Mike Nichols is one of that select group who won the showbiz Grand Slam - Tony, Oscar, Grammy, Emmy. But I liked him as a stage director rather than a film director - with the exception of his last Broadway blockbuster, the Monty Python Spamalot, of which he should be thoroughly ashamed. Did you know he produced Annie? That's a versatile fellow: from Carnal Knowledge to "You're Never Fully Dressed Without A Smile" within a half-decade. And, unlike almost every other oldster in showbiz, he retained both his cool and his bankability right up until his death this week at the age of 83.
His first film, in 1966, was Who's Afraid Of Virginia Woolf?, with Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor. Nichols followed it with The Graduate, which he put together as expertly as those politico-celeb dinner parties he and his wife Diane Sawyer were a mainstay of: an eccentric novel by Charles Webb but given a conventional Hollywood comedy adaptation by Buck Henry but decked out with sorta kinda New Wavish directing tics by Nichols but hepped out by every suburban cul-de-sac's favourite folky pop duo Simon and Garfunkel. It's all too cutely calculated for words, and Nichols' original choice for Mrs Robinson — Doris Day — would have made it cuter still. But Dodo said no-no, and they went with Anne Bancroft, whose Mrs R is real in a way that no one circling around her is quite. (There are a couple of Graduate-casting gags in the Marilyn Monroe bit of The [Un]documented Mark Steyn, as it happens.) It's a wonderful lesson in how to communicate through faraway looks and deadpan delivery, how to conjure a whole life through the smallest of gestures, like the sour snap of a cigarette lighter. The Bancroft performance balances an already somewhat self-conscious turn by Dustin Hoffman, although it's considerably less mannered than his later efforts. The hit song was "Here's to you, Mrs Robinson", whose genesis for the film Paul Simon recounted to me many years later. Simon was late delivering the score, and Nichols asked him whether he'd finished the big number about Mrs Robinson. "I think so," he said, "but I'm not sure if it's 'Mrs Robinson' or it's 'Mrs Roosevelt'."
"It's 'Mrs Robinson'," snapped Nichols. "We're making a movie here." He was professional like that. The Graduate was the first and best of his attempts to skewer — or at least package — a moment in the culture. There followed Catch-22 and Carnal Knowledge and Silkwood and Working Girl before the diminishing returns spiraled all the way down to The Birdcage, the hideous anglicized version of La Cage aux Folles, in which Nathan Lane's portly middle-aged drag queen earnestly tells Gene Hackman's stereotypical right-wing hate-figure of a Republican senator: "I meant what I said about family values and the need for a return to morality." Nichols and his old comedy partner Elaine May (his writer on Birdcage) were always liberals but they weren't always so earnestly doctrinaire. In that sense, his career mirrored the broader trajectory of the Hollywood left.
The defining film of Nichols' later years was Primary Colors, which he optioned shortly after the novel "by Anonymous" hit the bookstands. He then spent five years turning it into a deeply naive film about cynicism - hardball politics in soft focus and drizzled in saccharine. It opened in America in 1998, a few weeks after Monica Lewinsky hit the front pages. It was a crowded market for Clinton pictures that season: not only Primary Colors, but also Wag the Dog, The Full Monty, Slick Will Hunting... Despite its starry luster, Colors was a wash-out, and studio execs spent much time speculating on why it flopped: America was suffering from 'scandal overload', there was no market for political flicks, etc. What no one mentioned was that just about everyone involved — director/producer Nichols, screenwriter May, star John Travolta, supporting players Billy Bob Thornton, Rob Reiner, Larry Hagman, Robert Klein — is a Clinton supporter and that this is not perhaps the best starting point for effective satire. Perhaps that's why the film version manages to be incredibly faithful to the novel (also by a Clinton supporter - Joe Klein - but operating under the liberating cover of anonymity) and yet completely miss its gleeful insanity.
For example, in the book, Jack Stanton, the Clinton figure, winds up in the wee small hours at the Krispy Kreme donut shop, sitting at the counter babbling away to the disabled clerk. In Klein's novel, the scene conveys the manic neediness of Stanton: he cannot leave, he cannot quit yakking. In Nichols and May's version, the same scene with the same donuts and the same clerk shows us instead, with the help of the orchestral accompaniment, how Stanton cares for the little people: "You let a man like that go down, you don't deserve to take up space on this planet, do you?"
In Klein's novel, Stanton says that kind of thing, too, but only because he has a dizzyingly multi-layered hollowness: beneath the surface is just more surface. Nichols and May take the schmooze at face value, which may be touchingly sincere on their part, but in comedic terms is a disaster. Every hilarious little riff — the all-night "mommathon" in which Jack and his cronies blub about their mommas and sing "You Are My Sunshine"; the impenetrable folksy aphorisms about hunters taking a dump in the woods - all of these are almost immediately derailed by ponderous agonizing about compromised principles and lost idealism. As we saw from the great non-tide of resignations in the Year of Monica, there wasn't a lot of idealistic agonizing going on in the Clinton circle.
But then pure satire rarely survives the Hollywood process. Travolta put on weight and mastered most of the touchy feely pouty-schmoozy mannerisms; in the Hillary role, Emma Thompson has certainly got the brisk, all-business grating whine, like the robotic voice in your car that tells you to fasten your seatbelt. (Typical Hollywood: Get in a Brit for the unsympathetic part.) But both performances undermine their characters: Travolta can do likeable, but not the ferocious narcissistic temper tantrums of Klein's Stanton; Miss Thompson's First Lady has none of the ruthless calculation of the novel. The real Hillary's characteristically clumsy support for amnesty delivered at a swank banquet the other day - "It's about people's lives, people, I would venture to guess, who served us tonight" - is more revealing than anything in Nichols' film.
The key line is delivered by Stanton's aide Daisy (Maura Tierney): "They say Hitler never looked at another woman after he met Eva Braun. Does that make him better than Kennedy?" That line ought to come across as slightly nutty - an instant reach for the most absurd variant of what we'd now called Godwin's Law. Except you realize the film-makers mean it. And, bizarrely, echoes of it started turning up in the more ambitious Clinton defenses. "Hitler was monogamous," warned Richard Cohen in The Washington Post a few months after the film came out. What was self-evidently ludicrous about Primary Colors upon its release came to seem weirdly prescient within months: "It's the shit no one ever calls you on because you're so f**kin' special," lesbian troubleshooter Libby (Kathy Bates) sneers sarcastically to Stanton. Indeed. A year later, back in the real world, Dems still refused to call Clinton on his shit because he's so f**kin' special. But why? Alas, Nichols and May get so bogged down in plot mechanics that all the brio of the novel drains away.
So the guy who gave America Carnal Knowledge wound up sending a valentine to Bill Clinton for limousine liberals everywhere. The film's philosophy is summed up by a political operative: "I can tell the difference between a guy who believes what I believe and lies about it" - that would be the Clinton character - "and a guy who just doesn't give a f**k" - that would be [Insert Name Of Any Old Republican Candidate Here]. "I'll take the liar." Like I said, a deeply naive film about cynicism. Yet within a year it was every liberal insider's defense of their guy, and the next guy, and now the first guy's wife.
But I don't think the Mike Nichols of The Graduate would have cared for it, or for its glib self-satisfaction. He lost his perspective on the world he lived in; he had Carnal Knowledge, but no self-knowledge - a charmed life that came at a price.