Is there a more enduring image in American movies of youthful idealism giving the finger to “plastic” adult conformity than the final moments of “The Graduate?” And yet, as the wedding usurper Benjamin Braddock (Dustin Hoffman) and his runaway bride Elaine (Katharine Ross) make their victory run from a Santa Barbara cathedral on to a passing city bus, an air of uncertainty still clouds the proceedings, as elation gives way to reality, and the beaming smiles on both characters’ faces drop back into puzzled, where-do-we-go-from-here stares.
That wonderfully jaundiced sense of life’s triumphs sitting on a knife’s edge of tragedy, and of the lies we willingly tell ourselves, ran through so much of Mike Nichols’ work that it was tempting to think it was a natural consequence of having been born Jewish in pre-War Nazi Germany, fleeing to the U.S. (without speaking English) at age 7, and somehow making it to the top ranks of Hollywood and Broadway. Indeed, the process by which Mikhail Pavlovich Peschkowsky became Mike Nichols — paragon of sly urbanity and razor wit, with those epically expressive bushy eyebrows (fake, like the rest of his hair, after a childhood vaccination left him with alopecia) — is itself a story worthy of a Nichols play or film and one we should regret he never got around to properly telling.
Instead there was “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?,” “The Graduate” and, best of all, “Carnal Knowledge” — surely one of the great, out-of-the-gate runs in American movies. The last of those has Jack Nicholson and Art Garfunkel as college roommates whose lives diverge and dovetail as they navigate the troubled waters of America’s changing sexual mores from the 1940s to the end of the ’60s. It is not seen nearly enough nowadays, but it remains a startling and sharply funny film about the ways men and women use each other, heading toward a bankrupt endgame. At the time of its initial release, the movie was slapped with obscenity charges in the state of Georgia, but then or now, the only thing obscene about “Carnal Knowledge” is how truthful it is.
Nichols was drawn to those writers — Buck Henry, Jules Feiffer, Arthur Miller, Tony Kushner, Aaron Sorkin — who excel at the use of words as weapons, and who resist passing knee-jerk moral judgments against their characters, no matter how desperate or pathetic or duplicitous their actions. Everyone always had his or her reasons. And even when Nichols veered toward razzle-dazzle crowdpleasers like “Working Girl” and “The Birdcage,” you could safely bet that the plot would revolve around multiple layers of disguise and role-playing.
Nichols was, above all, a prince of a man. We first met in the fall of 2010, when he agreed to serve as guest moderator at the opening night of a Lincoln Center retrospective I had programmed on the films of Stanley Donen, the longtime significant other of Nichols’ former comedy partner, Elaine May. Another night, in 2011, I invited him back to discuss “Carnal Knowledge” (screened from his own pristine 35mm print) in conversation with Jason Reitman, after learning that the two were mutual admirers of each other’s work. Onstage that night, Nichols, who insisted on coming despite a bad bout of bronchitis, observed, “It’s very weird about movies: You never know which ones are going to stay alive and which ones are going to be meaningless. When you’re there, you couldn’t possibly predict it. Some things slowly die, and others slowly stay a while.”
All too soon, Mike Nichols is gone, but so much of what he left behind will be with us still for a good while to come.