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DIRECTING A LASTING VISION OF AMERICA

Published Nov. 21, 2014

Where have you gone, Mike Nichols? Our nation always turned its lonely eyes to you.

Like Mrs. Robinson in a director's chair, Mr. Nichols seduced audiences spanning seven decades, making us think differently about mediums and their messages to an America in transition.

Mr. Nichols, who was married to broadcaster Diane Sawyer, died of cardiac arrest Wednesday night in New York at age 83, leaving behind generations he redefined on stage and screens, large and small.

Binge-watching his movies would be a crash course on counterculture, a history of outsiders finding new ways in. Funny, sad or somber, Mr. Nichols knew what makes us tick, and how to wind it up.

The suburban rebellion of The Graduate, and Mr. Nichols' cracked mirror reflection of Vietnam in Catch-22. The sexual revolution's dark side exposed in Carnal Knowledge. Bringing gay culture into the mainstream with The Birdcage, then eulogizing its AIDS losses with Angels in America. The no-nukes warning of Silkwood and the rise of the Working Girl.

Each of these cinematic signposts pointed in a new cultural direction, often with sardonic grace. Mr. Nichols seldom preached on what should be done; he preferred that we'd make up our own minds, laying out options and suggesting consequences.

Movies were Mr. Nichols' widest gateway to America's psyche but not the only one. Every tribute is obligated to remind us of his rare EGOT status - winning at least one Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony.

Looking back at the range of Mr. Nichols' craft and influence, EGOT posterity isn't enough.

Comedy was never the same after Mr. Nichols teamed with Elaine May in 1957, bringing improvisation out of rehearsal shadows and into the spotlight. Neither was a celebrity when they quit the act at their height of popularity in 1961, each choosing to write and direct, first for the stage.

Mr. Nichols' Broadway credits could fill a Playbill and his mantel with nine Tony awards for directing and producing. At one point in the '60s, he had four shows running simultaneously.

Mr. Nichols introduced Neil Simon to Broadway, in 1964 with Barefoot in the Park and three other plays later. He directed the late Philip Seymour Hoffman's last hurrah onstage in 2012's Death of a Salesman revival. Mr. Nichols was there for Annie's first Tomorrow and Spamalot's last stand, from Chekov to Rabe, a resume perhaps surpassing his more widely familiar filmography.

But it was in films that Mr. Nichols truly shifted popular culture. Movies changed after 1967's The Graduate made Hollywood skew younger, making stars of atypical actors like Dustin Hoffman and telling stories of disenchanted youth.

The previously unheard profanity of Mr. Nichols' movie debut, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf in 1966, sparked a debate leading to the creation of the MPAA ratings system. Working Girl showed that a head for business and a bod for sin could co-exist. Without The Birdcage and Angels in America, gay stereotypes might still abound.

Now Mr. Nichols and his commiserate wit are memories, and fans are left feeling like Benjamin and Elaine in the back of that bus at the end of The Graduate. Cue the Simon and Garfunkel, wonder what comes next, and if anyone will ever again explain it as gracefully as Mike Nichols.

Contact Steve Persall at spersall@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8365.

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Notable works

Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966): Nichols made his feature directing debut with an adaptation of Edward Albee's critically acclaimed but controversially profane play. But casting Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton proved to be an inspired choice, and the film racked up 13 Academy Award nominations, winning five.

The Graduate (1967): Heralding the beginning of the New Hollywood era, it was a critical and commercial success that earned seven Academy Award nominations and won Nichols an Oscar for best director.

Silkwood (1983): After a series of misfires, Nichols rebounded with this fact-based drama about a whistle-blower at a nuclear power plant. The film teamed Nichols with Meryl Streep for the first time, but not the last. Theyhad been developing Master Class, an HBO piece, at the time of Nichols' death.

Working Girl (1988): For one of his warmer, wackier films Nichols coaxed first-rate comedic turns from Melanie Griffith, Sigourney Weaver and Joan Cusack, all of whom received Oscar nominations.

The Birdcage (1996): Nichols' highest-grossing film corralled a star-studded cast (Robin Williams, Gene Hackman, Nathan Lane, Dianne Wiest) in the boisterous tale of a gay couple pretending to be straight.

Charlie Wilson's War (2007): Nichols' final film starred Tom Hanks as the titular congressman, a high-living wheeler-dealer who teamed with a wealthy socialite (Julia Roberts) and a gruff CIA operative (Philip Seymour Hoffman) to aid Afghan mujahedeen against the Soviet Union.

Los Angeles Times (TNS)

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