“A movie is like a person. Either you trust it or you don’t.” – Mike Nichols
Dear Mike Nichols,
You’ve left us. Another comedic force, joining Robin and Joan. 2014 is taking away a lot of talent. And you, Mr. Nichols, had Vesuvian talent.
You gave us Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, allowing the camera to go behind Elizabeth Taylor’s and Richard Burton’s glamor, instead showing us the range of acting and the depth of deception, disappointment and denial that so much of modern marriage builds its venomous bricks on. You then directed Dustin Hoffman, Anne Bancroft and Katharine Ross in The Graduate, capturing the angst of post-college life, the schism of living up to expectations of parents vs. self and the uncertain path of the too fast to keep up with future. And by having Simon And Garfunkel serenade your film you gave us the first non-musical film soundtrack.
You captured the tragic and comedic essence of lost youth during wartime by taking Neil Simon’s play Biloxi Blues to the big screen and casting pre-Ferris Bueller Matthew Broderick. In Wolf you showed us the primal carnage of man as beast, with Jack Nicholson attempting to retain his publishing career and Michelle Pfeifer as his romantic interest. With The Birdcage you took the French classic La Cauge Aux Folles and with Robin Williams spearheading a cast that also included Nathan Lane, Gene Hackman, Dianne Wiest, Calista Flockhart, Hank Azaria and Christine Baranski finally gave Americans a remake that stood on its own. You encouraged Williams to do what he does best, improvise us with his “Fosse, Fosse” dancing to belly-aching laughter.
In Primary Colors, you gave us John Travolta as Bill Clinton, where Travolta’s presence had more Clinton in him than Clinton himself. An impossible feat. But not for you. Then in Closer, you cast 4 gorgeous people – Natalie Portman, Julia Roberts, Clive Owen and Jude Law – and you got them to do horribly cruel and ugly things to each other. It was a coda of sorts to Woolf, a commentary on what marriage is, what it isn’t and the cautionary warning of not being disillusioned by the difference.
In total, you directed 22 films, produced 19 of them and wrote two. Several were adaptations from the theater. Because you knew that real life is theater. You worked with everyone from Streep to Hanks, Margaret to Bergen, Beatty to Cher. Because they all wanted to work with you.
Of all the films you made, and of the ones I’ve seen, the one that resonates most is Working Girl. Released in 1988, you made Melanie Griffith a star. Alongside Harrison Ford and Sigourney Weaver, as well as Joan Cusack, Alec Baldwin and then unknown Kevin Spacey in a bit part, you reached millions of women everywhere.
This specific story, one of a working class female fighting her way through the bureaucracy, politics and gate-keeping of corporate success, one where her gender and her lack of wealthy DNA – what family you’re born into still drives so much in this country – constantly struggling against the backdrop of Wall Street, broke ground, shattered myths and revolutionized how we view what’s possible.
When Tess McGill finally has her real spotlight, in the elevator with Oren Trask, she utters the ultimate truth of Corporate America: “You can bend the rules plenty once you get to the top, but not while you’re trying to get there. And if you’re someone like me, you can’t get there without bending the rules.”
Yes, she had the mind for business and the bod for sin. And gave all of us business hopefuls the permission slip to be smart and sexy. Whatever Madonna was doing in the music industry during the ‘80s, flipping the male-dominated industry on its head, Tess achieved on screen. Because as a woman in Corporate America who wants to achieve anything, simply being smart and hard working isn’t enough. You have to use everything you got – your brains, your bod, your smile, your education, your family, your husband, your ex-lover, your network – in order to get to achieve a fraction of what men get simply by showing up. In 2014, we’re still earning only $.85 to the dollar that men earn. And hold only 5% of Fortune 500 CEO positions. Tess cracked the boy’s club by giving the men exactly what they want. While still doing so on her own terms and never once selling herself out. To anyone.
In each decade of your work, Mr. Nichols, your portrayal and respect of women went against every Hollywood norm. The women you directed were sexy and smart, soft and strong, seductive and sweet, sophisticated and sincere. You constantly went against stereotype and not only revealed the many sides of the female but also cast multiple quality actresses in your films. You gave them a platform to shine. For this I personally thank you.
You even lived it yourself, marrying a very smart, successful and beautiful woman, Diane Sawyer.
I never had the pleasure of meeting you in person. And now I have so many more of your films to watch – Silkwood, Gilda Live, Charlie Wilson’s War – and to keep discovering and rediscovering your craft. You left behind a library – a captivating film class – that captured the American culture of four very distinct decades. You showed us how we’ve been influencing and reacting to the changing economic, political and relationship landscape, often times not prepared for any of it.
And, while you and I didn’t ever meet, there’s two geographical connections we do share. I just learned you were one of the founding fathers of Chicago’s own Second City. That alone would have been enough for most.
Our other connection is our families’ origins. You were born Michael Igor Peschkowsky, in Berlin, in 1931 to Jewish parents who fled Germany in 1939. Your father, like my family, comes from the Russian background. Furthermore, when earlier this year I did my DNA test, it revealed that you and I share the K Haplogroup. Specifically, you’re a K2a and I’m a K1a. Who knows, perhaps our great-grandparents shared shots of vodka together? I bet no matter what they did, they told great stories.
And storyteller you were, Mr. Nichols. Your lens on life is a gift to all of us.
As you’re reconnecting now with some of the greats we’ve lost over the years, I bet you’re having quite a party. Enjoy. And do some Fosse with Robin and Joan. They’ll like that.