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No, Mike Nichols wasn’t a great director, but he did touch greatness once

I didn’t think it was possible for an EGOT winner to be an underdog. Mike Nichols had a Grammy when he was 31, a Tony when he was 33, and an Oscar when he was 36. The Emmy didn’t come until he was 70, but to make up for lost time he snatched up two in one year and, shortly thereafter, another two. Contemporary improvisational comedy (i.e., comedy) would not be the same without him, nor would Broadway theater, and he directed at least one film people will still be talking about — maybe celebrating, maybe scorning, but certainly talking about — in half a century.

But the fact remains that when Nichols died in 2014 at the age of 83, the appreciations carried a faint note of indulgent, bemused disappointment. His talent was enormous, everybody agreed, but scattered over so vast an acreage it sometimes thinned to nothingness. His lapses were obvious, but nobody could settle on an apotheosis — “The Graduate,” maybe, but it’s hard to get excited about a movie that’s been assigned the dull task of defining a generation (and isn’t there something odd, anyway, about the counterculture’s defining image being a guy in a jacket and tie?). Even the New Yorker film critic Anthony Lane, whose tastes tend toward the lightly, classily comedic — a Nichols specialty — doubted that Nichols’s filmography “actually represents the best of him.” As for the best, perhaps that was the man himself, or at least the Wildean persona he trotted out for talk shows and cocktail parties and acceptance speeches.

If the work were merely a dimmer reflection of the man, it would explain a lot. Without Nichols around to buff his own legacy, it’s already lost a good deal of shine. Last month, the journalist Mark Harris published a fat biography, “Mike Nichols: A Life,” and many of the early reviews, though impressed with Harris’s writing, have carried that same faint note of indulgent disappointment with Harris’s subject. “Movies aren’t everything,” is how James Wolcott ends his assessment in The New York Times, a funny thing to say about a man who directed 21 of them, but you can see what he’s getting at. “[Nichols] took on movie projects he shouldn’t,” writes Louis Menand in The New Yorker, picking up where Wolcott leaves off; furthermore, “he was not a risk-taker, and did not think of himself as an artist.” But he was quick with a joke and he made popular movies for grown-ups, and with “Cruella” slouching towards Disney+ to be streamed, isn’t that something worth celebrating?

Movies aren’t everything, but at the Museum of Modern Art Department of Film they’re relatively important. “Mike Nichols: Bookends,” a five-film MoMA Virtual Cinema series running until March 7, is every bit the bumpy road Lane and Wolcott suggest it would be, with major scenes awkwardly wedged into minor works and pure inspiration lost in pure stuffing. There are plenty of first-rate filmmakers — Ernst Lubitsch, to name another elegant Berlin émigré — who seemed uninterested in making a “major” work. Nichols was not one of these. Instead, major-ness is always just around the corner in his movies; they’re all bookend, buildup without enough payoff. Or, to paraphrase another uneven wunderkind filmmaker, they’re just good enough that you start getting mad at them for not being great.

Katharine Ross’ Elaine remains a cocktail napkin of a character, and the “Scarborough Fair” longueur is embarrassing in its self-importance

The series’ title is a nod to “Bookends” the 1968 Simon & Garfunkel album, which means it’s really a nod to “The Graduate” — this, presumably, being the canonical work Nichols’ other pictures … bookend. Imperiously absent from MoMA’s lineup this weekend, “The Graduate” is, in point of fact, of a piece with the rest. Revisiting it for the first time since I was Ben’s age, I found myself still wowed by “The Sound of Silence” and Hoffman and Bancroft’s rat-a-tat, and newly wowed by Richard Sylbert’s set designs, which transform the wastelands of California suburbia into a lush Tiki jungle. But Katharine Ross’ Elaine remains a cocktail napkin of a character, and the “Scarborough Fair” longueur is embarrassing in its self-importance — there’s even an American flag in case you forget this is a movie about The Way We Live Now! (Nichols had a lifelong weakness for late, lugubrious musical interludes — watch “Primary Colors” if you don’t believe me).

What is the best directing? If you trust awards shows, the best directing is synonymous with the most directing: the showiest, the loudest, the kind that has to stop every-so often to remind you what it’s doing. “The Graduate” is the most-directed movie Nichols ever made, and, naturally enough, it’s the one that earned him an Academy Award for Best Director. “Hey, look at that,” he seems to want you to think as you watch, “a black dress against a white wall! A little man under a big thigh! A little man all alone in a big, empty campus! Art!”

Of course, there are plenty of people who believe this unsubtle, self-defining kind of thing actually is the height of art, just as there are plenty of people who believe that the hallmark of a brilliant actor is the ability to master a quirky accent. I think this goes some way toward explaining the long friendship between Nichols and Meryl Streep (halfway to her own EGOT, with the G currently pending). They first worked together on “Silkwood” (1983), the only film from Nichols’s middle period in the series and by far the worst — all I’ll say about it is that if you think a letter-perfect Okie accent equals a good performance and important subject-matter (nuclear power, labor activism) equals important art, this is the movie for you. Far better is the pair’s final collaboration, the HBO miniseries “Angels in America” (2004), which has Streep’s Ethel Rosenberg haunting Al Pacino’s Roy Cohn on his deathbed, Yiddish vowels quivering with contempt and tenderness. Maybe Nichols learned how to play to his friend’s strengths — that, or Streep decided there was no point in trying to out-act Pacino, whose performance makes you nostalgic for the subtle, understated likes of Tony Montana.

In 2015, when I heard that Lincoln Center was reviving a 1975 Mike Nichols period farce starring Jack Nicholson and Warren Beatty and lensed by a fresh-from-“Chinatown” John Alonzo, I wondered, Why have I never heard of that movie? Now that I’ve gotten around to watching “The Fortune,” I have my answer. Like a number of other 1970s movies, including “The Sting,” “What’s Up Doc,” and, of course, “Chinatown,” it’s an homage to the 1930s — the comedy style rather than the era itself (it’s actually set in the 1920s). Where “What’s Up Doc” can actually withstand the comparisons it invites, however, there’s very little in Nichols’ film that deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as genuine 30s screwball — “A mean man and a man of means often means the same” would be pretty ho-hum in “Bringing Up Baby,” but here it’s about as inventive as the script gets. (Unexpected bit of fun: Jack Nicholson in a frumpy coat and 19th-century-Russian-socialist hairpiece, originating the creepy rat-grin he’d use in “The Departed” more than 30 years later.)

“The Fortune” is far from the only comedy to operate on the assumption that all sex is intrinsically funny. It may also be the only Nichols movie in which the characters enjoy sex without remorse. Sex is an essential part of his oeuvre, to be sure, but usually it’s guilty or joyless or neurotic or, in the case of “The Graduate,” all three at once (his association with the louche, libidinal counterculture is, in this respect as in all others, baffling). To really get into Nichols’s penultimate film, “Closer” (2004), you have to ignore its moralistic views on sex and femininity, which owe more to the 1760s than to the 1960s. Manage to do so, however, and your rewards will be ample: plenty of giddy laughs and gorgeous people (Natalie Portman, Julia Roberts, Clive Owen and Jude Law); a medal-worthy setpiece involving a cybersex chatroom; and possibly the silliest strip club scene in movie history (think about that).

The comedy gets drowned in its own presentation — it’s like watching a puppet show in an opera house.

“Catch-22” (1970) is Nichols’s silliest work, as well as his most picturesque. These two qualities don’t always complement each other. The film was shot by David Watkin, who later won an Oscar for “Out of Africa,” with the Mexican desert standing in for 40s Sardinia, and for the most part its visual style favors long takes and sweeping views of the landscape. The budget was an at-the-time-whopping 18 million dollars, and the film suffers from a certain version of the sunk-cost fallacy — “We’ve spent all this money to be here,” the panoramas seem to say, “so we might as well milk here for all it’s worth.” (See also “Ishtar,” directed by Nichols’ old improv partner Elaine May.) The result is that the comedy gets drowned in its own presentation — it’s like watching a puppet show in an opera house.

As many have pointed out, “Catch-22” was overshadowed by another 1970 war satire, Robert Altman’s “MAS*H,” but that by itself doesn’t explain why one flopped and the other still kills. Instead, the film “Catch-22” most reminds me of is Otto Preminger’s “Skidoo” (1968) — they have the same staid visual style and the same forced, tiresome zaniness. They also have the same sort of cross-sectional ensemble cast: “Skidoo” gives us Cesar Romero, Mickey Rooney, Jackie Gleason, and, in his swan song, Groucho Marx; “Catch-22” boasts Alan Arkin, Bob Newhart, Art Garfunkel, Anthony Perkins, a boot-brown Martin Balsam, and, eight years shy of his first Paul Masson spot, Orson Welles.

There are probably thousands of directors who’ve been heralded as the next Orson Welles, but in the case of the young Mike Nichols the cliché actually makes sense. Both men were world-class raconteurs who seemed biologically incapable of dullness; they both made names for themselves with innovative Broadway productions; they both parlayed their theater résumés into Hollywood directing gigs; they both enjoyed complete creative control over their own films; and they both had Oscars before they turned 40.

So much for the similarities. By the time Nichols made “Catch-22,” Welles had become something of a joke in Hollywood. He lived for another 15 years but completed no more narrative features. Nichols made his share of flops but kept working at a brisk pace and was still doing competent, respectfully received work in his 70s. On its face, this would suggest that Nichols’ was a successful career and Welles was an underwhelming one. But as the film critic Nick Pinkerton wrote recently, “I would propose that what ‘happened’ to Welles was almost diametrically opposite to this — that, having had the world laid at his feet as a precocious and incurably curious and inhumanly energetic and irksomely talented midwestern arriviste and dilettante, he understood in a way that few of us can how little value that world had, and began to seek his fun elsewhere.”

As young men, Welles and Nichols guzzled up enough prestige to last several lifetimes. In response, one of them developed an addiction to it while the other developed an immunity. After Catch-22, Welles did his share of for-hire work, but he also made “F for Fake” (1973), an experimental documentary-essay for which I’d happily trade every middlebrow Oscarbait picture Nichols ever wrapped. The next Orson Welles spent his last 30 years doing the one thing the real Welles was never content to do: playing it safe. “Bookends” is supposed to be a celebration, but it feels closer to a cautionary tale — a big, bold flourish, followed by a long bus ride into irrelevance.

Orson Welles is good, Mike Nichols is overrated, the Oscars suck, “The Graduate” hasn’t aged well, QED. It was all so simple! As I made my way through Nichols’s filmography for this article, I made a point of saving his debut feature, “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” (1966), for last. I must have watched it for the first time around the age of 15, when I was developing an interest in capital-S Serious cinema, and for this reason I expected to be let down upon revisiting — there aren’t many movies I loved as a teenager that I still love in my 20s. Now that I have revisited “Virginia Woolf,” I regret to report that it’s still an honest-to-god masterpiece.

Cautionary tales have to begin triumphantly in order to end tragically, and Nichols began his career as a film director with a single, unqualified triumph. He got the job on the strength of his theater credits, but “Virginia Woolf,” based on the 1962 Edward Albee play, is the rare theater-to-film adaptation that never really feels like theater. Working with Haskell Wexler, maybe the single greatest cinematographer of the New Hollywood era, Nichols keep thinking of clever new ways to shoot four people sitting in a room — and where the camerawork in “The Graduate” often feels clever for the sake of cleverness, every shot in “Virginia Woolf” is deftly tailored to the plot and characters. When there’s a closeup of a drunk, doughy Martha (Elizabeth Taylor) it’s because we need to see her in closeup. When Martha’s voice follows her professor husband George (Richard Burton) out of the sitting room and into the closet, it’s because that’s the way it would sound in George’s head.

More than 50 years later, ‘Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf’ is the closest we’ve gotten to a Theater of the Absurd blockbuster.

The film’s combination of realism and surrealism still astonishes — George and Martha are always half-playing and half-in earnest, but woe to anyone who tries to figure out which half is which. It’s all there in Martha’s opening line — “What a dump!” — a rude little jab that also happens to be a quote from Bette Davis film “Beyond the Forest.” (Warner Brothers initially wanted Davis herself to play Martha, which would have done a lot to emphasize the dreamlike qualities of Albee’s original.) One of the first mainstream American pictures to feature so much cursing, “Virginia Woolf” is celebrated for introducing Hollywood to a new degree of naturalism, but that’s only half the truth: more than 50 years later, it’s the closest we’ve gotten to a Theater of the Absurd blockbuster.

Panning the film in the Village Voice, Andrew Sarris wrote that “Mr. Nichols has always been more of a tactician than a strategist.” It’s strange to accuse a 35-year-old of having “always” been anything, but the accusation turned out to be more or less correct. Sarris was a pioneer of auteur theory, the idea that cinema should be understood as the creation of a solitary artistic figure with a strong visual style. By that definition, Mike Nichols and great cinema had absolutely nothing in common — then again, a film is made by people, not one solitary artist, Nichols was nothing if not a people person, and for his freshman effort he commanded a formidable creative army (Wexler! Sylbert! Burton! Taylor!) that helped him transform tactics into victory. No, he wasn’t a great director, but he touched greatness once — and that’s once more than most of us will manage.

Jackson Arn is the Forward’s contributing art critic.

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