The world of film has its auteurs and icons, and loyal viewers will line up to see a movie based on a director's name alone. But the name of Mike Nichols guaranteed a film experience above almost all others, with a script that was top-notch and impeccable acting.
Nichols had not just talent and vision, but range. After he helmed two beloved stage productions of Barefoot in the Park and The Odd Couple at the renowned Neil Simon Theater, Hollywood came calling and Nichols delivered a stunning one-two debut punch with his electrifying direction of Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?; he also introduced the world to a young actor named Dustin Hoffman in The Graduate.
When the filmmaker passed away on November 19, he left decades of work that deserves rediscovery -- and the Denver Film Society is unspooling five of his classics in Mike Nichols: Remembered, which runs December 18 through December 21 at Sie FilmCenter. We spoke with Britta Erickson, festival director (and co-founder of Denver's Curious Theater Company) and Ernie Quiroz, DFS programming manager, to learn about Nichols' legacy and the five films they selected to celebrate this lost talent.
"I have long admired and been inspired by the work of Mike Nichols," says Erickson, "and, quite frankly, was always in awe of his ability to move so seamlessly and successfully between theater and film. I can think of very few people who have had such a solid foot in both worlds."
Nichols' ability to dance between theater and film, drama and comedy while combining the best of all of them made him one of just twelve artists to win an Emmy, a Grammy, an Oscar and a Tony (the coveted EGOT). "Nichols didn't just win one of each," Erickson points out. "His career saw him walk away with four Emmys and a whopping nine Tonys! One only need look at the fact that the first three Tony awards he won were for Best Director for the first three plays he ever had on Broadway -- no wonder the film world came knocking on his door."
Nichols' ability to work alongside such phenomenal actors as Streep, Nicholson, Bancroft, Taylor and MacLaine, with their own extensive ranges, was another measure of his greatness. "I think that Nichols' experience of having worked in improvisational troupe comedy and directing theater -- both very intimate endeavors -- gave him the gift of getting spectacular film performances out of all his actors," says Erickson, drawing from her own experience in the theater, "whether unproven talent like Dustin Hoffman to arguably one of the most established actresses working at the time, Elizabeth Taylor. And his more theatrical approach to filmmaking -- wherein he worked in a highly collaborative way with his writers, actors and, time and time again, with the same technicians (much like the theater model of an artistic troupe) -- set him apart as one of the great auteurs."
Some of his most notable films were adaptations of acclaimed plays written by others. "He brought three of my favorite plays to the screen," says Erickson. "Closer, which was the first film of his that I had to run home and revisit when he died; his teleplay version of Wit; and his epic and revelatory HBO mini-series, Angels in America, the play that inspired me to become a theater producer and co-found Curious. And, along the way, the theatricality he brought to the screen never stopped short of making me laugh or cry. And it is because of him that I can never look at the Statue of Liberty and not feel like an inspired working girl and want to break out singing, 'Let the river run, let all the dreamers wake the nation...'"
Keep reading for the five films that will be shown at Mike Nichols: Remembered.
The Graduate 7 p.m. Thursday, December 18 "I think it's hard to forget what a big impact this film had on Hollywood," says Quiroz. "It was made completely outside the studio system by essentially a bunch of New York theater people. Dustin Hoffman looked nothing like a typical Hollywood leading man and the subject matter was nothing a Hollywood movie would dare touch. And no 'happy ending'! It's the complete antithesis of Hollywood, mainstream, feel-good movies."
Catch-22 4:30 p.m. Friday, December 19 "I'm ashamed to admit I've never seen it!," says Quiroz. "Although I did ask a lot of the staff and regular DFS members what films they wanted to see in a Nichols retrospective, and after The Graduate and Virginia Woolf, this was the number-one requested film." The WWII dramedy is based on the acclaimed novel by Joseph Heller.The Birdcage 4:30 p.m. Saturday, December 20
"Another adaptation, but here we have broad comedy," says Quiroz of this 1996 remake of the French comedyLa Cage Aux Folles
. "He basically lets Robin Williams and Nathan Lane go, and he had the good sense to stand back and just film. But he's also able to capture sentiment without being overly sentimental."
Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? 2 p.m. Sunday, December 21 Of this Edward Albee adaptation (shown on 35mm film), Quiroz says: "For me, this is just a master class in acting. And a master class in adapting a play for a film. While most theater adaptions fail because they can be too claustrophobic and lack visual flair, here he uses that to his advantage. He puts you in the room with caged wild animals and then opens their cages."
Closer 4:45 p.m. Sunday, December 21 "I think this is one of his criminally forgotten and underrated films," says Quiroz. "But I think it shows just how relevant and current he still was. Thirty years after making the groundbreaking Graduate, which pushed the envelope in its depiction of sexuality, he's still doing it in the 2000s. It pulses with energy and eroticism and again knows how to get the best performances out of great actors." Those actors are Natalie Portman, Clive Owen, Jude Law and Julia Roberts. Shown in 35mm film.
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