Oscar Directors: Nichols, Mike–Hollywood’s Most Overestimated Director?

Mike Nichols, who won the Best Director Oscar for The Graduate, and was nominated multiple times for other films, may be the most overestimated director in Hollywood’s history.

Here are some of the reasons:

Small Output:

In a career spanning exactly four decades, from the splashy debut, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woof?l in 1966, to his last, disappointing feature, Charlie’s War in 2007,  starring Tom Hanks and Julia Roberts, Nichols has directed only 19 films.

Career Disruption:

After the huge flop of the 1975 comedy The Fortune, which starred Jack Nicholson, Warren Beatty, and Stockard Channing, Nichols did not make a picture for nearly a decade (except for the minor concert film, Gilda), thus losing the best years of his career.  My study shows that most Hollywood directors are both the most productive and the most creative while in their 1940s.

Indiscrimination Choices:

After the 1983 Silkwood, which was a career highlight, largely due to Meryl Streep’s performance, Nichols chose to direct a minor film based on Neil Simon comedy, Biloxi Blues, in 1988.

Nadir of Career

Nichols screen career reached its lowest point in the late 1990s, when he made a series of trivial films, such as The Birdcage (a remake of the French hit La Cage Aux Folles) in 1996, and What Planet Are You From? While the former was a commercial hit, the latter was a disaster.

Sexual Politics

Mike Nichols is by no mean an auteur (even when he produced his own films), thematically or stylistically.  Nonetheless, if there’s a theme that defines his best work it is the complex dynamics of sexual politics, an issue he had explored in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf? The Graduate, Carnal Knowledge, Silkwood, Wolf, and Closer (the only later film in his craeer that I really like).

Nichols Films (in chronological order):

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? 1966

The Graduate, 1967

Catch 22, 1970

Carnal Knowledge, 1971

The Day of the Dolphins, 1973

The Fortune, 1975

Gilda (concert film), 1980

Silkwood, 1983

Heartburn, 1986

Biloxi Blues, 1988

Working Girl, 1988

Postcards from the Edge, 1990

Regarding Henry, 1991

Wolf, 1994

The Birdcage, 1996

Primary Colors, 1998

What Planet Are You From? 2000

Closer, 2004

Charlie Wilson’s War, 2007


Early Life

Mike Nichols (ne Michael Igor Peschkowsky) was born in Berlin, Germany, to a Russian father and German mother. His family immigrated to the United States when he was seven. His father changed the family’s name to Nichols, his patronymic, because he was a doctor and he said that by the time he spelled his name, the patient was in the hospital. Mike was brought up in New York City. He attended the University of Chicago where, together with Elaine May and Paul Sills, he was one of the founding members of the comedy group The Compass, later renamed Second City.

Mike Nichols and Elaine May

In 1957, the now legendary team of Mike Nichols and Elaine May was formed. Starting at the Blue Angel in New York, they performed in nightclubs all over the country. Nichols and May did numerous TV specials and appeared as guests on such shows as Omnibus, The Dinah Shore Show and The Jack Paar Program.

In 1960, they brought An Evening with Mike Nichols and Elaine May to Broadway, where it ran for a year. They were still selling out when they decided to end the run and pursue separate careers. At this point, Nichols turned to directing.

Broadway Director

When producer Saint Subber offered him Neil Simon’s “Barefoot in the Park,” Nichols asked to employ a young actor he had seen on television the week before, whose name he had not caught: Robert Redford.

Redford starred in Barefoot in the Park, along with Elizabeth Ashley and Mildred Natwick. Nichols won his first of eight Tony Awards for Barefoot.

He then directed an unprecedented string of hits that included The Knack, Luv (Best Director Tony), The Odd Couple (Best Director Tony), The Apple Tree, Plaza Suite (Best Director Tony), The Prisoner of Second Avenue (Best Director Tony), The Gin Game (1978 Pulitzer Prize) and Streamers (New York Drama Critics Award).

He directed highly successful revivals of The Little Foxes and Uncle Vanya and the U.S. productions of Comedians, as well as The Real Thing (Best Director Tony), Hurlyburly and Waiting for Godot. Most recently, he directed the Tony Award-winning, smash musical Spamalot. As a theatrical producer, he presented Whoopi Goldberg: Direct From Broadway and won the Tony for his blockbuster show Annie.

Screen Career

Nichols directed his first film in 1966, “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf,” for which he was nominated for an Oscar Award for Best Director, and for which Elizabeth Taylor won an Academy Award for Best Actress. In 1967, he directed “The Graduate,” for which he won the Academy Award for Best Director, the Directors Guild Award and the New York Film Critics Award.

His subsequent films include Catch-22, Carnal Knowledge, Silkwood (Best Director Academy Oscar nomination), Working Girl (Best Director Oscar nomination), Postcards From the Edge, Regarding Henry and Wolf.

He was reunited with Elaine May on The Birdcage and Primary Colors, both of which May wrote and Nichols produced and directed.

In 2004, Nichols directed Closer, for which Natalie Portman and Clive Owen both won Golden Globe Awards and were nominated for Academy Awards.

His TV movies Wit (2001) and Angels in America (2004) each won Emmy Awards for Outstanding Direction, Outstanding Made for Television Movie and Outstanding Miniseries.

In 1987, Nichols received the George Abbott Award and, in 1990, was honored by the American Museum of the Moving Image for his contribution to the film industry.

In 1999, he was honored by the Film Society of Lincoln Center. He has received the National Medal of Arts and the Kennedy Center Honors Award.

He is one of a small group of artists to have won all four major awards in American show business: the Grammy, Emmy, Tony and Oscar.

At the time of his death, he was married to journalist Diane Sawyer and had three children from former marriages.