38th AFI Life Achievement Award: A Tribute To Mike Nichols
Aired on TV Land on June 26 at 9 p.m. ET/PT.
The American Film Institute's (AFI) Board of Trustees selected Mike Nichols to receive the 38th AFI Life Achievement Award, the highest honor for a career in film. The award was presented to Nichols at a gala tribute in Los Angeles on June 10, 2010.
"Genius is a word oft overused in our world, but surely not in the case of Mike Nichols," said Stringer. "His artistry
has spanned the mediums of modern storytelling — movies, television and the stage — and his gifts across five decades continue to inspire artists and audiences alike. It is AFI's honor to present him with its 38th Life
Born Michael Igor Peschkowsky to an intellectual Jewish family in Berlin, 7-year-old Mike Nichols made it out of Germany in 1939, alone with
his younger brother, on one of the last refugee boats to dock in
New York harbor.
His Dalton School classmate and later collaborator Buck Henry
remembers that Nichols was "as outside as an outsider can get," and Nichols jokes that the only two sentences he knew in English were
"I do not speak English" and "Please do not kiss me." But he was
determined to fit in as quickly as possible. So he started listening.
"I think there is an immigrant's ear that is particularly acute," Nichols reflected. "At its highest and most extreme form, it leads to great artists like Joseph Conrad and Stoppard and Nabokov. They've digested a new language and culture and made it more expressive in some way. You're forever looking at something as someone who just got here."
Nichols put his feel for American speech to work in his groundbreaking partnership with Elaine May. They got their start in Chicago's Compass Players and, by 1960, their brilliant, acerbic routines had made them the hottest — and most sophisticated — ticket on Broadway. John Lahr remarks: "With Nichols and May, Jewish angst, Freud, literacy, irony, and sex were ushered into the discourse of mainstream comedy."
By the time their partnership ended in 1962, Nichols had absorbed lessons that would last throughout his career: "Elaine and I had a motto, which applies to this day: The only safe thing is to take a chance."
But Nichols didn't know what to do next, and his pal Leonard Bernstein told him, "Oh, Mikey, you're so good. I don't know at what, but you're
What he was good at, it turned out, was directing. When theatrical producer Saint Subber asked him to direct Neil Simon's Barefoot In The Park, Nichols realized he had found his calling: "In the first fifteen minutes of the first day's rehearsal, I understood that this was my job, this was what I had been preparing to do without knowing it."
The play would lead to an astounding theatrical career, including eight Tony Awards, as well as memorable stagings of plays by Lillian Hellman, David Rabe and Tom Stoppard, and most recently Eric Idle's Spamalot. Neil Simon has said, "I have never worked with anyone in my life, nor will I ever work with anyone, as good as Mike Nichols."
Nichols's growing reputation as a theater director led to his first film
job and it was baptism by fire. Controversy over the language in Edward Albee's play and the personal lives of its stars had ensured that WHO'S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF? would be among the most anticipated films of 1966, and some Hollywood insiders doubted that a first-time director could handle it. To prepare, Nichols spent weeks locked in
a screening room, poring over films by Fellini, Truffaut, Elia Kazan, and George Stevens, while soliciting advice from established filmmakers
like Billy Wilder.
His preparation paid off, and the film stunned critics with a tactile, kinetic camera that captured the timeless work of an ensemble for the ages, led by the raw, transfixing performance by Elizabeth Taylor. Throughout the production, Nichols sought to stay faithful to the
play's ambiguities, over the objections of studio head Jack Warner.
The triumph of this landmark film lies in the searing portrait Nichols draws of a couple who are at once so violently at odds and yet
so deeply in love.
Nichols received an Oscar nomination for VIRGINIA WOOLF, but
with his next venture, he both won the Oscar and carved out an
everlasting place for himself in film history. "THE GRADUATE is
one of those movies that feel at once brilliantly original and inevitable," writes San Francisco Chronicle critic Steve Winn, who describes the film as "hard-wired into the culture's filmic DNA."
Viewers are still debating whether THE GRADUATE is a mockery
or a celebration of the counterculture, whether Benjamin Braddock is (in Roger Ebert's words) "an admirable rebel" or "a self-centered creep," and whether any happiness truly awaits Benjamin and Elaine
in the film's "happy" ending.
Nichols's artistic audacity lies precisely in this refusal to explain the deeper implications of these films that seem so perfectly lucid in every other way. In SILKWOOD he brought us an outspoken heroine whose humanity threatened to undermine the integrity of her crusade. In CARNAL KNOWLEDGE, he outraged many by casting a savage eye on male sexual conquest. And in WORKING GIRL, he had us rooting for a screwball heroine in a modern world. It is a film that
ultimately celebrates the immigrant experience and all the tiny tales that make up the American dream.
In 2003, just when the world had defined the boundaries of theater and film, Nichols astounded us again with the visual inventiveness
of ANGELS IN AMERICA, translating Tony Kushner's masterpiece
of theater into a masterpiece of cinema. Dreams and reality are
conflated in a way that is at once extravagant and naturalistic; hope and despair fuse as one. For critic A. O. Scott, Nichols's ANGELS
"is about the decision to live as though the world were comic — which is to say, secular, forgiving, forward-looking — in the face of growing evidence that it is, more often and more fundamentally, the opposite."
Mike Nichols likes to quote his favorite line from THE PHILADELPHIA STORY: "The time to make up your mind about people is never." Perhaps what we can wish for is that Mike Nichols will continue
to surprise us with the tremendous chances he takes — and hope the day never comes when he decides to make up his mind about us.
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