Sunday, December 07, 2014

Mike Nichols body of work and fascination with the male body (Stan)

Last month, Stan examined the filmography of director Mike Nichols.

Mike Nichols body of work and fascination with the male body
Mike Nichols has passed away this week.

A few thought I was not going to comment.

I am.  I just didn't know what to do.

I can talk about the art but the reality is the bi-sexual or homosexual gaze he used throughout his career greatly influenced the work for the good.

No one appears to want to acknowledge that.


Mike Nichols was at his best when he had a man in the cast to play with onscreen.

Give him a group of colorless plastic soldiers and he's lost.

That's obvious from critical so-sos and outright disasters like "Charlie Wilson's War," "Catch-22," "Biloxi Blues," "Regarding Henry" and others.

Let's talk about his successes.

"Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" established him as a film director.  It is a classic.  He largely just stayed out of Elizabeth Taylor's way (she won a second Academy Award for her amazing performance).  He did ensure that George Segal was presented as a major slice of beefcake.  Has any actor's crotch appeared in so many scenes outside of a porn?

His follow up film is a minor classic.  In it, Dustin Hoffman is the Ken doll Mike plays with.  He takes Dustin Hoffman, not a handsome guy, and sexualizes him to turn him into a film star with "The Graduate."  Anne Bancroft brings her own sizzle which is a good thing since Mike's not interested in her -- check the blocking on her scenes.  Katherine Ross is left stranded, lacking the talent to carve out a role on her own and not catching the director's interest at all.

"Catch 22" has what a friend calls "the Jew problem."  When Mike Nichols worked with Jews, he had no passion for them.  Dustin was the exception and "The Graduate" turns Dustin into a Gentile in order to sexualize him.  With "Catch 22," he's got Alan Arkin, Richard Benjamin, Martin Balsam, Charles Grodin, Art Garfunkel, etc and he's not interested in any of them which is how a film that should have been a comedy antic high just sort of peters out.

"Carnal Knowledge" succeeds because he ignores Art and plays with Jack Nicholson.  I am not suggesting that Mike Nichols had sex with any of the men he was so clearly sexually fascinated with.  I bet he didn't, in fact.  But he did like playing with them in front of the camera, making them sexy.  By contrast, he makes Rita Moreno come off frightening -- especially the hornier her character is supposed to be.  And Ann-Margret overcomes his complete disinterest in her character to give an amazing performance.

I don't know if I'd call the film a classic.  It's only accomplishment that stands is that Nichols took new star Jack Nicholson (he'd already had the hit "Easy Rider") and turned him into a sexual power on screen.

"The Day of the Dolphin" is a classic.  It's also a complete exception to Nichols' films.  This has a larger concern and is not really about the personal relationships.  The film flopped but it's one of his first-rate films and hopefully will be viewed as such in retrospect.

"The Fortune" follows and it bombs as well.  It should also be reconsidered.  This is a hilarious film that really f-ed with expectations (as did Elaine May's "Ishtar" many years later).  Stockard Channing is delightful in a performance that fails to capture Mike's attention because he's focused on Warren Beatty and Jack Nicholson.  He continues to develop Jack's sexual performance/presentation (the work Jack will do in "The Witches of Eastwick" owes a great deal to this film and Mike's work) and he also messes with Warren Beatty's onscreen image, adding a new layer to his sexual image, teasing out a new sexual persona.  If the film had been a hit, Warren probably would have explored this further.  But this is a classic film.

"Gilda Live" is filming Gilda Radner's play/revue which Mike Nichols also directed.  I think this can qualify as a classic concert film.

1983's "Silkwood" is his first film since 1971's "Carnal Knowledge" to be a hit at the box office.  This film stars Meryl Streep in an amazing performance with strong support from Cher (who should have won the Academy Award -- she lost to Linda Hunt) and mainly it features a shirtless Kurt Russell.  Up until his butt scene with Sylvester Stallone, Russell's body had never been presented as lovingly.  A box office success and a critical success, this one qualifies as one of his classics.

1986's "Heartburn" does not.  Jack Nicholson's back only after Mandy Patikin is fired.  Why?  It's 1986 and the work Barbra Streisand did in "Yentl" to make Mandy come off sexy is long gone.  And we've already noted Nichols' lack of interest in Jewish men.  Jack and Meryl try but the script's a mess and a disappointment.  They can't pull it off and when two of film's finest actors can't pull it off . . .   The film is remembered for Carly Simon's amazing "Coming Around Again.'

1988 finds him flopping again with "Biloxi Blues." Yes, a comedy that fails to make $50 million in North America is a flop when it's got a name male star (Matthew Broadrick) who was paid several million just to make the film.

It might have been over for Nichols who went 8 years (from "The Fortune" to "Silkwood") before Hollywood hired him to direct a film.

But he directed "Working Girl."

As with Gilda Radner, he found Melanie Griffith interesting and she gave an engaged and skilled performance (and was nominated for an Academy Award).  This isn't just a classic of Nichols, it's one of his two best films.  There are great performances in this film: Griffith, Joan Cusack, Sigourney Weaver and Harrison Ford.

And . . . Alec Baldwin.  Mike's toy for the film.  How many ways can he show Alec shirtless and in briefs?

Along with Griffith, Sigourney, Joan and Carly Simon were also nominated for Academy Awards.  Only Carly won -- for her theme song "Let The River Run."

"Postcards from the Edge" followed and didn't do as well at the box office, though it was a hit.  (A comedy starring women in the 80s that made it to $40 million can be considered a hit.  The studios spent less money on those films, promoted them less, etc.)  Shirley MacLaine and Meryl do a great job with Carrie Fisher's screenplay and Mike's toy in the film is Dennis Quaid who is caught in stages of undress.

"Regarding Henry" was a flop.  Critically, the meepie (male weepies) was lame and dead on arrival while commercially  box office champ Harrison Ford was left with a film that wasn't even able to break $50 million.  His film before, "Presumed Innocent," had made $86 million in North America and the film after "Regarding Henry," 1992's "Patriot Game," made $83 million.

1994 found him rebounding with a film that made $63 million in North America -- a big hit for an adult film.  That was "Wolf" which found him reteaming with Jack Nicholson and adding Michelle Phillips to the mix.  Jack Nicholson should have been the male lead in all of Mike's films, he's the only leading male that consistently interested the director.  In this romantic update, Michelle succeeds in love with Jack by not trying to remake the man she loves but by exploring his quirks with him.

He followed that with his biggest success "The Birdcage."  The comedy, screenplay by Elaine May (his former improv partner, they were a comedy team -- hugely successful in the fifties and the early years of the JFK administration), stars Robin Williams and Nathan Lane as a couple who son Dan Futterman is marrying into a conservative family and doesn't want to be the son of a same-sex couple.  Calista Flockhart is charming in the film.  Gene Hackman and Dianne Weist are left on their own -- good for Hackman but it means Dianne does the same performance she always does.

Mike Nichols is most fascinated with Luca Tommassini -- and Luca's crotch.  (He plays Nathan Lane's dancing partner with the fondness for chewing gum -- "It helps me think," he insists.)

I can't judge "Primary Colors" because I've never made it through that movie.  It was a hit.  I love John Travolta and Emma Thompson but I just can't get into that movie (it's based on Joe Klein's book about the Clintons).  

That was his last hit.

"What Planet Are You From?" was a bomb and it's not going to be re-appraised.  This is a hideous comedy.

"Closer" rebounded commercially.  I find the film to be a failure. It should have been so much better.  Natalie Portman and Clive Owen won Academy Awards for the film (supporting category).  The only sequence that actually works in the film, the only one Mike Nichols is fully vested in, is when Natalie Portman's doing a strip.  But he's not interested in Natalie.  His focus is on a fully clothed Clive getting a hard on.  The film also stars Jude Law's pubic bush.

Then came the bomb "Charlie Wilson's War."  Unlike "Closer," "Charlie Wilson's War" had a huge press rollout.  "Closer" had the average 'we want to be number one opening week at the box office' press rollout.  But "Charlie Wilson's War" was treated as historic and important.  And it starred Julia Roberts and Tom Hanks.  Pre "Larry Crowne" this was thought to be an outstanding pairing.

The film was a flop, not even making $70 million despite tons of Academy Award nominations -- which gave it a second life -- it did not win any awards.

Not only is it a flop and a boring movie, it was a sign that Mike Nichols needed to stop directing.

The film's only historic importance is explaining 9-11 but that was taken out because Tom Hanks threw a hissy fit.

So that his career.

He could come alive if he had a man to show off, especially if he could undress him.

Two of his films are undisputed classics: "The Birdcage" and "Working Girl."

"Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" also qualifies as a classic and I'd also include "Wolf."

I think "The Fortune" and "Day of The Dolphin" deserve re-evaluations and appraisals.

"Silkwood" and "Postcards From The Edge" and "Gilda Live" are minor classics.

So four classics, two films I think should be reclassified as classics and three minor classics.

That's not a bad filmography to have.