Saturday, November 22, 2014

Great comedian, mediocre moviemaker: Deceased Artiste Mike Nichols

I come to praise one Mike Nichols. And bury another.

First, Nichols the comedian. As the male half of the Nichols and May team (the “she” being Elaine May), Mike Nichols was an imaginative, poker-faced, utterly brilliant, and wildly funny performer and writer.

Then came Nichols the film director. [Note: I will not write about his career as a theater director because that is not my specialty, nor is it my interest. Saw two of his theater productions, and although both were critically heralded, it seemed as if the shows could have been directed by anyone with any level of solid craftsmanship.] The first four films showed incredible promise and talent. He evoked superb performances and had an identity as a director. By 1973, all that identity went out the window and he became a mainstream mulch-meister. His films may have contained great performances (and some pretty lousy ones), but Mike Nichols the director wasn’t wretched. He was simply another Herbert Ross. Or Arthur Hiller. Or Gene Saks.

So let me first praise the inventive, imaginative, very original part of Nichols’ career. He was a founding member of the Compass troupe in Chicago, along with May and Shelley Berman. The Compass preceded the Second City — by the time that moniker came around, Berman and Mike & Elaine had decided to pursue separate comedy careers. 

Berman, of course, became one of the first great modern standups, while Nichols and May were the first modern comedy team (read: their material was not dependent on them playing the same characters over and over — in fact they never repeated the same characters, something that would be verboten in today’s franchise-friendly comedy universe).

Nichols and May were part of a wave of American comedy that also included Jonathan Winters, Mort Sahl, and the one and only Lenny Bruce. Together the group were dubbed “sick comics” because they regularly dealt with grim topics and they depicted homespun, “all-American” topics in a wry, knowing, utterly sarcastic and sardonic way. As with the utterly timeless “Mother and Son” sketch from N&M:

While Nichols and May explored the mechanics of male-female relationships beautifully, they didn’t only play couples (or family members). Some of their best-remembered bits focus on bureaucracy and (a theme also explored by Berman) the way that one clings to any ounce of humanity one can find when dealing with bureaucracy. This is best illustrated by their “telephone routine,” a bit that the book The Compass: Improvisational Theatre that Revolutionized American Comedy by Janet Coleman indicates was created by May and Berman, thus explaining why both acts did variations on it after leaving the Compass.

The bit is perfectly calculated, in that May’s female characters grow “warmer” as Nichols’ caller moves through the gauntlet of operators. The middle operator also is a definite precursor to Lily Tomlin’s “Ernestine” character.

Nichols and May were a giant success in their day, and radically different from all that had come before them — thus my noting that they deserve a Mark Twain Prize, as do Sahl, Dick Gregory, and the Smothers Brothers.

Their humor evoked laughs, but thoughtful ones (yes, theirs could be described as “egghead comedy”). For the most part, Mike and Elaine played incredibly quiet characters, so many of their routines — especially the ones on their Improvisations to Music LP and their appearances on the radio show Monitor — are master classes in deadpan humor.
Both were razor-sharp comedy writers when they were a team, but more importantly they were great ad-libbers. Those listening to their routines these days can hear their influence on everyone from Stiller and Meara (who wonderfully filled the void left when N&M broke up) to the Portlandia pair. They rewrote the rules of male-female byplay in comedy.

And then they broke up, with Elaine May first working as an actress and then a (talented but too indulgent) film director and playwright. Nichols turned to stage direction and then film, and never wrote a word of comedy again. Perhaps they both needed each other to be funny, but I know that I, as a major Nichols and May fan, would be willing to swap out even the best of Nichols’ films —yes, even The Graduate and Carnal Knowledge — to get some more of his comedy with Elaine. I would certainly be willing to trade the hours that I spent watching the indelibly mediocre Working Girl, Heartburn, Regarding Henry, Wolf, and on and on.

That is why one can be delighted at the discovery of the many (many!) sketches Nicholas and May wrote and performed for the Monitor radio series. Here is one such bit — two twists in the course of a two-minute piece of comedy.

Onto Nichols the filmmaker. He had evident skill working at actors, while not demanding too much of them in the last three and half decades (with Harrison Ford, Tom Hanks, and Julia Roberts, only so much can be given in the first place).

His experience staging plays obviously benefited his first film as a director, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf (1966). He and screenwriter Ernest Lehman did a little ill-advised "opening up" of the play, but for the most part Nichols just made sure to spotlight Burton's long-suffering husband and Elizabeth Taylor's career-changing turn as a shrill shrew (a great performance, but one she continued to give for the next 20 years). 

The Graduate (1967) remains a perfect time piece of its era, the kind that could be enjoyed by both young people and their parents (Easy Rider and Midnight Cowboy it is not). It's a great film that reflects Nichols' awareness of the alienation techniques used by the iconic European filmmakers of the time, from Antonioni to Godard. Although it came after Virginia Woolf, it seemed to be Nichols' debut as a director, signifying that he was “going to do great things.” (Caution: Postcards from the Edge lies ahead.)

Nichols' next movie also captured the vibe of the Sixties very well, but bombed at the box office. Catch-22 (1970) was an excellent distillation of Joseph Heller's landmark anti-war masterpiece of “black comedy.” Nichols had a tight rein on the material and made sure to keep the picture moving while still presenting some of the troubling and touching repetition from Heller's original.

The cast was a scarily impressive round-up of comic (and dramatic) performers, but the film was trounced soundly by Robert Altman's M*A*S*H*, which derived from a much (much) lesser novel. Altman, however, was able to imbue the non-stellar material (that endless football game at the end!) with an even stronger Sixties vibe. It is time, however, to reappraise Catch-22.

Nichols' first two features are considered his most important, but Carnal Knowledge (1971) is probably his best film, as it combines a tight, character-driven script, razor-sharp performances, and a modern, identifiable visual style (an element missing from Nichols' work after this). The style can be readily identified as the play-to-the-camera, “conversations as interviews” approach used by Godard in Masculin-Feminin.

The other important thing about Carnal Knowledge is that it plays against the wistful nostalgia for the Fifties that was so prominent in Seventies culture in America. Jules Feiffer's screenplay (decades before Mad Men was a glimmer in anyone's eye) focuses on the sexist mindset that was at the forefront of the “good old days,” leading to the final play-acting scene that is the perfect resolution for the picture (and a sequence in which the POV quality of the visuals underscores the emptiness of Nicholson's character's sexist “script”).

After Carnal came The Day of the Dolphin (1973), which was (ouch) a watershed in Nichols' career. From that point on, his visual style is nondescript (barely there, just spotlight the actors and let 'em roll), the scripts are standard-issue Hollywood mulch, and the performances are a mixed bag of intensity with accents (Meryl Streep, who I do think is marvelous even in absolute crap like Heartburn and Postcards) and likeable nothingness (the aforementioned Ms. Roberts).

So Nichols shed his filmmaking identity in the early Seventies and never looked back. [Note: I have not seen Angels in America — someday, when my patience for Al's upper-register acting is stronger....]. Even the best of Nichols' post-Dolphin movies — say, a taut, meaningful drama like Silkwood (1983), which is superbly acted — could have been directed by any of the skilled Hollywood craftsmen who made such message dramas. For instance: James Bridges could've directed Silkwood and Nichols could've made China Syndrome, and the results would have very likely been the same. (At times, Nichols' films have seemed identical to those of Rob Reiner.)

Now that he's left us, I'll choose to remember and enthusiastically celebrate the Mike Nichols of Nichols and May, who broke new ground in comedy and was extremely versatile and inventive. Their routines might be dated in certain regards, but the majority of them (like all well-crafted humor) are timeless.

There are several Nichols and May TV commercials on YouTube. In this regard N&M were closest to Stan Freberg, in that they mocked the conventions of TV advertising while also hyping the product. Most of them are cartoons (for Jax and Narragansett beer). One of the most elaborate is this amazing piece trumpeting GE Refrigerators.

One of their best ad campaigns was for the IRS. As with their other ads, they created tiny little sketches in which they embodied melodramatic stereotypes and put the pitch for the product directly in the dialogue (as here). In this regard you might call their ads “ironic,” but they did definitely offer a solid pitch.

A very peculiar IRS spot in which Mike can't stop shaving the couple's dog:

And a very suitable setting for a Nichols and May routine, the therapist’s couch.

Mike and Elaine only released three albums, but each one is a classic. The bits from the albums have been reissued in various permutations. Two of the records were “concept albums,” so it's best to hear all of the bits in a row. As with Nichols and May Examine Doctors:

The tracks from all three albums can be found on this YouTube poster's account. (Beware: there are all kinds of music tracks in the mix; it's probably the only place you'll hear “Gangnam Style” pop up amongst N&M routines.)

One of their best audio concept pieces is from the album Improvisations to Music. “Bach to Bach” finds them playing an utterly pretentious couple out on their first date, listening to classical music in his apartment. Their condemnation of their bourgeois families is wonderful, as is Mike's bit where he agrees with some feeble point that Elaine's character has made (“I know exactly what you mean... exactly!”):

As with a lot of TV rarities, the only access the public has had to some of the best Nichols and May clips was through documentaries, like this great American Masters tribute to the team. Thankfully, some of the best bits have been posted on YT independent of the talking heads (and in their entirety).

Here the pair play a dentist and his patient in a parody of hammy Hollywood romances:

A bit that has to be seen to be enjoyed (in fact, I don't think it's on any of the records). Mike tries to put the moves on Elaine, as the duo play teenagers on a date. This is one of their most physical bits, as the characters try to figure out how to make out and keep smoking.

The final quartet of bits that mock hypocrisy and bureaucracy are must-sees. In the first routine, they play coworkers at the water cooler discussing the current game show scandal that is being investigated by the government (this happened in 1959). The best thing about the bit is that even though it involves a very specific historical event it remains relevant because it addresses the things that politicians and the media deem “important” (namely, so-called moral issues) and those they ignore (freedom and the like).

The next clip, about the money-grubbing habits of funeral parlors, is part of a larger body of black comedy that addresses the funeral “industry” (from the novel and film The Loved One to the Python sketch about burning or eating one's relative). Again, the hypocrisy is addressed through characterization: May makes a perfect “sympathy lady” who is first and foremost a saleswoman:

A beautiful takedown of show-business bullshit, a sketch from the Emmy Awards in which Elaine, as a very deadpan version of herself, gives the “Total Mediocrity Award” to Mike, who plays a man who consciously makes “garbage” TV, listening to the sponsors and not producing anything of merit.

I wouldn't go so far as to accuse Nichols of becoming this character in his later life, but a quick scan of his filmography will show he made some films that could've qualified him for the award. The Garry Shandling comedy What Planet Are You From?, The Day of the Dolphin, and oh yeah, Wolf spring to mind immediately, although certain “prestige” items like Primary Colors and Postcards from the Edge are squarely in that “Total Mediocrity” range.

In any case, this bit is just brilliant:

I close out with a truly classic routine, which I am very grateful to have found on YT. For obvious reasons (read: dealings with hospitals) both my parents had described this bit frequently, but I've never seen it until now. It's a hospital sketch, in which Mike is a man whose arm has been broken and Elaine is the business-like reception-desk nurse who is checking him in.

This sort of bit became regular fare on TV sketch shows over the years, but seeing it done by “the originals” is startlingly refreshing. None of the broader strokes favored by SNL, none of the over-the-top acting that is characteristic of today's comedy vehicle movies. Just Elaine cracking gum and asking a stream of questions as Mike sighs and says, “Forgive me, I'm a troublemaker. I'm sorry.”

Nichols and May reunited a few times after their breakup, but their only major collaborations were the films The Birdcage and Primary Colors (she wrote the scripts, he directed the films). You're better off with the three albums.


Lisa H. said...

The "bad" films are easy to pan but doesn't that relate more to his choice of big-budget studio projects than to his directing capabilities? That he didn't develop an obvious signature style was also a choice. But if you think about Carnal Knowledge, The Graduate, and Catch-22, they all have a claustrophobic, foreboding mood. They are all rife with (and end in) ambiguity. And they all deal with deeper psychological material than the flops or the popular films of the 80s and 90s.

He recreated that mood very successfully in the late 90s with The Designated Mourner, another complex critique of modern culture. It seems like his real insight and skill were more evident when he could tackle the serious, non-topical stuff. Which was the same source for the comedy.

Media Funhouse said...

As I noted, I do see the complexities and a very interesting visual style in the four early films (three of which you're praising); they are great films. But the air went out of the balloon with "Dolphin," and it really never came back. His choice was to stick with surface-level material, and even when it wasn't surface-level (as with "Silkwood"), he still just spotlighted the actors and took no real position on the subject at hand. He seems to have chosen "comfort" over complexity from '73 on.

He acted in "Designated Mourner" (his only big acting role post-N&M) but he didn't direct it, David Hare did.