick Marber stage play Closer for the screen in 2004. The tale of two modern couples, this film highlighted his customary wry amusement, his inherent understanding of the bittersweet complexities of relationships, and his sheer natural intelligence.
On the 19th of November Mike Nichols died, leaving the world of cinema devoid of one of its quiet, but most important stars. We will forever be grateful for that hapless youth gazing at us through the seductive and shapely leg. Here’s to you Mr Nichols.