The Five Most Important Films of Mike Nichols’ Career

He was more than just a filmmaker. With his passing at age 83, Mike Nichols leaves behind a legacy filled with awards and attitudes which influenced every medium he was involved in.

Mike Nichols won nine Tony Awards, four Emmys, a Grammy and an Oscar, making him one of the few artists in any medium that can claim such honors. Not bad for a Jewish refugee from Nazi Germany who thought of becoming a doctor but, instead, dropped out of the University of Chicago to try the theater. It was there where he met partner Elaine May, and the two would soon become the toast of contemporary (’50s) pop culture.

He was accepted into the Actor’s Studio and studied under the great Lee Strasberg before joining the Windy City’s Compass Players in 1955. Along with May, Shelley Berman, Del Close, and Nancy Ponder, they were the predecessors for the noted Second City improv troupe. In 1960, Arthur Penn directed the Broadway smash An Evening with Mike Nichols and Elaine May, and soon both were huge household names.

But when he stepped onto the board to take on Neil Simon’s Barefoot in the Park in 1963, Mike Nichols knew immediately that all he wanted to do for the rest of his life is direct. When the show was a hit, he became much in-demand. Over the course of his career, such shows as The Odd Couple, Plaza Suite, The Prisoner of Second Avenue, and Annie would feel his input, with the mandatory awards to follow.

Thanks to his initial success, Warner Bros. choose him to helm an adaptation of Edward Albee’s controversial Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? , a job made even more difficult thanks to the casting of passionate press darlings and current married couple Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton in the leads. His efforts resulting in a bevy of awards season accolades.

As an artist, Nichols was never far away from the spotlight. He acted here and there, one of his best roles being that of Jack in David Hare’s adaptation of Wallace Shawn’s The Designated Mourner. He was also instrumental in getting the groundbreaking drama Family on the air. There were flops along the way (The Day of the Dolphin, The Fortune) as well as frequent return visits to the stage (The Gin Game, Gilda Live!, The Real Thing, Hurlyburly).

During the late ’80s and early ’90s, Nichols’ name became synonymous with big stars in big parts, guiding Melanie Griffith and Sigourney Weaver through Working Girl, Jack Nicholson and Meryl Streep through Heartburn, and Streep again, along with Shirley MacLaine in Postcards from the Edge.

In 1998, just as Bill Clinton was entering his final two years in office, Nichols brought the damning book Primary Colors to the big screen. Along with What Planet Are You From? , Closer, and Charlie Wilson’s War, it would represent one of his final forays into film. For HBO, he turned such plays as Wit, and Angels in America into must-see TV, all while continuing his streak of Great White Way successes. With his passing, Nichols leaves behind his fourth wife, news anchor Diane Sawyer (he has three children from his previous marriages), a wealth of worthwhile work, and perhaps most importantly, a major impact on the modern film.

With that in mind, and in celebration of his very special life, we highlight five films in the director’s oeuvre which marked major turning points in cinema. We’re not saying that such topics — sex, martial dysfunction, LGBT issues, corporate corruption, the coming-of-age — would not have found their form elsewhere. Instead, thanks are due to Mike Nichols, for his films and the topics they address are benchmarks for the way we watch movies today.

5. The Birdcage

Yes, it was based on the French farce La Cage Aux Folles, and features some dopey “drag” comedy, but there is no denying the impact Nichol’s pro-LGBT stances had on this big fat Hollywood hit. Instead of going with the traditional depictions of homosexuality in film, the filmmaker found various avenues in which to turn such stereotypes into living, breathing, three dimensional people. Robin Williams, in particular, balanced his affectations with his actions to provide one of the most complex depictions of a gay man ever. While its mainstream success did mark a kind of turning point for the struggling same-sex cinema, Nichols and his former partner Elaine May (who wrote the script) created a foundation from which all queer cinema can learn from.

4. Silkwood

By the time Silkwood opened in 1983, the country had gone through Vietnam, Watergate, the Three Mile Island crisis, the hostage situation in Iran, the election of Ronald Reagan, and the attempted assassination on his life. Everywhere you turned, it seemed like there was no one or nothing you could trust. Leave it to Nichols to find the perfect film to reflect this paranoid, an activism tour de force showing how normal, everyday employees can turn into corporate enemies at the drop of a scandalous secret. For this true story, Nichols hired Meryl Streep to play the title character, a lowly nuclear power plant worker who became a whistleblower — and paid the ultimate price in the process. Her death remains a mystery, but the film is amazing.

3. Carnal Knowledge

As we will see in the last two entries on this list, Nichols was not afraid to push the envelope and test the boundaries of “decency” and “taste.” He was also one of the more forward thinking filmmakers and the still contemporary feeling aspects of this deconstruction of sexual mores proves his power as an artist. The scenes between Jack Nicholson and Ann-Margret are as intense and insensitive as they work back in 1971 and Jules Feiffer’s script is loaded with interpersonal insights. As he did with Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and The Graduate, Nichols took the American experience and filtered it through a fine mesh of meaningful reevaluation. The results always resembled reality, if not completely realistic.

2. Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

When it landed on Broadway, critics and audiences agreed: Edward Albee’s play was a brilliant breakdown of the traditional marriage tropes… and it could never be adapted to the big screen. Still lost in the haze of the previous production code, Nichols proved them wrong, preserving every possible swear word and uncomfortable situation with Oscar winning wisdom. The movie ended up being only one of two (the other is Cimarron, FYI) to be nominated in every category possible, earning Elizabeth Taylor and Sandy Dennis Academy Awards in the process. The MPAA eventually asked for edits, and got them, but it’s a testament to Nichols that what crowds clamored for on the Great White Way turned out to be a legitimate movie classic.

1. The Graduate

The postmodern movie movement that would come to dominate the artform for the rest of the 20th century had to begin somewhere, and Nichol’s Oscar-winning overview of non-counterculture youth (and their parents) circa the late ’60s is as good a place as any to start. With only his second film behind the lens, the director defied conventions, giving us a warts-and-all overview of sex, success, and suburbia that continues to resonate nearly 50 years later. By turning Dustin Hoffman into Everyman (or every-boy) and giving him the guidance in bed of Anne Bancroft’s older Mrs. Robinson, the coming of age tale got a kick in the ass that few current examples can, or ever will, match. A true masterpiece.