Red Carpet Chatter: Mike Nichols Gets His AFI Lifetime Achievement Award

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Born in 1931 in what was very soon to become Hitler’s Germany, young Michael Peschkowsky was living in Manhattan by 1939. It was great luck both for the future Mike Nichols and for the country that accepted him.

Nichols is, of course, one of the most respected directors in Hollywood, and for good reason. He’s the original, craftsmanlike, and emotionally astute directorial voice responsible for such sixties and seventies classics as “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?,”  “Carnal Knowledge” and, of course, “The Graduate” (the source of his only directorial Oscar so far) as well as such eighties, nineties, and oughts successes as “Silkwood,” “Working Girl,” “The Birdcage,” and “Closer.” Even if some of the later films are not on the same level of quality as his earlier films — and several, especially his 1988 box office hit, “Working Girl,” stray into mediocrity — it’s still one of the most impressive and diverse careers of any living director in Hollywood.

That’s just on the big screen. On television, Nichols has rebounded in the eyes of many critics, directing two of the most acclaimed television productions of the last decade, 2001’s “Wit” with Emma Thompson, and the outstanding 2005 miniseries adaptation of Tony Kushner’s brilliant and mammoth epic play, “Angels in America.” With his 80th birthday just a year and a half away, he’s still working hard with two thrillers movies planned, including an I’ll-believe-it-when-I-see-it remake of Akira Kurosawa’s “High and Low” currently being rewritten by the decidedly counter-intuitive choice of Chris Rock.

Before he directed his first foot of film, Mike Nichols was a noted theater director. That in itself is not so unusual a root for directors to travel. What is different is that, before he was a noted theater director, he was half of one of the most influential comedy teams in show business history, Nichols and May. (His comedy partner, Elaine May, went on to become an important, if less commercially successful, writer and director in her own right.)

Still, from the moment he directed his first major play, Neil Simon’s “Barefoot in the Park,” Nichols mostly abandoned performing. Today, his highly regarded early work is mostly known only to fairly hardcore comedy aficionados.

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Bullz-Eye’s Pacino and De Niro on the QT

They’ve been linked since 1974 and “The Godfather: Part II.” Al Pacino, with only one major performance behind him, had become a major star with a perfectly modulated performance as reluctant Mafia prince Michael Corleone in “The Godfather.” Two years later, Robert De Niro‘s energetic work as the young Vito Corleone in the universally acclaimed sequel transformed the respected working actor into an almost instant superstar. The laws of time and space dictated that they could not appear together as father and son (this wasn’t “Back to the Future: Sicilian Style”), and so the two remained on separate tracks. Even in Michael Mann’s hugely successful 1993 action drama, “Heat,” the ballyhooed Pacino-De Niro collaboration was mostly limited to a single scene over a cup of coffee at a pricey Beverly Hills eatery. It was as if all that intensity could only be contained in a few minutes of caffeine-fueled conversation and posturing.

The release of the new cop thriller, “Righteous Kill,” promises more Bob-and-Al interaction, but there’s no reason these two acting powerhouses with Italian surnames can’t share the screen comfortably. There’s no taking away from the power of their most iconic non-“Godfather” roles: screwed-up vigilante-in-training Travis Bickle (“Taxi Driver”); hapless would-be bank robber Sonny Wortzik (“Dog Day Afternoon”); troubled boxer Jake LaMotta (“Raging Bull“); ultra-ambitious immigrant gangster Tony Montana (“Scarface“); or quick to kill wise guy Jimmy Conway (“Goodfellas“). And there’s a lot more to these two performers than barely concealed rage, well-wrought angst and occasional bouts of scenery munching.

Take a look at our list of 20 somewhat less well known performances showcasing the less obvious attributes of these two Italian-surnamed dynamos, and then come back and let us know what performances you might have added (or subtracted).

  

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