mike nichols moviesFew directors can be said to have changed the way films are made, but Mike Nichols, who died Wednesday at 83, was one of them. His first film, "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" (1966), ended decades of Hollywood censorship of adult content and freed the movies for mature language and subject matter ever after. His second film, "The Graduate," was the first serious mainstream movie to feature a rock soundtrack (spawning Simon and Garfunkel's hit "Mrs. Robinson") and, through its casting of Dustin Hoffman, expanded Hollywood's notion of what a leading man ought to look and sound like.

Nichols wasn't born in America (he and his family escaped from Nazi Germany when he was a child), but he was one of the best chroniclers of contemporary America -- its politics, its aspirations, its dreams, its aristocracy, and its successes and failures -- in movies. His youth in Manhattan as the son of a successful doctor and his early work in sketch comedy laid a foundation for a lifetime spent satirizing and mocking the very elite -- the cocktail party guests in the salons of New York, Washington, and Hollywood -- of which he was a lifelong member.

A multiple-threat talent who excelled first as a comic actor (in partnership with Elaine May), then as a Broadway director, then as a film director, and finally as a TV director, Nichols was one of a handful of performers to win the EGOT (the showbiz grand slam of Emmys, Grammys, Oscars, and Tonys). Indeed, his career behind the camera was sporadic compared to his career on Broadway, which spanned 24 productions over 53 years. (He won one Oscar, one Grammy, and four Emmys but grabbed nine Tonys.) Still, most of the films he made, along with his two cable movies, are must-sees for anyone who loves film. There was a handful of duds -- "Catch-22," "Day of the Dolphin," "The Fortune," "Regarding Henry," and "What Planet Are You From" -- but those listed below are essential viewing.

"Nichols and May: Take Two" (1996). This installment of PBS' "American Masters" is one of the few discs offering rare glimpses of Mike Nichols and Elaine May performing some of their classic sketches. These are the comedy routines -- witty, urbane, and sexy -- that made the duo famous and launched their multi-varied careers.

"Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" (1966). Nichols' debut as a director, an adaptation of Edward Albee's harrowing drama about a bitter academic couple and their hapless dinner guests, broke new ground in Hollywood for adult content – so much new ground that it effectively destroyed the decades-old production code of Hollywood censorship and ushered in the current anything-goes era. The film's frankness in terms of language and sexual subject matter remain forceful even today, thanks in part to Nichols' no-nonsense direction and career-peak performances from Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton as the miserably married Martha and George.

"The Graduate" (1967). Nichols won an Oscar for directed this landmark that, like "Cool Hand Luke," "Easy Rider," and "Five Easy Pieces," is a movie about the '60s that isn't really about the '60s. There's no mention of Vietnam, civil rights, the counterculture, or other issues that roiled the decade, and yet its protagonist, Benjamin Braddock, remains an emblem of a generation that knew only that it wanted to reject the old order. (Though Nichols did quip, about the fate of Benjamin and Elaine after their daring escape and that ambivalent final scene on the bus: "They become their parents.") The movie was groundbreaking in its use of a rock soundtrack (well, sorta rock, as performed by Simon and Garfunkel), its casting of a leading man (Dustin Hoffman, in the role that made him a star and opened up Hollywood for the unconventional, ethnic leading men of the 1970s), and its indelible turn by Anne Bancroft as Mrs. Robinson, the ultimate cougar.

"Carnal Knowledge" (1971). This one is pretty hard to watch today, but it's matchless as a portrait of men at their worst, and of how the Sexual Revolution that was supposed to liberate everyone failed to make men any more enlightened about women or make women any better off in their power struggles with men. Jack Nicholson is at his alpha-male ugliest, while Ann-Margret shakes off a decade of campy baggage to prove she's a powerful dramatic actress.

"Gilda Live" (1980). Gilda Radner brings some of her most beloved "Saturday Night Live" characters and songs to the stage in this uncensored one-woman show. The film flopped in theaters, but it's as good a collection of Radner's greatest hits as you could ask for.

"Silkwood" (1983). After more than a decade of doldrums in his film career, Nichols bounced back with this docudrama, his first collaboration with both screenwriter Nora Ephron and star Meryl Streep. She's terrific, as usual, as real-life nuclear-plant whistleblower Karen Silkwood, but Kurt Russell and Cher are revelations as well in their supporting roles as Silkwood's closest companions.

"Heartburn" (1986). Nichols reteamed with Streep, Ephron, and Jack Nicholson for this adaptation of Ephron's autobiographical novel about her disastrous marriage to Washington Post reporter/Watergate legend Carl Bernstein. Nichols is right at home satirizing both the New York media elite and the Washington political elite in one swoop. Watch for a young, unknown Kevin Spacey in a memorable turn as a mugger.

"Biloxi Blues" (1988). You might not think to cast Christopher Walken as a Southern drill sergeant, but then, you're not Mike Nichols. Walken is surprisingly effective in this second installment of Neil Simon's autobiographical trilogy, centering on the comic playwright's fish-out-of-Brooklyn period in the Army toward the end of World War II. Of course, the coming-of-age tale belongs to Matthew Broderick, reprising his Broadway role as Simon's fictional stand-in.

"Working Girl" (1988). One of Nichols' biggest hits, this corporate satire of the New York financial world finds him mining familiar territory and earning big laughs, thanks to Melanie Griffith's starmaking performance as a plucky secretary with "a head for business and a bod for sin," Harrison Ford's surprisingly nimble and charming turn as the Wall Street whiz who falls for her, and Sigourney Weaver's hilarious supporting role as Griffith's backstabbing boss.

"Postcards From the Edge" (1990). This underrated Nichols gem, based on Carrie Fisher's autobiographical novel, features a wry comic turn by Streep as a Fisher-like actress struggling to stay sober and an even funnier turn by Shirley MacLaine as her flamboyant, Debbie Reynolds-like, spotlight-stealing mother. Nichols satirizes Hollywood as incisively and thoroughly as he does New York or Washington. The ensemble cast of supporting players offers an embarrassment of riches (the heavy hitters include Gene Hackman, Annette Bening, Dennis Quaid, Richard Dreyfuss, Simon Callow, and Rob Reiner) in terms of small, surgically precise portraits of Hollywood types.

"Wolf" (1994). In his final collaboration with Nichols, Jack Nicholson seems perfectly cast as a man transformed by a creature's bite into a werewolf; same with oily James Spader as his antagonist. Still, the horror elements of the film don't really gel; Nichols' heart seems more in his satirical portrait of the New York publishing world, which turns out to be so dog-eat-dog that Nicholson's wolfman fits right in.

"The Birdcage" (1996). Nichols wisely turned to his old comedy partner Elaine May for the screenplay to this adaptation of farcical French hit "La Cage aux Folles." (The many witty jokes at the expense of Washington politicians may be hers, but they're tailor-made for a Nichols project.) He also gets an unexpectedly straight (in every sense of the word) performance from Robin Williams as one half of a longtime gay couple; it's up to Nathan Lane to carry most of the comic weight, and he does so with assurance. Able comic support comes from Gene Hackman and Dianne Wiest as a conservative power couple, Hank Azaria as an outrageously accented butler, and a then-unknown Calista Flockhart as Hackman and Wiest's wide-eyed daughter.

"The Designated Mourner" (1997). Nichols gives a rare acting performance in this filmed reading of Wallace Shawn's three-character play, which is about nothing less than the death of civilization and culture. The urbane Nichols is chillingly perfect as an aesthete who happily embraces philistinism.

"Primary Colors" (1998). Nichols' vastly underrated recounting of the 1992 presidential election, based on Joe Klein's novel, had the misfortune of hitting theaters at the height of the Monica Lewinsky scandal, a time when no dramedy about Bill Clinton could compare to the unbelievable spectacle unfolding for real on TV. Too bad, since Nichols made John Travolta dig deep and give us probably the most accurate warts-and-all portrayal of the charismatic and flawed Bill Clinton we're ever likely to see. (Not to short Emma Thompson's Hillary, all ambition and righteous anger.) Even if you're not enough of a Clinton scholar to recognize the real-life players portrayed by the likes of Billy Bob Thornton, Maura Tierney, Larry Hagman, Adrian Lester, Gia Carides, and Kathy Bates (who steals the movie), you'll appreciate their fine-tuned performances and another deftly satirical Elaine May screenplay.

"Wit" (2001). The smartest move Nichols made in this made-for-cable adaptation of Margaret Edson's Pulitzer Prize-winning play was to collaborate with his "Primary Colors" star, Emma Thompson, who stars as a professor dying of ovarian cancer. Despite the grim plot, there's plenty of the title attribute in the teleplay, co-scripted by Thompson and Nichols. Once again, there's some trademark Nichols satire on the world of academia, mostly to make the point that intellectual rigor (or wit, if you like) is ultimately less important than human connections. It's a point beautifully made at the end of the movie when Thompson's scholarly mentor, Eileen Atkins, shows up and eases her way into death with seemingly boundless maternal compassion.

"Angels in America" (2003). It's hard to imagine an ideal film version of Tony Kushner's sprawling six-hour play about the AIDS epidemic, the closet, the Cold War, and comparative religion, but Nichols' made-for-cable version (with a teleplay by Kushner) comes pretty close. The showiest roles belong to Al Pacino (as legendary, closeted, red-baiting lawyer Roy Cohn) and to Nichols regulars Emma Thompson (as an angel) and Meryl Streep (in several parts, including convicted atomic spy Ethel Rosenberg and a bewhiskered male rabbi), but everyone here is terrific, including future "Weeds" stars Mary-Louise Parker and Justin Kirk, Patrick Wilson, Ben Shenkman, and (reprising his Tony-winning Broadway role as a fiercely compassionate nurse) Jeffrey Wright. The result is an ambitious, challenging, occasionally funny, always mind-expanding epic.

"Closer" (2004). Patrick Marber adapted his four-character drama of adultery into a screenplay for Nichols, who assembled a killer cast for the film version: Clive Owen, Jude Law, Julia Roberts (unexpectedly raw), and Natalie Portman (in her first truly adult part). The four-way romantic tangle of the plot recalls Mozart's opera "Cosi fan tutte," but the claustrophobic staging of the characters' bitter and brutal accusations and recriminations recalls Nichols' screen directing debut with "Virginia Woolf."

"Charlie Wilson's War" (2007). Nichols' final film, about the congressman who orchestrated secret funding of the Afghan resistance against Soviet invaders during the 1980s, benefits from both a literate Aaron Sorkin screenplay and performances against type by both Tom Hanks (as the lazy but wily rogue of the title) and "Closer" star Julia Roberts (as a fearsome Texas matron effectively running her own foreign policy). Stealing the movie, however, is Philip Seymour Hoffman as a frustrated CIA agent burning with ambition to make a difference in the Cold War. Sorkin's script pointedly notes that America's subsequent abandonment of the Afghan fighters Wilson had cultivated resulted in horrific blowback in 2001 and thereafter. As usual, Nichols merrily satirizes the power elite, but his movie's wry humor is the sugarcoating allowing viewers to swallow a bitter message and an ominous warning of disasters yet to come.

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