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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RIP Lou Jacobi

Another more recognized than well known character actor has departed the planet with the passing of the apparently born-middle-aged Lou Jacobi at the age of 95. In a town full of Jewish actors and behind-the-camera talent, Jacobi and the late Ned Glass, who was as skinny as Jacobi was chubby and who made a recent cameo appearance here, were mid-century Hollywood’s central casting Jews, male division.

Appropriately enough, he began his career in the Broadway cast of “The Diary of Anne Frank” and appeared in George Stevens’ 1959 film version. From then on, he played an endless string of both fathers and uncles who were explicitly Jewish or, as they say in film classes, “coded” as Jewish, in innumerable TV and film roles. The one major exception was his role as the worldly wise bartender, Moustache, in Billy Wilder’s “Irma la Douce.” Still, within or without his usual niche, he was as reliable as comedic clockwork as you’ll see in these two rather amazing scenes.

First, a sketch from Woody Allen’s utterly loose 1972 non-adaptation of Dr. David Reuben’s huge and now ultra-dated bestseller, “Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Sex *But We’re Afraid to Ask.” The book was originally seen as the height of sexual rationality but quickly became passe in more enlightened quarters with, among other issues, its assumption that homosexuality was a disease. (At the time, Gore Vidal commented that Reuben was “not a man of science but a moderately swinging rabbi.”) The question behind this scene reflects those attitudes but, right up until it goes soft right at the last second, it’s mostly pure comedy greatness with Jacobi’s utterly sympathetic portrayal of a garden variety hetero transvestite who gets in just little over his head.

And here is a scene penned by another great seriocomic writer of the alienated Jewish variety, cartoonist-turned playwright Jules Feiffer. In a scene from 1971’s “Little Murders,” Jacobi is a bombastic judge who has a thing or fifteen to say about being asked by Elliot Gould and Marcia Rodd to remove any mention of God from a wedding ceremony.

Jacobi was someone I already missed seeing, and though he was no spring chicken, it’s sad to see him go. Edward Copeland has more.

  

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