Wednesday, November 26, 2014

My Favorite Mike Nichols Movie

I've avoided commenting on the deaths of famous celebrities and artists, but every so often I have the opportunity to post something timely that could function as such. And so we come to Mike Nichols, one of the instigators of the New Hollywood era, who made small scale dramas and comedies that were wonderfully reflective of their times. He's best known for "The Graduate," the landmark 1967 coming-of-age film that launched the career of Dustin Hoffman, my favorite actor. "The Graduate" was very much a film of the '60s though, and as funny and touching as it is, I never related to it the way I did to some of Nichols' other films. Like "Working Girl," which was such a time capsule of the '80s. Or "Primary Colors," which provided an uncomfortably close look at the Clinton years. Then there's "The Birdcage," which wouldn't have worked nearly as well if it hadn't been made in the mid-90s, right as the culture was starting to change and become more accepting of LGBT folks and their relationships. I love it to bits, and it's my favorite Nichols film because it always makes me laugh.

"The Birdcage" is such a deceptively simple movie. A gay couple pretend to be straight in order to meet the conservative parents of their son's fiancee. Miscommunications cause mix-ups and misunderstandings, leading to beautifully executed comedic farce. Though very open about the homosexuality of the main characters, the movie was such a universal crowd-pleaser, even when it was released in 1996. Armand and Albert were two of the first explicitly gay characters I remember headlining such a mainstream comedy, and while I didn't have much exposure to gay relationships, I understood who they were immediately - loving parents willing to upend their lives and compromise their identities out of love for their son. "The Birdcage" is also, we must remember, a remake. "La Cage aux Folles" was first a 1973 French play, which was adapted into a 1978 French-Italian film and a 1983 American musical, both very successful. "The Birdcage" was based on the film version, which I've seen and enjoyed. It's a lovely feature that originated many of the best bits of character work and dialogue, but it has absolutely nothing on "The Birdcage," which boasts a collection of comedic greats at the top of their game.

Mike Nichols was an actor's director, and his films are all about showcasing the performances he was able to get out of his ensembles. Though a constant presence in Hollywood movies over the past twenty years, Nathan Lane never had a screen role as memorable as Albert. He's such an extreme caricature, but also such a loving one, who could be offended? Hank Azaria is monstrously talented, but has proven difficult for many creatives to use effectively. Not here, where Nichols helped him turn Agador (Spartacus!) into a scene stealer. And then there's Robin Williams, so restrained in this role compared to everything else he was making at the time, he's practically the film's straight man (so to speak), but he gets the little moments to break out when appropriate - the immortal "eclectic celebration of the dance" scene, for instance. And there was Gene Hackman in a rare comedic role. And the underappreciated Diane Wiest. And Christine Baranski at her cuddliest. And even a very young Calista Flockhart, showing off burgeoning comedic skills.

I miss comedies like this one, that were okay with being a little risque instead of hitting you over the head with vulgar content. That could take a stand for gay relationships without being a message movie. That could discuss politics but somehow never felt remotely political. That tossed a few ancient Jewish jokes into the mix just because it could. Best of all, I love that it could have a great big heart, one revealed not through a saccharine love scene, but in a wistful conversation between two middle-aged men, and when their son finally works up the courage to introduce his mother to his future in-laws. It hurts to lose Mike Nichols, who seemed to make movies like this effortlessly, and very funny, touching ones to boot. I'm not knocking iis dramas, which are consistently excellent, but to me Nichols will always be the man who knew "The Graduate" had to end with Benjamin and Elaine becoming their parents, and "The Birdcage" had to end with Gene Hackman in drag.
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What I've Seen - Mike Nichols

Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966)
The Graduate (1967)
The Fortune (1975)
Biloxi Blues (1988)
Working Girl (1988)
The Birdcage (1996)
Primary Colors (1998)
Angels in America (2003)
Closer (2004)
Charlie Wilson's War (2007)


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