« Tap to Next Article »

20 Things You Must Know About the Films of Mike Nichols

The great director of 'The Graduate' and 'The Birdcage' has passed, but his legacy lives on.

Embassy Pictures

The film industry lost a legend when director Mike Nichols passed away yesterday at the age of 83. He was one of the few people to win every major entertainment award (Oscar, Emmy, Tony, and Grammy), but Nichols' legacy shouldn't only be marked by awards. He achieved fame as a comedian first, as one half of the bestselling comedic duo Nichols and May (alongside Elaine May, who would write The Birdcage and Primary Colors for Nichols years later). And their success took them to Broadway where they became the toast of New York City in 1960.

Nichols would find his true calling on the stage, first in Vancouver, then in New York. He became a hugely sought-after director and Hollywood came calling. He directed Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? in 1966, but it was his second film the next year, The Graduate, that would truly catapult him into rare air. 

Nichols would go on to make over 20 films, earning a reputation as a "high concept" director, one who could take simple ideas and elevate them with unforgettable details. The Graduate remains his signature and most seminal selection, a film of universal truth that refuses to age with the passing of each new generation. 

With Nichols gone, there's no better time to revisit The Graduate and all the rest of Nichols' great films (Catch-22, Carnal Knowledge, Silkwood, Working Girl, The Birdcage, to name a few). And for some added encouragement, here are 20 facts you should know about the work of the great comedian, actor, producer, and director.

Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (Warner Brothers)
Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (Warner Brothers)

1. Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? was the first motion picture since since Cimarron in 1931 to be nominated for every eligible Academy Award category: Best Adapted Screenplay (Ernest Lehman), Best Director (Nichols), all the acting categories (Richard Burton, Elizabeth Taylor, George Segal, Sandy Dennis), and Best Picture of the Year.

2. On the set of The Graduate, during Dustin Hoffman and Anne Bancroft's first encounter, Bancroft didn't know Hoffman was going to grab her breast. Hoffman decided offscreen to do it because it reminded him of boys trying to nonchalantly do the same pretending to put their jackets on in crowded school hallways. When Hoffman did it in front of the camera, Nichols began laughing loudly offscreen. Hoffman started laughing also, but rather than stop the scene, he turned away from the camera and walked to the wall where he proceeded to bang his head, trying to stop laughing. Nichols loved it and decided to leave it in.

20 Things You Must Know About the Films of Mike Nichols
Columbia Masterworks | Embassy Pictures

3. Paul Simon wrote two songs for The Graduate that Nichols rejected: "Punky's Dilemma" and "A Hazy Shade of Winter." "Mrs. Robinson" was not written for the movie; it was the working title of a song Simon was writing at the time (originally titled "Mrs. Roosevelt") and Nichols decided to include it. Simon and Art Garfunkel only sing the chorus, but none of the verses, of what would become an iconic tune. 

4. On Catch-22, Nichols oversaw one of the longest, most complex, unbroken scenes ever made. In the sequence, 16 planes, four groups of four, take off at the same time. As the scene progresses, two actors talk with one another and the camera follows them inside. The same planes can be seen through the window, climbing into formation. The problem was, for every take, the production manager had to call the planes back and have them take off again. This was done four times. 

5. For Carnal Knowledge, Nichols spent six months looking for the right girl to play Bobbie. He considered and rejected Ellen Burstyn, Jane Fonda, Raquel Welch, Natalie Wood, Karen Black, and Dyan Cannon, before settling on Ann-Margret.

6. Nichols took over directing duties on The Day of the Dolphin after Roman Polanski dropped out for an unimaginable reason: Polanski was in England scouting locations for the movie when his wife, actress Sharon Tate, was killed by the Manson Family.

7. Bette Midler lost the role of Freddie in The Fortune after she asked Nichols, "What other movies have you done?" The director then met with Cher to discuss the role, but Stockard Channing would eventually win out.

Meryl Streep in Silkwood. (20th Century Fox)
Meryl Streep in Silkwood. (20th Century Fox)

8. In an interview with American Film about Silkwood, actress Meryl Streep said of her character, Karen Silkwood: "She wasn't Joan of Arc at all. She was unsavory in some ways and yet she did some very good things... Mike (Nichols) spoke of the film as being about people being asleep in their lives and waking up: 'How did I get here?' And that's exactly how I felt."

9. Silkwood was the first of three films that Streep and Nichols would make together (Silkwood, Heartburn, Postcards from the Edge). The two also collaborated on Angels in America in 2003 for HBO.

Sigourney Weaver, Harrison Ford, and Melanie Griffith in Working Girl. (20th Century Fox)
Sigourney Weaver, Harrison Ford, and Melanie Griffith in Working Girl. (20th Century Fox)

10. On Heartburn, Nichols fired his male lead, Mandy Patinkin, after two days of shooting when he realized the actor had no chemistry with Streep. Jack Nicholson would replace Patinkin.

11. The opening and closing scenes of Biloxi Blues, of a train crossing a bridge, are the same shot. Nichols simply reversed the closing scene.

12. Nichols directed a number of Neil Simon plays on Broadway, but Biloxi Blues was the only Simon work he made into a movie.

13. On Working Girl, Kevin Spacey was brought in as a last minute replacement for the part of Bob Speck. On the day Speck's scene was shot, Nichols (who gave Spacey his first role in Heartburn) sent a car to the actor's New York apartment with a copy of the script in the back seat. Spacey learned his lines on the way to the shoot. Why the big rush? Nichols was under pressure to finish the scene so he wouldn't have to postpone his wedding to Diane Sawyer two days later. 

14. For Postcards From the Edge, Nichols asked Stephen Sondheim to write special lyrics for his song "I'm Still Here" for Shirley MacLaine to perform.

15. Nichols' 13th film, Regarding Henry, was the second movie (after Taking Care of Business) written by young screenwriter Jeffrey Abrams. He has since changed his working name to J.J.

Nathan Lane and Robin Williams in The Birdcage. (United Artists)
Nathan Lane and Robin Williams in The Birdcage. (United Artists)

16. During the filming of Wolf, starring Nicholson and Michelle Pfeiffer, Nichols wanted his lead actress to wear a red hooded sweatshirt for the film's final act. She refused as she thought it would harm the film's credibility (considering the Little Red Riding Hood reference).

17. To keep his actors happy and himself sane, Nichols required Nathan Lane and Robin Williams to film at least one good take of each scene while sticking to the script before he would allow them to improvise on the set of The Birdcage. Both actors were famous for their ability to ad lib.

18. Nichols had to be covered by a sound blanket during the toast scene in The Birdcage because he couldn't stop laughing.

19. Then President Bill Clinton enjoyed Primary Colors so much he invited John Travolta to a party. But on one condition: He had to come in character as Governor Jack Stanton. Travolta declined.

20. Nichols inserted a powerful reference at the end of Charlie Wilson's WarWhile Charlie (Tom Hanks) is standing on the balcony with Gust Avrakotos (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) celebrating the defeat of the Soviet army in Afghanistan, Gust warns Charlie of future problems if he and the other members of Congress don't follow up on the victory and offer economic aid to the Afghanis. As Gust finishes his warning, Charlie thinks about what he says and you hear an airliner flying over Washington D.C., an ominous reference to the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the Pentagon and the World Trade Center.

 [h/t to iMDB trivia, Wikipedia, and the Criterion Collection]

View Mike Nichols Pictures »