Five years ago today, one of the greatest directors of all times passed away after a decade-spanning career which made him one of only 16 people who accomplished to win an Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, and Tony Award. Let’s take a closer look at the life of Mike Nichols, born in Berlin in 1931 as Michail Igor Peschkowsky, whose movies received 42 Academy Award nominations and won 7.
Early Life and Career
Nichols’ first years of life had been difficult as he lost his hair after an inoculation for whooping cough and had to wear false eyebrows and wigs for the rest of his life. In April 1939, when the Nazis arrested Jews in Berlin, the family fled to the United States and changed their names. Following in the footsteps of his father, Nichols enrolled in the pre-med program at the University of Chicago with the goal of becoming a doctor.
But one day, while attending a production of Miss Julie in Chicago, Nichols made eye contact with Elaine May, the main actress. A few weeks later, they ran into each other in a train station and Nichols pretended to be a spy while May played along. This chance meeting led to a brief romance and ultimately to a successful career as a comedy duo. Together, they were well-known for their satirical approach, and success came soon.
The Rise to Fame
In the upcoming years, Nichols made himself a household name with highly successful plays on Broadway and won nine Tony Awards. He then took the inevitable next step in 1966 by directing his first Hollywood movie, “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” Although he had no experience in filmmaking, the screen adaptation became an instant classic and the Number 1 at the box office in that year. The movie garnered 13 Academy Award nominations and won five. “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” is one of only two movies which have been nominated in every eligible category. It was also the first movie ever where the entire cast has been nominated for acting Oscars.
With his next movie, “The Graduate,” Nichols conquered Hollywood once and for all. It became the highest-grossing movie of 1967, and Nichols won an Academy Award for Best Director. Both “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” and “The Graduate” were critically acclaimed for their sexual innuendo, which was totally unique and groundbreaking at that time. No other director before had dared to bring such a level of profanity to the big screen. “The Graduate” made Dustin Hoffman a star overnight and originated with “Mrs. Robinson” from Simon and Garfunkel one of the all-time pop songs for eternity.
A Director with a Vision
Nichols always switched back and forth between cinema and stage, working for Broadway and Hollywood, never compromising on his visions. He worked intimately with his writers and actors and was always looking for an opportunity to brush Hollywood against the grain. With movies like “Closer,” “Angels in America,” and “Catch-22,” he analyzed the American psyche and once said: “A movie is like a person. Either you trust it or you don’t.”
That’s why his filmography is so rich in different genres and experiences. There’s a werewolf horror movie with Jack Nicholson, as well as an exuberant comedy like “The Birdcage,” or the biopic on Karen Silkwood, a whistleblower who died in a car collision while investigating alleged wrongdoing at a plutonium plant.
Mike Nichols was an auteur who worked intimately with his writers and actors, and his filmography is a testament to his visionary talent. There’s hardly any other director who has been such a visionary, and his legacy continues to influence filmmakers today. His ability to seamlessly transition between genres and mediums, from theater to Hollywood, and create critically acclaimed and commercially successful works, is a testament to his talent and dedication to his craft. Mike Nichols was truly one of the greatest directors of all time, leaving behind a remarkable body of work that will continue to inspire and entertain audiences for generations to come. Treat yourself to one of his movies and witness the genius of a true Hollywood legend.