Thursday, February 11, 2016

American Masters: Mike Nichols (PBS-TV, aired February 2, 2016)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2016 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

After the American Experience show on James Garfield PBS aired an American Masters program on Mike Nichols that focused on his work as a stage and film director following the breakup of his brilliant partnership with fellow improv comedian Elaine May in the early 1960’s — though they got together again when May wrote the script for Nichols’ film The Birdcage (his remake of the French Queer comedy La Cage aux Folles) and had what amounted to their final collaboration when May was assigned to direct this retrospective documentary on Nichols, who had died in 2014. It’s a fascinating film even though somehow I enjoyed the earlier PBS documentary on Nichols and May more. There were some odd choices for interviews here, including Paul Simon (included since Nichols used Simon and Garfunkel songs — famously — for the soundtrack of The Graduate, though if anything Nichols was probably closer to Garfunkel than Simon: he used Garfunkel as an actor in two of his films, the ill-regarded Catch-22 and the well-regarded Carnal Knowledge), as well as the ones you’d expect, like Dustin Hoffman and Meryl Streep. The show included clips from Nichols’ films — he’s the sort of director devotees of the auteur theory can’t stand because, like William Wyler, he went out of his way to make as many different kinds of movies as possible instead of settling into any one groove (one critic with little use for the auteur theory once joked, “An auteur is a director who makes the same movie over and over again”) — including his HBO tele-movie adaptation of Tony Kushner’s play Angels in America. It’s a film I’ve avoided watching (just as I’ve avoided all productions of the play) not only because entertainments that assume the truth of the HIV/AIDS model are slow going for me but also because what I’d heard of the play seemed like the piece drowned in its own pretentiousness, its attempt to use AIDS as a metaphor for every aspect of the human condition its author doesn’t like. Still, Nichols was mostly a down-to-earth filmmaker, and any director who could start out with the one-two punch of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and The Graduate earned his place in the pantheon right there.