Mike Nichols. I’m higher on Nichols than the majority of cinema buffs for two main reasons: A. I have The Graduate as an unquestionable top 100 film, and B. I also have Carnal Knowledge as a top 300 film (this is way higher than the critical consensus). Nichols has three top 500 films (he’s the only one remaining with more than 2 as I’m at slot #96 here). The weakness for Nichols on this list is that his 4th best film is nearly unidentifiable and though I like all of his archiveable films (Silkwood at #10 say is just a really good film) he only has those big 3 that land in the top 100 of their respective decade. That’s a weakness and when the 10 year moratorium lifts a flood of filmmakers will pass him by and he’ll fall out of the top 100.  All of that being said, his work, is largely, still identifiable as a Mike Nichols film because of chamber-piece element (not always a compliment cinematically but, hell, Bergman is a chamber piece auteur and he’s my #3 auteur of all-time) and verbal warfare even if it isn’t a visual or overly cinematic identifier.

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From Closer – I love the Mike Nichols-ness of the telephoto lens of Portman crossing the street in opening and closing bookends— also—this is clearly a 4-person chamber piece with roots in the theater much like Nichols’ work Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolfe and Carnal Knowledge

Best film: The Graduate. Not only is this a top 100 film but it’s an extremely well-directed top 100 film (aren’t they all?). The acting, particularly the performance of Hoffman, had never been seen like this before and much of the credit is due to Nichols. But the film is wonderfully framed (the aquarium shot), edited (the montage jumping from the pool to the bed), there’s some genius camera work… telephoto lens running in place.

a gorgeous mise-en-scene– yes– but also formally tied to other (future) visuals in the film and putting you, creatively, beautifully, in the characters head-space

total archiveable films: 12

top 100 films:  1 (The Graduate)

a frame within a frame– one of cinema’s greatest– in The Graduate

top 500 films: 3 (The Graduate, Carnal Knowledge, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?)

top 100 films of the decade:  3 (The Graduate, Carnal Knowledge, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?)

most overrated:  I really don’t have one. Nichols only has 2 films in the TSPDT top 1000 (The Graduate and Virginia Woolf) and I think they’re both underrated.   

most underrated:  If I had to pick one I’d go with Carnal Knowledge which isn’t even in the TSPDT top 1000! That’s total bull.  I have it at #298. I don’t fully understand how Bergman’s Scenes From a Marriage is at #392 on TSPDT but Nichols’ relationship and sexuality saga can’t crack the top 1000.

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this is from Carnal Knowledge but it’s a character’s look that is shared by Anne Bancroft in The Graduate and Liz Taylor’s in Virginia Woolf– you could write a paper on Nichols’ portrayal of femininity and that look of total disillusion
a great use of wide frame in Carnal Knowledge

gem I want to spotlight: Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? It may not be as controversial as it once was but this chamber piece has an on-fire Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton (an all-time underrated actor) giving perhaps career best performances in this gorgeously shot b/w debut from Nichols.

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perfection in b/w lighting in Virginia Woolf
Nichols’ captured the best work from Liz Taylor, Richard Burton, Dustin Hoffman, Anne Bancroft, and amongst the best of Meryl Streep and Nicholson

stylistic innovations/traits:  Ok so he wasn’t Orson Welles but long before the Coen Brothers, Steve McQueen and Ari Aster began their careers with tremendous 1-2 punches we had Mike Nichols as the mid-60’s wunderkind (ok he was 35—haha) with Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf and The Graduate as his debut and sophomore film. Though I think Carnal Knowledge is abhorrently underrated Nichols never really reaches these heights again over his long and sturdy career.  Chamber pieces is the first thing I think of with Nichols (after I think of his amazing run from 66-71 with 3 top 500 all-time films). Many of his films have four actors (usually playing people in relationships with each other) giving standing-on-their-heads-level-performances with biting dialogue— (Carnal Knowledge, Virginia Woolf, Closer, The Fortune). Many of his films are theatrical in base (Angels in America, Closer, Virginia Woolf) and Nichols himself worked in the theatre and started there but clearly Nichols possessed a full array of cinematic talents (at least in The Graduate) and shouldn’t be thought of being a “point and shoot” theatre director of films simply because his films have wonderful writing and acting. Again, sadly, Nichols never regained the momentum he had early on his career but he had another four decades of making great, yet broader films from Working Girl to Charlie Wilson’s War in the 00’s. Also, as a trivia note, the Coen brothers adore The Fortune and have it in their top 10 of all-time (perhaps because of the sheer blackness of the comedy more than the achievement of the film). You can see the influence it has over them. I don’t think it’s the masterpiece they do but it’s a very solid and unique film starring Nicholson and Warren Beatty acting buffoonish. Fun.

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the American open-ending in The Graduate– art house ambition

top 10

  1. The Graduate
  2. Carnal Knowledge
  3. Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
  4. Closer
  5. Postcards From the Edge
  6. Angels in America
  7. Working Girl
  8. The Fortune
  9. Catch 22
  10. Silkwood

By year and grades

1966- Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? MS
1967- The Graduate MP
1970- Catch 22 R
1971- Carnal Knowledge MS/MP
1975- The Fortune
1983- Silkwood R
1988- Working Girl R
1990- Postcards from the Edge R/HR
1998- Primary Colors R
2003- Angels in America R
2004- Closer R/HR
2007- Charlie Wilson’s War R

*MP is Masterpiece- top 1-3 quality of the year film

MS is Must-see- top 5-6 quality of the year film

HR is Highly Recommend- top 10 quality of the year film

R is Recommend- outside the top 10 of the year quality film but still in the archives