The world would be a bleaker place without Mike Nichols. In the 1950s, Mr. Nichols, who turns 71 today, and his comedic partner, Elaine May, changed the face of comedy with a smart, improvisational style that threw a monkey-wrench (or perhaps a rubber chicken) in the established gag-master machinery.
When the duo split in 1961, he turned his energies to directing, and was one of the first to bring the works of Neil Simon to the stage.
But what today's birthday boy is best known for is his movies. Whether comedy or drama, sad or slapstick, his films have a humanistic touch that make them as much about the characters as the situations they might find themselves in.
So, in celebration of Mr. Nichols' big day, here is a look at some career highlights:
THE GRADUATE (1967): Nominated for seven Academy Awards, Mr. Nichols' wry, sometimes dark coming-of-age tale garnered the director an Oscar and made his leading man, a very young Dustin Hoffman, a star. Unlike many films from this period, The Graduate seems as fresh and topical today as it was 35 years ago. In fact, the story was recently revisited and adapted as a successful stage play.
CARNAL KNOWLEDGE (1971): Mr. Nichols based this brittle, pitch-black comedy on the battle of the sexes, a battle he evidently felt could have no winners. Musician Art Garfunkel stars as a shy, reserved man thrown into a lifelong sexual competition with his college roommate, played by the always gregarious Jack Nicholson.
SILKWOOD (1983): Based on the true story of Karen Silkwood, a nuclear industry whistle-blower who died under mysterious circumstances, Silkwood is a film with a human, rather than political, agenda. Rather than trying to paint a big picture of nuclear woes, a la The China Syndrome, Mr. Nichols allows the small details of his characters' lives, most notably Ms. Silkwood's, to tell the larger story.
BILOXI BLUES (1988): Returning to his roots, Mr. Nichols once again directed a Neil Simon script, this time for the screen. Biloxi Blues, based on Mr. Simon's World War II Army experiences, never explores the horrors or war or even the tortured depths of his characters, but it is a light, bright verbal comedy, the kind at which both the playwright and Mr. Nichols excel.
THE BIRDCAGE (1996): The Birdcage represents an interesting hat trick of artistic challenges overcome for Mr. Nichols. Not only was he able to base a comedy in Miami's gay community without exploiting stereotypes and not only was he able to adapt a stage play without the action seeming stilted, but he was able to coax a nuanced performance out of Robin Williams. That's no mean feat. As an added bonus, he also convinced alpha male Gene Hackman that dressing in drag was a swell idea.
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