I begin the first reflection in The Way with a quote from Pierre Teilhard de Chardin: “The whole of life lies in the verb seeing.” Mike Nichols taught my generation how to see.
College students in the 60’s memorized the improvisational comedy routines he did with his partner Elaine May. They and their contemporaries didn’t tell jokes like Bob Hope and Milton Berle and other favorites of the “greatest generation.” Their humor was different, edgier, situational rooted in the angst, neuroses, and existential panic of the first generation to grow up with the bomb.
Nichols first film, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf exposed people to a view of marriage and relationship that was the polar opposite of “Leave It to Beaver” and “Father Knows Best.” It shocked viewers as it hurtled forward at roller coaster speed moving audiences from laughter to heartbreak and back.
His second film, The Graduate (1967) was a cri de coeur for a generation who was being told that the future was “plastic.” The same year the film was released, “Don’t Trust Anyone over 30” became the generation’s slogan. Dustin Hoffman’s Benjamin, the rebel without a clue, became the symbol of its confusion and unrest, so much so that the July 11, 1969 cover of Life magazine features an image of Dustin Hoffman contrasted with an image of John Wayne and the caption: “Dusty and the Duke—A Choice of Heroes.” (I have a copy of the magazine.) At the end of “The Graduate” Dustin Hoffman and Katherine Ross, accompanied by the music of Simon and Garfunkel, escape without having any idea of where they were going. The songs gave voice to Benjamin’s inarticulate longing and to that of much of my generation.
More often than not his best films portrayed people trying not to lose their souls in an increasingly impersonal world. He followed The Graduate with an adaptation of Joseph Heller’s novel Catch 22 a satire of war that mirrored the nation’s frustration with Vietnam. Silkwood dramatized the efforts of the whistleblower heroine, and gave voice to baby-boomer paranoia and legitimate distrust of faceless corporations. Charlie Wilson’s War, Nichols last film in a career that spanned forty years, depicted an anti-hero’s maneuvering his way through the swamp of government bureaucracy in Washington.
Mike Nichols was an artist of his age and for the ages. His work challenged and inspired me and I will miss him.