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RIP Mike Nichols (1931-2014)

The sad news of Mike Nichols’ death at age 83 had me searching for something beyond the usual The Graduate highlight reel that would illustrate what seems to me like his greatest directorial virtue: the ability to keep a tonal straight face when confronted with material whose comic or dramatic potential could quickly push matters way over the top. This Catch-22 clip serves the purpose: the famous speech explaining what Catch-22 actually is is dwarfed by the airfield it takes place on, with jets and vehicles surrounding Yossarian (Alan Arkin) and Doc Daneeka (Jack Gilford). The choreography, both human and mechanical, is immaculate and clearly extremely difficult to pull off, something like epic-era David Lean making a comedy.

Catch-22 is hardly the catastrophic disaster it was initially received as. After the set-to-stun Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?‘s energetic deployment of eccentric angles in high-contrast black and white and The Graduate‘s seismic impact (adjusted for inflation, it remains the 21st-highest grossing film in US history), there was presumably nowhere to go but down. Like 1941 after it, Catch-22 is a World War II comedy overshadowed by its formidable technical accomplishments. That’s precisely what’s helped the film age so well: the sketch comedy hits and misses, but there’s so much to look at.

Because Nichols’ work lacks overt visual continuity or obvious recurring interests, there was widespread skepticism about his claim to auteur status, with Catch-22 presumably the coda to a career that hit the same heights afterwards. That’s unfair; what’s striking throughout Nichols’ career is that tonal precision, an ability to navigate comic and dramatic registers without getting overxexcited. The Birdcage is a wacky comedy that pretends to be unaware of that factor: lots of master shots for the ensemble cast to navigate within, no desperate reaction shots of people cracking up.

Part of the reason Working Girl (one of his best films) has aged so well as a romantic comedy is because the potentially cartoonish Melanie Griffith’s aspirations to dignity within the Manhattan business world are taken seriously: the implications for her career of a fling with Harrison Ford are more important than the rote question “Will she get her man?” The material’s thorny: there’s a scene where Joan Cusack accuses Griffith of wanting to shed her Staten Island roots, abandon her friends and move to the island across the water — and it’s all true! Working Girl sympathizes with Griffith’s aspirations (who’d want to spend their life cleaning up after Alec Baldwin’s sloppy neighborhood boy?) and acknowledges what she can’t admit to herself, a quiet complication to remember during the happy ending. This was Nichols at his cinematic best: a stunning opening sequence, then a dedicated atmospheric immersion, making credible the potentially trite or condescending.

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