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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“Avatar” tops a weekend of holiday box office bounty

If you’ve been following the horse-race over at Nikki Finke’s place, you’ll know it’s been a very long holiday weekend of box office ups and down. However, for those of us who can wait a day or two for the results, it’s actually somewhat simple.

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James Cameron‘s super-expensive 3-D extravaganza for Fox, “Avatar,” emerged as the victor of a three-way battle for the top prize with an outstanding second-weekend estimated take of $75 million and an absolutely minuscule drop from it’s first weekend of 2.6%, according to Box-Office Mojo. The Hollywood conventional wisdom has it that most science fiction films drop by at least 50% on their second weekend. Clearly, this is not most science fiction films and the fact that people are waiting to see this one in 3D and paying extra for the privilege is not hurting. So, as I’ve alluded to often enough, the word of mouth on this thing is something else. However, as always, I await the backlash as some folks plunk down their extra-heavy 3D ticket price and fail to have a religious experience.

Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law as Holmes and Watson, or some version thereofSecond place, of course, was Guy Ritchie’s unorthodox action-comedy take on probably the oldest genre franchise in the biz, “Sherlock Holmes.” The Robert Downey, Jr./Jude Law team-up loosely drawn from the late 19th/early 20th century works of Arthur Conan Doyle defeated “Avatar” and all-comers on its record setting Christmas opening. It then fell a bit and earned a still whopping estimated $65.38 for Warner Brothers, a company that certainly has some experience with franchises. Better yet, this one is in the public domain, which means fewer folks get a share in the wealth.

Fox’s “Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakquel” actually beat “Avatar” by a couple of million on its early opening day last Wednesday, but fell sharply on Christmas Eve and rebounded the rest of the weekend, for a very healthy estimated third place showing of $50.2 million. Critics may detest it; parents may barely tolerate it, but, to paraphrase the old blues song, the little kids understand (or don’t know any better). The film’s total estimated take starting from its early opening is just a tad over $77 million.

Considering it’s a Golden Globe-nominated sex comedy presumably aimed at a very grown-up audience — not only because of the average age of its stars but also because it’s R-rated, Universal’s “It’s Complicated” has generated the critical equivalent of a shrug, with our own David Medsker coming down on the very much negative side. That doesn’t bode extremely well for this sort of movie, which can use all the critical and awards help it can get.

Meryl Streep and Alec Baldwin in Still, this weekend’s rising tide managed to lift this boat to the tune of an estimated $22 million or so, which is really not bad for this kind of film. Or, it wouldn’t be because Nikki Finke claims the budget was $80 million, which is way high for this kind of movie¬† and suggests to me that it’s possible stars Meryl Streep, Alec Baldwin, and Steve Martin let their agents negotiate extra-hard for a big pay-day because they were perhaps less than wowed by the film artistically. Universal just doesn’t seem to be cutting itself any breaks lately.

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