A-List: Five Best Mike Nichols Movies

By J. Don Birnam

November 24, 2014

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By now you have heard of the passing of the legendary Mike Nichols - one of only a dozen or so “EGOT” winners in history, in a career that spanned over 50 years and two dozen movies, many of which are now all time classics. Had it not been for his deserved Best Director win for The Graduate, Nichols would have surely landed high on my list of best non-Oscar winning directors of all time.

The German-born American director’s brilliance is evident by the fact that he had such crossover appeal - not only across mediums (he excelled at movies, TV, and most notably theater), but also across genres within each medium. He helmed slapstick comedies like The Birdcage, made serious movies about current political and social commentary like Charlie Wilson’s War, and explored sexuality and obsession in darker dramas like Closer. At the same time, he directed one of the most critically acclaimed TV mini-series of all times when he took Angels in America to the small screen. It is telling that no less than one of the most lauded actresses in film history, Meryl Streep, was a frequent and beloved collaborator with Nichols.

Focusing exclusively on his contribution to film is enough to realize that Nichols was one of the most creative and meaningful voices in the world of art. Nichols made movies about sex at a time when Hollywood was at the crossroads of the sexual revolution but continuing to act as if sex was taboo as in the 1940s. Even knowing nothing about the history of censorship in motion pictures, it should not be a surprise to astute movie watchers that Hollywood could be so introspectively whitewashed. After all, today movies have been mostly stripped of sex. Directors either fear the R-rating, the reactions of more conservative audiences abroad, or our own reactionary counterculture brought on by the Reagan wave of conservatism. Whatever the reason, Nichols was not afraid to scoff at those outmoded standards and make movies that honestly explored one of the subjects at the core of our humanity.


Notable too was his ability to bring out the best performances in his actors. An exploration of Elizabeth Taylor’s movies, for example, reveals that some of her best work was done while behind his camera. Cher, not exactly someone you immediately think of as a strong actress, also benefited immensely from his tutelage. It is also arguable that he launched Natalie Portman’s career into respectability.

So what are my top five favorite Mike Nichols movies? This one is more challenging than you think because, although I admit having seen only about a dozen of his films, there is not a single one on the list that I do not like. Closer will not make the top five list even though it is such a gripping portrayal of love, obsession, and betrayal. Nichols takes a cast that is arguably pedestrian (Julia Roberts, Clive Owen, Jude Law, and Natalie Portman) when it comes to serious acting and elevates them collectively into a haunting and unforgettable piece.

The Birdcage is also a runner-up if only because I have already listed this movie when analyzing movie remakes. But it should not be discounted, as it exhibits Nichols’ versatility and talent in a movie that is arguably outside his mainstream. Nor did I have room for another hilarious Streep collaboration, the edgy Postcards from the Edge, or for the most sexually explicit of all his films, Carnal Knowledge. Both are worth watching and feature Nichols’ signature intelligence about the subject at hand, but must yield to even more impressive pieces.

Fear not, then, because indeed the list of five that remain is strong and noteworthy. And here is the most surprising thing of all that will emerge from exploring Nichols’ best work: the Academy for once got it right with him. Although none of his films ever won Best Picture, the better ones were showered with love from the Academy and received deserved awards in their own right. Despite being way ahead of his time when he began making movies in 1966, the Academy somehow realized the genius of Nichols from the get-go, a rare but welcome feat for them.

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