An outsider's view guides lifetime achievement honoree Nichols

When it comes to keeping up with entertainment news, the hyperinflation of showbiz reputations and the wall-to-wall litter of celebrity awards have grown so great that one could take a six-week cruise somewhere and come back feeling lost in America.

Some figures outlast the razzle-dazzle, however. Mike Nichols is one of them — the marquee name that connotes intelligence, quality, memorable performances and subtly probing themes. It seems natural, therefore, that he should stand as this year’s recipient of the Directors Guild of America Lifetime Achievement Award.

“He’s created a substantial, much-honored body of work,” says DGA president Michael Apted. “I’d say his signature style includes the celebration of fine acting and dialogue. He brings enormous wit. There are a lot of good directors out there, but not many have made seminal films that change the way movies are made.”

Indeed, audiences were shocked in 1966 to see the brutal gusto with which Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, postwar America’s Antony and Cleopatra, tore into each other in Nichols’ 1966 adaptation of Edward Albee’s “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf,” itself a landmark stage work.

A year later, with searing irony, the word “plastics” flew out of “The Graduate” to crystalize an idealistic young generation’s fear and loathing of stupefying materialism.

Bookends

Thirty years beyond and into the new millennium, three of Nichols’ latest directorial works bookend a career that has included, among others, “Catch-22,” “Carnal Knowledge,” “Silkwood, “Heartburn,” “Working Girl,” “Postcards From the Edge,” “Regarding Henry” and “The Birdcage” — all of which in one way or another have tried to come to grips with the tenor of the time in power, sex, politics, ambition, marriage and family.

“Primary Colors” (1998) deals with virtually all of these themes in uncovering Bill Clinton’s moral conflicts. “Wit” (2001) draws on every ounce of rational soulfulness a human being can muster in confronting death. Tony Kushner’s “Angels in America,” which many feel is the best film of 2003, is a complex, monumental summing up of the inner life of a great, ravaged nation in want of merciful deliverance.

Like Billy Wilder and Roman Polanski, Nichols’ early experience was shaped by the Holocaust. He was born Michael Igor Peschkowsky in Berlin in 1931 and fled to America at age 7.

He has the immigrant’s loving ear for the American vernacular. Unlike Wilder or Polanski, his movie work is not necessarily noted for a signature style or tone. Critic Andrew Sarris characterized his films as less than meets the eye. The assessment may be unfair — Nichols is noted for standing behind his writers and performers instead of on their shoulders.

“Actors love him,” says Peter Rainer, film critic for New York magazine. “He’s considered a man of the theater, and the way he handles them makes it a joy, especially women. Look at the performances he’s drawn from Elizabeth Taylor, Emma Thompson, Meryl Streep and Ann-Margret.”

“Dedication, ease, a lot of fun,” says Jack Nicholson, who’s worked with Nichols three times over a span of 30 years. “He looks at every project from a human point of view. He keeps it interesting. You can’t flatten out around him.”

“I was enormously apprehensive,” says “Angels” playwright Tony Kushner, before working with Nichols. “It took so long for ‘Angels in America’ to sell as a film I began to think it wasn’t a work that could transfer. But Mike immediately saw that the quality of the play’s success was its theatricality. He’s prodigiously smart.”

Theatrical roots

In any case, the name Mike Nichols remains a kind of imprimatur for a hard-to-define quality that resists categorization. The improvisational duo he formed with Elaine May in Chicago brilliantly captured the urban anxieties of the postwar ’50s, and along with Mort Sahl and Lenny Bruce, altered the landscape of American comedy.

Throughout his career, the four-time Tony winner has remained one of the most respected and in-demand directors on Broadway, and became to playwright Paul Simon what Elia Kazan was to the drama of Tennessee Williams.

“He’s the only director I can think of who’s been in the first rank of comedy performance and who’s the best we’ve had in the theater since George Abbott,” says author-critic John Lahr, who’s written definitively of Nichols in the New Yorker.

“He brings an extraordinary literacy to acting and to his scripts, which is one of the reasons actors prefer him. As an immigrant, he wanted to be lodged in the popular imagination of his host country — when he started out, he wasn’t just funny, he was landmark funny, the highest of high-wire acts.”

Nichols himself fondly quotes Elaine May’s line, delivered at the recent Kennedy Center Awards ceremony honoring him: ‘”Mike’s movies are good. They’re just as entertaining as trash.’ I take that as a compliment.”

He also takes the DGA award in measured stride.

“It’s wonderful and everything, but ‘Lifetime Award’ says it’s over, there’s nothing left but to look back. Let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

“It took half my life to be comfortable making movies,” he adds. “They’re the rhythm of my life, the rush in my head. It’s an inexhaustible medium as well as a young one. As a way of examining human possibilities, it changes and stays the same.”

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