To date, only a dozen artists have managed to achieve the almost impossible feat of winning an Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony award. In an industry that values exclusivity, it is notable that Mike Nichols is part of its elite club of EGOT winners.
Usually, having all four glistening trophies in one’s home would be the most laudable aspect of a person’s career.
Not for Mike Nichols.
For a man who fled Nazi Germany as a boy, helped define the malaise of a generation, gave the likes of Dustin Hoffman, Kevin Spacey and Whoopi Goldberg their big break and inspired a wave of younger directors who emulate his work today, talk of awards sounds hollow and cheap.
He did broad, slapstick comedy (The Birdcage, Spamalot), nuanced dramas about interlocked love affairs (Closer) and directed a heart-wrenching epic tale about AIDS (Angels in America). He made his mark on Broadway, television and film.
But, amid such a diverse and multi-faceted career, it is his 1967 film, The Graduate, that will likely be known as the crowning achievement of his vibrant career.
“Mike was a friend, a muse, a mentor, one of America’s all-time greatest film and stage directors, and one of the most generous people I have ever known. For me, The Graduate was life altering – both as an experience at the movies as well as a master class about how to stage a scene,” director Steven Spielberg said in a statement about the Berlin- born director.
When the American Film Institute gave Nichols their lifetime achievement award in 2010, Tom Hanks saluted him and said that he “nailed solid a unique time in American history and culture and encapsulated a new generation’s feeling of isolation and confusion.
“It was a seminal event in the history of our country, not unlike hearing the Beatles for the first time.”
There are many reasons why The Graduate will be remembered for reinventing the cinematic landscape, but his unorthodox choice casting of Dustin Hoffman to play the privileged WASP Benjamin Braddock is a testament to the director shunning conventional wisdom and trusting his instincts instead.
“I thank you for casting this short, 29-year-old unknown actor with a prominent nose to play Benjamin Braddock. God bless you sir, you are more than a great director. You’re a real artist down to your toes, because you’re insanely courageous,” Hoffman said, lauding him at the ceremony.
“The wind of fashion and trendiness are circling the earth, it’s like the weather. There’s no predicting what the wind will do. That’s luck, only a fool predicts it,” Nichols mused in a 2005 interview with Charlie Rose.
And Nichols was no fool. He created movies that he was passionate about, even if it wasn’t fashionable at the time.
In his film The Birdcage, about two gay life partners who pretend to be straight in order to win the approval of their son’s potential in-laws, he depicted the LGBT community well before it was popular for a mainstream director to do so.
In Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf, his directorial film debut, he had no qualms building his cinematic career with a film revolving around a strong female activist.
And he did it all with grace and humor.
“Mike has chosen to do things that are really meaningful, and that have real impact and real relevance, but he makes them so entertaining and exciting that they’re as much fun as if they were trash,” his frequent comedy and stage collaborator Elaine May said when presenting him with the Kennedy Center Honors. “They’re so much fun, that you don’t realize that your vision of the world is being changed incrementally as you watch.”
“An inspiration and joy to know, a director who cried when he laughed, a friend without whom, well, we can’t imagine our world, an indelible, irreplaceable man,” Meryl Streep told Variety after his death.
At 83, Nichols spent over half of his life enriching the stage and screen and a generation of playwrights, directors, actors and, of course, viewers will be forever grateful for it.
He is survived by ABC news anchor Diane Sawyer, his wife of 26 years, three children from his previous marriages, and four grandchildren.