- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 4, 2003

Just as there are those who say rock music died in 1972, so there are movie buffs who swear by a similar expiration date for great movies. The maverick filmmakers of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, they say, were cinema’s last best hope.

A short list of these lamented raging bulls would include directors Hal Ashby, Sam Peckinpah and Francis Ford Coppola.

And Mike Nichols.

Except Mike Nichols, at 72, is still busy working. He assuredly doesn’t think movies are dead. He cites talented younger directors such as Steven Soderbergh, Alexander Payne and Anthony Minghella as proof of the vitality of the craft.

Mr. Nichols would know, because he’s friends with all of them. And, whaddya know, their movies — with a punchy style, carefully mannered realism and deadpan social satire — often look like movies directed by … Mike Nichols.

It all comes full circle in filmmaking, as Mr. Nichols well knows. He admits to borrowing liberally from Hollywood’s Himalayan legends: Billy Wilder, George Stevens, Preston Sturges, among others.

“We all steal from each other all the time,” the director says in a phone interview. “When something is properly stolen, you can never identify it.”

By his own count, he has attempted to filch a scene from Leni Riefenstahl’s propaganda movie “Triumph of the Will” at least three times — a frame in which the camera tracks behind a crowd of people and creates the illusion that its subject is floating.

Try and find it in “The Graduate” or “Carnal Knowledge” or “Catch 22” or “Biloxi Blues.”

But movies have been only a part-time job for Mr. Nichols. As the director of hit plays such as “The Odd Couple,” “Plaza Suite” and “Barefoot in the Park,” it’s safe to say he conquered Broadway, too.

And, oh, there was that pioneering little improvisational revue he co-founded with Alan Arkin, Paul Sills and Elaine May after graduating from the University of Chicago — the Second City comedy troupe.

The director, one of only a handful of grandees to have won an Oscar, a Tony, an Emmy and a Grammy (in 1962, for the cast recording of “An Evening with Mike Nichols and Elaine May”), can now add Kennedy Center Honor to his laurels.

“It’s an honor to be in the company I find myself in,” says Mr. Nichols, who was born Michael Peshkowsky to Russian Jewish emigres who fled Berlin before World War II.

As far as directorial debuts go, Mike Nichols’ is hard to beat — 1966’s “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” He learned quickly about two words every artist cherishes: creative freedom.

“I was immediately confident as soon as I had my first confrontation with Jack Warner,” he says, referring to the late Warner Bros. studio boss.

Mr. Warner wanted “Virginia Woolf” shot in color — except he didn’t come out and say so. Mr. Nichols says the executive blamed a phantom entity, “New York” or “some other part of Warner Brothers” he supposedly couldn’t control.

“I said, ‘I’m sorry, that isn’t possible,’” Mr. Nichols recalls. Elizabeth Taylor was only 31 at the time, playing a 50-year-old; color would have given the make-up game away. “I said, ‘You make it in color. I’ll go home.’ He said, ‘OK, you win … Come for dinner Friday night.’

“From that point on, I got to do what I thought was right,” Mr. Nichols says.

“You carry that freedom within you if you’re a director,” he continues. “People like Steven Soderbergh and Sofia Coppola are an excellent demonstration of that. They are free, and they are artists.

“All of them, from the very first film they shot, belong to no one but themselves, and that’s what it’s all about,” he says.

If that sounds like Stand Your Ground 101 in auteur school, so be it; Mr. Nichols says it remains a constant in a changing movie industry. With this difference: These days, there are more bodies at studio planning and marketing meetings. “It just swells the amount of people whom you have to resist,” he says.

While massive budgets, global marketing demands, computer technology and demographic segmentation have altered moviemaking, the basics are still the basics, and Mr. Nichols says he still loves the nitty-gritty of filmmaking. “A very expensive and somewhat oversold commodity is achievement,” he says. “The real bargain in this business is process. Making movies is a process that I do enjoy very much.”

Not all of Mr. Nichols’ movies have set the industry on fire like his opening salvo, shattering as those films did sexual taboos and reinventing cinematographic technique.

With Simon and Garfunkel’s soundtrack to “The Graduate,” he was also the first to incorporate pop music into movie scores, a feature now so commonplace that many films are little more than MTV videos with dialogue.

There have been misfires: “The Fortune,” “Wolf.” There have been recoveries: “Working Girl,” “The Birdcage.”

Mr. Nichols is equable about the iffy nature of his craft: “One of the things about movies is they’re like a snowball. You get them rolling down the hill, and all you can do is hope you’ve started rolling it in the right direction.”

A movie is like a dialectic, he says — a creative push and pull between two opposing points of view. The trick is to reach a satisfying synthesis.

On that score, Billy Wilder once gave him a sage piece of advice.

“He said, ‘Don’t forget to leave some string for the pearls.’”

Meaning?

“Meaning, don’t make every moment magnificent. Sometimes, someone just gets up and gets in the shower.”

Mike Nichols has made a string of pearls that few film directors can rival.

That’s why the onetime raging bull, now aging bull, will soon be wearing a Kennedy Center Honor around his neck.


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