Remembering Mike Nichols

afi_lifetime_achievement_award_mike_nichols_main-1The death of director Mike Nichols signals the end of an era. Throughout his career, Nichols was a rigorous intellectual in pursuit of serious artistic endeavors. He was the opposite of today’s vacant purveyors of cynical, vulgar fare; Mike Nichols had something to say, show and tell. From 1967’s picture about disillusioned youth, The Graduate, starring Dustin Hoffman, to 2007’s picture about disillusioned adults, Charlie Wilson’s War, starring Philip Seymour Hoffman, Nichols, who died in Manhattan at 83 this week, groped for stories about sifting through the mixed and muddled world of the 20th century and finding some kind of higher meaning, often and, at his best, elevating the good. Even his darkest fare, such as the pretentious Closer (2004), mined the world for meaning.

The German-born son of a Jewish doctor who fled Nazi Germany and a “miserable and manipulative” mother (upon whom he based his early comedy routines with partner Elaine May) captured in his work the evolving American ethos from goodness to self-doubt and eventual self-loathing. He did it with a particularly searching sense of humor (with a blue streak) that exists to examine and explore, not for the sake of the joke, but for the sake of the thought that accompanies, yields and evokes the laughter.

What the New York Times calls his “keen comic timing” comes from the genius of his early observations bred by intense alienation and social anxiety he may have experienced after a doctor’s error that left him hairless (he wore wigs). According to a bio on Turner Classic Movies (TCM), Nichols was inspired to become a director upon watching the stage work of Elia Kazan when Nichols was 16 years old. The New Yorker found himself fitting in for the first time in his life and identifying his own talent and ability, in America’s quintessentially melting pot, middle class city, Chicago, where he later said he discovered that he could be “happy and neurotic.” That’s where he first connected with his creative partner, the sharp, sardonic Jewish comedienne Elaine May. Their work set the standard for mid-century American comedy and Nichols went on to drop out of college, appear with May on television programs in comedy routines, and direct Neil Simon’s Barefoot in the Park (1963), originally titled “Nobody Loves Me”, with a then-unknown actor from the San Fernando Valley, Robert Redford. After gaining acclaim for directing on Broadway, he directed his first motion picture in 1966, an adaptation of Edward Albee’s foul-mouthed Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? with Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton.

Nichols, who struggled with depression and once considered suicide, went on a year later to direct the seminal film of the counterculture, The Graduate, which is heralded by the New Left though it ends with an affirmation of middle class values amid a distinctive score by Paul Simon. It became the biggest moneymaker of Mike Nichols’ career. His next hit came in the decade which briefly deviated from New Left dominance, the 1980s, in which Nichols depicted another lonely individual’s struggle against the dominant culture, Silkwood, starring Cher, Kurt Russell and Meryl Streep in the title role singing “Amazing Grace” while driving a Honda toward a decidedly unhappier ending than the back of the bus finale in The Graduate. By then, Nichols had started to produce through his Icarus Productions—Whoopi Goldberg’s profanity-laced standup show and the optimistic American-themed musical Annie and Tom Stoppard’s The Real Thing on Broadway—including the groundbreaking ABC drama Family.

NicholsandMay1961PlaybillThough The Graduate came to represent Hollywood’s emerging anti-heroism, with glamorous movie stars and heroic stories pushed aside for dark, depraved themes and figures, Mike Nichols moved toward depicting an American resurgence of optimism and commercialism, in 1988’s unabashedly pro-capitalist Working Girl, with its opening and closing shots of the Twin Towers—referenced in Carly Simon’s theme song urging audiences to “let the dreamers wake the nation”—Statue of Liberty and the triumphal rise of the self-made entrepreneur in a skyscraper. The self-made is explored again in 1991’s quiet, underrated character drama, Regarding Henry, featuring Harrison Ford and Annette Bening as a couple who bring themselves into alignment with their chosen values after an act beyond their control radically changes their lives. His career reached its zenith with disease-themed TV productions Wit, which centers on cancer, and Angels in America, which dramatizes AIDS, preceded by his deceptively brilliant integration of his works in music, drama, humor, stage and cinema; an elated homage to being self-made, happy and neurotic, The Birdcage starring Nathan Lane and Robin Williams. That the adaptation of Jean Poiret’s La Cage Aux Folles was written by his original comedy partner Elaine May brings the outstanding career of the insatiable Mike Nichols full circle. Nichols, who is survived by his brother, children and wife, journalist Diane Sawyer, deserves to be studied and remembered. I think it may be another century before his brand of brightness, wit and intelligence make their way into pictures, shows and stories of high caliber again.

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New Music from Melissa Manchester

manchester_06-glam_0407-v2Melissa Manchester’s self-made You Gotta Love the Life will be released on Feb. 10, 2015, according to her publicist. This is the first album since 2004 and she tells me that the new work celebrates 40 years of making music. I know this is true firsthand because I have previewed the CD, which was recorded near Los Angeles at Citrus College with help from Stevie Wonder, Al Jarreau, Keb’ Mo’, Dionne Warwick, Dave Koz and, in one of his last recordings, Joe Sample. While I’m helping Melissa, whom I interviewed for the Oscar-nominated singer’s last motion picture recording (read the interview here) to tell the tale of her distinctive new album, I can attest that the introspective You Gotta Love the Life is an achievement in the Grammy-winning singer’s exceptional career.

What a recording career it is, too. Following songwriting studies at NYU with Paul Simon and a stint with Bette Midler, Manchester’s solo career took off in earnest with her recording of the Peter Allen/Carole Bayer Sager anthem “Don’t Cry Out Loud” which garnered her first Grammy nomination for Best Pop Female Vocal Performance in 1979. She won the award in the same category four years later for “You Should Hear How She Talks About You” and two of her songs, “Through the Eyes of Love” and “The Promise,” were nominated for Academy Awards in the same year. Manchester’s songs have been recorded by Roberta Flack, Dusty Springfield, Alison Krauss, Stevie Nicks, Kenny Loggins and Barbra Streisand. She still writes for movies, including a gospel tune for Tyler Perry, “I Know Who I Am”, which she says she sings for herself on You Gotta Love the Life. Manchester, who played Mayim Bialik’s mother on NBC’s Blossom and co-created the ballroom dance extravaganza, Fascinating Rhythms, for the stage, is writing a musical and planning to tour to support the new record. She says she plans to perform at a release party in Dave Koz’s new lounge at Spaghettini in Beverly Hills.

The show’s and new album’s opener is the propulsive title track, You Gotta Love the Life. It’s Melissa Manchester‘s personal narrative about the hard, show business life and her press announcement today touts You Gotta Love the Life as an integration of the classic American songbook with jazz, ballads and samba featuring favorite cover songs, including “Something Wonderful” from The King and I, and new, original material, such as what turns out to be the late Hal David’s last recorded lyric. The first single, “Feelin’ for You”, premieres on January 19. Look for an interview and album review.

 

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Lessons of the Berlin Wall

This week’s class in my social media course was an assignment for an oral-visual presentation intended to concretize that social media’s success is ultimately achieved in reality, not online.

Judging from the outcome and feedback, the lesson is learned. Stories told and items shown were presented with thought, concision and conviction. Each student told an amazing story with an accompanying physical item that captures some part of what they hold highest and dearest. From tales of a grandmother whose entrepreneurial spirit inspired an online enterprise, with faded black and white prints, to poetry readings and an inspiring story of an encounter on a flight to Omaha with a bill of money ending in Texas decades later with a deal for profit and a tale of taking risks in a haunted fashion show with Elvira, each student cashed in on an ability to communicate in a social context in a way that advanced their goals, growth and development. The students’ presentations were excellent. I told them so.

BurbankAdultSchoolBeing social, which necessitates communication, is part of man’s nature. The 9-week course at Burbank Adult School is predicated on this idea. It aims to enrich the student to learn skills to advance his self-interest. One of the student presentations demonstrated the course’s theme in an especially memorable way. It was created by a student who chose to tell the class about his time in Berlin.

Though he didn’t disclose the year, it was clearly many years ago. He said he had been teaching a skill he’d mastered to a group of students. Some of them, he said, had lived in East Germany, a Communist dictatorship controlled by the Soviet Union. He said he noticed something different about these students. In particular, he told the class that he’d observed something haunted, even vacant, in their eyes. In time, he explained, he realized that the students from Communist Germany were living in terror of making a mistake. He said he sought to help them. He told the class that he made an effort to alleviate their fear so they might begin to live free in the world again.

Then, he said, something extraordinary happened during the teaching of his course.

As he said this, pausing to pull his Show & Tell item from a black athletic bag, he took a moment to compose himself. The year, he explained, was 1989 and, as the Communist regime collapsed in Soviet Russia, the Berlin Wall came down. Reaching into his bag in silence and pulling out a chunk of concrete which was once part of the slave state imprisoning millions of Germans, he told the class in social media that his students had given him this gift for having taught them. He added quietly that he has treasured it ever since.

That day was 25 years ago this Sunday and, in a single display of concrete preceded by a tale of teaching victims of Soviet oppression, he communicated the power of reducing ideas to reality in a course on social media as a means of reducing ideas to reality. In his particular presentation, and in the other students’ presentations, too, he made my course, All About Social Media, searingly, brilliantly, all about his own life, work, liberty, happiness and self. That is the whole ideal.

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Interview: Volker Schlöndorff

2012-02-14-9440-2280_Volker_Schlondorff_IMG_x900Filmmaker Volker Schlöndorff, whose new movie, the subtitled Diplomacy, opened today in New York City (opening at the Laemmle Royal in Los Angeles on November 7), studied economics and political science at the Institut des Hautes Etudes Cinematographique (IDHEC) in Paris, the setting of his fictional Diplomacy, which we recently discussed. Diplomacy concerns two men, a Swedish diplomat and a Nazi commander in Paris during the fascist occupation of France, in a tense conflict over the final Nazi command to totally annihilate Paris as American troops came to liberate the city of lights.

Schlöndorff worked as an assistant director with Louis Malle (Viva Maria!) and directed operas in Germany and Paris and a controversial, Oscar-winning surrealistic adaptation of the Gunter Grass novel The Tin Drum (1979). This is an edited transcript.

Scott Holleran: Does Diplomacy, based on a stage play, humanize and thus legitimize the Nazi regime?

Volker Schlöndorff: Oh, no. I hope not. I don’t feel sympathy or compassion for the conflict of the [Nazi] general. He was looking for and he got [what he gets]. I added a lot more to the play in that sense. I had access to [the history of] what he did in Poland and the partaking in execution of Jews, so I wanted him to be as much a villain as possible because of the dynamics of the drama. He has to be unflinching. He has to do what he is told to do, namely destroy Paris. At the end, the consul has to somehow break this armor and get through to the human being which exists in every human being but that does not humanize the Nazi regime to me. He is not even a Nazi he’s more of a military man—he’s a [character] construct—a military man used to obeying orders.

Scott Holleran: Had you seen the play on stage?

Volker Schlöndorff: No, I did not, I must say fortunately. I was just doing another World War 2 film in Paris for French television while the play was on but I never had time to make it. Two years later, the offer [to adapt the play for film] came to me, which I was grateful for. So I was free to imagine it in my mind. I wanted to make this [movie] very intimate, not stagy at all. I never saw the play, so I have no idea how they did it on stage.

Scott Holleran: Did you read the play?

Volker Schlöndorff: Yes, of course.

Scott Holleran: Did playwright Cyril Gely drive the script?

Volker Schlöndorff: I did. I submitted it to him and he reacted to my first draft. I had taken off quite a bit, maybe too much, but I had also edited it and did quite a bit of research so a lot of stuff became much more realistic. It still is, of course, fiction. This negotiation never took place in this way. However, if they had met, I think this would have been the conversation and I think this must have been going on in the mind of the general.

Scott Holleran: Is the Swedish diplomat character, Raoul Nordling, neutral?

Volker Schlöndorff: Not at all. Sweden was neutral. But he was not acting on behalf of his government. He wanted to save Paris, he wanted to save the people and he was passionate. The two of them had a number of encounters and, when you read their memoirs, the [Nazi] general is very self-serving and the [Swedish] consul explains his lifelong attachment to Paris. With the general, what comes across is that he’s a military man devoid of any imagination and humanity. With him, it’s more of a dogmatic sense of honor—you feel that his only dilemma was how he saves his honor—and whether destroying Paris would forever destroy the honor of his family.

Scott Holleran: Duty to the state is among the Nazi’s most closely held ideas. Why?

Volker Schlöndorff: The most terrible things happen when people follow duty to the state. Following one’s individual conscience is more important—you have to take orders from yourself, not just take orders you’ve been given—and it’s not always easy to achieve that. To really examine yourself—and, then, to have the strength to disobey—is difficult.

Scott Holleran: —Like Edward Snowden—?

Volker Schlöndorff: —Absolutely, though I’m not that familiar with his case. But I think he must have had that double dilemma and faced the difficulties. He must have found the strength.

Scott Holleran: What’s your most influential film?

Volker Schlöndorff: My own or films by others?

Scott Holleran: Both.

Volker Schlöndorff: The easy answer is [Elia Kazan’s] On the Waterfront. I was a boy of 15 or 16 years old [when I saw it] and I was very upset. The movie always stayed with me at difficult moments and periods of my life. I know it’s a bit silly but I don’t care. I can commit to that. It’s hard to say which of mine are most influential. I know that The Tin Drum (1979) is important to people in their imaginations and feelings. The Last Honor of Katharina Blum (1975) had a huge impact but I don’t think that the influence of movies can be measured in immediate terms. It’s more that every one of us has his own attitude but needs nourishment and encouragement to persevere—and that’s where movies come in. They are the food for our souls, though they don’t change our minds.

Scott Holleran: Did controversy help or hurt The Tin Drum’s reputation?

Volker Schlöndorff: It helps. Controversy is always good. A movie is made to be debated, if you have a committed and engaged audience. We often do not have enough debate and polemics. I hate when people say ‘I love your movie’ or ‘I hate your movie’ and leave it at that. I want to know why.

Scott Holleran: Do you think Gunter Grass’s later disclosure that he had worked as a youth as a Nazi SS officer hurt the perception of The Tin Drum?

Volker Schlöndorff: It hurts himself. I don’t think it hurts the novel or the movie. But his own aura was hurt tremendously. I understand him and we are friends. He says ‘I couldn’t say [I was a Nazi sooner] and if I had said it, I probably couldn’t have written The Tin Drum’ because he was trying to deal with this thing in him.

Scott Holleran: You made an American film for television, A Gathering of Old Men (1987), featuring Richard Widmark and Louis Gossett, Jr., which explores a similar theme of people’s complicity in widespread injustice, redemption and a single act of defiance against the state. How did that film shape your career?

Volker Schlöndorff: It shaped my life. I loved doing it. I discovered the South and Louisiana, made a lot of friends and adopted two children as foster kids. I took them out of public [government-controlled] schools and put them in private schools. They were from welfare mothers and they didn’t know their fathers. So, now I have family in Louisiana. Richard Widmark and I got along very well and he became a true friend.

Scott Holleran: Widmark’s character grows and comes to accept new ideas in A Gathering of Old Men. As a German, do you accept the thesis of Stanley Kramer’s Judgment at Nuremberg that one can hold an entire country accountable for the evil acts of its government?

Volker Schlöndorff: Absolutely. Otherwise, I wouldn’t have been doing the movies I’ve been doing. Even though we were children and were not therefore responsible, [Nazi Germany] is [part of] our culture and [as Germans] we are responsible for that culture—we have to work on that because the march of [human progress] is very, very slow and none of us is on his own; we are all part of society. When I’m in the South, even though I have a lot of Cajun friends and they are a minority, I feel as though these groups in the South as a whole are responsible [for the South’s culture], not only individuals but as groups.

SMV5BMTg1NDIzNTQ5N15BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwMjY2MTU2MjE@._V1_SX214_AL_cott Holleran: Coming back to Diplomacy, does diplomacy, properly understood, mean negotiating with fascist states, such as Nazi Germany or Islamic Iran?

Volker Schlöndorff: Absolutely. One should always try to negotiate. Whether in Ukraine or Syria, the military option is always the worst. The role of diplomacy is to prevent wars.

Scott Holleran: What is your favorite aspect of Paris?

Volker Schlöndorff: Under the bridges, because I’m a runner and that’s where I run. It’s where I used to sit when I was a student to do my reading. I like running on the left bank [of the Seine River] or the right bank.

Scott Holleran: Your work dramatizes the rise and fall of the totalitarian state, in The Tin Drum, its effect on the individual in The Handmaid’s Tale (1990), and, with Diplomacy, its bitter end. Why the interest in dictatorship?

Volker Schlöndorff: My birthday, 1939, the year of my birth. My strongest remembrances to this day are of the [second world] war and, then, the postwar period, which was still a continuity of the war. I didn’t ask to deal with dictatorship. I was thrown into it and, as a student in France, I was confronted with it daily for almost 10 years, being a German in France. Life dealt me with a deck of cards. I wish it had been a different deck of cards.

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Movie Review: Diplomacy

MV5BMTg1NDIzNTQ5N15BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwMjY2MTU2MjE@._V1_SX214_AL_“Is Paris burning?” Volker Schlöndorff’s fictionalized Diplomacy, starring Niels Arestrup as Nazi general Dietrich von Choltitz and André Dussollier as Swedish consul Raoul Nordling and opening today at New York City’s Film Forum (and at the Laemmle Royal in Los Angeles on November 7), responds to Adolf Hitler’s infamous question of his Nazi commander with surprisingly provocative answers.

The French and German-language movie (with English subtitles) opens with Beethoven’s 7th symphony amid black and white footage of Warsaw’s destruction by Germany in the summer of 1944. An old man walks the streets of Paris in the dark, suspicious of everything around him, which ought to tell the audience something important about him. Mysterious narration explains to the audience that “we were all going to die, Europe was consumed by war. The Germans planned to destroy, to raze, everything. Especially Paris.” A flame appears out of nowhere as the camera pans up past a Nazi soldier to a figure standing on a balcony overlooking Paris. He is the Nazi general, smoking a cigarette, indicating in one sweep that tonight he holds the power to ignite Paris, Arc de Triomphe, Eiffel Tower and all.

After an introduction to the general and his pills, underlings and surroundings, the German answers his subordinate’s question, “what are you going to do?” with the profession of faith that led to Hitler’s Germany: “My duty.”

The general, who faces imminently approaching Allied troops, has total faith in the German state, volk and plan. After the city’s bridges, rigged with explosives, are decimated, the river Seine will be dammed and flood the city, and ruin the Louvre and the Cathedral of Notre Dame. An engineer’s description of the impending destruction goes on, the score swells, a clock ticks on a mantle and slowly, imperceptibly, the camera closes in on a mirror, where faintly one can make out the face and terrified, alert eyes of the old man.

Still just after four in the morning, an all-night confrontation between the two men unfolds at the Nazi hotel suite on Rue de Rivoli. Whether the Nazi has any independent thought and judgment and is able to see reality for what it is and whether the Swede will sanction the Nazi in some way will be resolved and this reconfiguration of history is cinematic in Volker Schlöndorff‘s hands.

The drama is deft and tightly drawn yet realistic. The interplay, as the men compare and contrast lives and values and negotiate down to the last moment as the U.S. Army tanks roll in, is involving. It’s not easy to make a movie about a moment in history as well known as this and manage to create suspense but Schlöndorff pulls it off with shadows, light and mostly the performances in faces of characters that must choose between life and death, their own and the lives of others, on a deadline that grants no mercy and demands the utmost skill. Not every line and scene rings true in Diplomacy. But the director who adapted the absurdist, surrealistic The Tin Drum focuses on what would matter most to each individual in such a negotiation. Diplomacy depicts a taut, thoughtful and extremely important encounter, sparing the West its treasures, as it might have been.

 

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