Archive | Obituaries RSS feed for this section

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.

Joan Rivers, Rest in Peace

JoanRiversStillTalkingJoan Rivers, who died today at the age of 81, was more than a comedienne. She was also an intellectual. Her ability to think, the drive to think for herself, is crucial to grasping why she made millions laugh. She always started by making the audience think.

At her best, she was hilariously fresh, honest and funny. Watch her clips but let them play. She told stories, not just jokes. Though in her later years she could be crude and vulgar and I didn’t watch her cut-up routines, she was biting, incisive and brilliant. The neurotic Jew from Brooklyn was part of the act and in an age when people push everyone to fit in, conform and just follow, Joan Rivers basically said ‘up yours’ to conformity, political correctness and not making waves. She was an individualist, a true creator and a real, enterprising pioneer.

What waves she made. Named as the Tonight Show‘s first permanent guest host by Johnny Carson, at a time when hundreds of America’s top comedians were flagrantly pushing for the position, she filled in for the legendary host with impeccable skill. She wrote and directed a movie about a man who becomes pregnant, a character played by a then-unknown standup comic named Billy Crystal, whom she thought deserved to be a star. She portrayed a knife-wielding lesbian pining for a character played by Barbra Streisand on stage. She won an Emmy hosting a thoughtful daytime talk show, broke new ground by headlining a comedy show for a new television network called Fox and used her fashion experience (Rivers worked for Lord & Taylor and as a fashion coordinator) throughout her career, selling products on a shopping channel and hosting fashion shows.

Joan Rivers wrote books, including a breakthrough jokes book about a fictional tramp named Heidi Abromowitz, popularized the phrase “Can we talk?”, voiced the baby in Look Who’s Talking, made her movie debut opposite Burt Lancaster in The Swimmer and made a documentary. She worked with Mel Brooks and all the top comedians. She did it all without turning herself into a joke. Some may claim with credibility that that came later and I think to some extent it did – and for what it’s worth I think she made a mistake when she took the Fox job, angering Johnny Carson – but without question Joan Rivers was an original.

That she achieved exceptional success in several fields across multiple platforms – TV, cable TV, movies, theater, bestselling books, comedy – is more extraordinary because she was a woman, a fact she used though never while denigrating man. This alone is an accomplishment in an anti-male culture. Much will be said and written about Joan Rivers and some of the criticism will be true, though it should also be remembered that Ms. Rivers survived her husband’s suicide. Her legacy is the ability to make people laugh through an understanding of the world around them. Having lost Robin Williams, Americans are left with Billy Crystal as one of the last great comedians of the mind. Let it be remembered that his first big break, before Soap, before hosting the Oscars, before he looked mah-velous and rode horses with Jack Palance, came from a comedienne who was, at least to me when I met her, gracious, intelligent, magnanimous and hilarious all at once. As she wrote about the box office bomb Rabbit Test starring Billy Crystal in a book pictured here:

I believe that hell is not pain and fire, but boredom. I think you must take risks, must see how far you can push. If you really believe in something, you must try it, must do it. If you always take your shot, your life is going to be interesting. Failure is devastating, but here I am fifteen years later feeling that Rabbit Test was one of the most successful experiences I have ever had. It is part of my education, part of my consciousness…Hell, Rabbit Test may be on the shelf, but I can pull it out and know that I made it happen.”

I think this expression of failure and knowledge that her work is primarily the product of her mind and that she owned it – this commitment to the self-made – is what sets her apart. May Joan Rivers, who entered talking, left me laughing and is survived by her daughter, protege and professional partner, Melissa Rivers, and grandson Cooper, rest in peace.

Robin Williams

RWSadness was unmistakable from the beginning of the remarkable career of Robin Williams, who died from an apparent suicide last night, according to police in the northern California county where he lived. Anyone who remembers his exciting breakthrough in ABC’s Happy Days spinoff, Mork & Mindy (1978), could see it in his eyes. It was in almost everything he did, from his performance as the title character in George Roy Hill’s adaptation of John Irving’s absurdist novel The World According to Garp (1982) to his work in recent years, including TV’s The Crazy Ones. His manic humor usually overshadowed his serious acting ability, on display in everything from Garp to Good Will Hunting (1997) and numerous dramatic roles.

The humor was at his best hilarious, from an appearance on Eight is Enough to his role in Moscow on the Hudson and in any of his TV, film and standup comic performances. He made me laugh out loud for the first time when his character Mork the alien dropped an egg in Mindy’s kitchen and said, “fly, be free!” There are moments of comic genius in nearly all of his work and it’s evident that everyone has a favorite scene or moment as shock and grief are shared throughout social media. Among my favorites are his restaurant interchanges in Chris Columbus’ Mrs. Doubtfire (1993), choreography display in Mike NicholsThe Birdcage (1996) and his guest spots on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. But his ability to capture a tragic sensibility came across in his most indelible roles, for which he ought to be fondly remembered, too: Hook (1991), Good Morning, Vietnam, (1987), Dead Poets Society (1989), Bicentennial Man (1999), August Rush (2007) and one of my favorite pictures about aligning the adult with the childlike, Jumanji (1995). I still think his performance as T.S. Garp, the bastard son of nurse Jenny Fields, is underrated.

As Garp, a quality that might be called his ill-fated, infinite sadness was well deployed and portrayed, with Robin Williams as constant caretaker of prostitutes, transvestites, students and a Puritanical feminist mother, stalked by mutes and the man-hating Pooh Percy and wry observer of strange, dark and confusing times. In his sleeveless, rainbow down jacket on Mork & Mindy, he made millions of Americans laugh at his intelligent, improvised ridicule of the ridiculous and he kept on for 35 years. He spoke openly about his personal struggles and, as he leaves a wife and children and admirers around the world, Robin Williams’ legacy could be that life, especially its good humor, is driven by that which ought to be taken seriously.

James Garner: 1928-2014

JGJames Garner, who died on July 19 at the age of 86, was quintessentially modern (in the best sense of the term), masculine and American.

His screen persona was easygoing, strong and resolute, whether portraying a player in TV’s Maverick or opposite the indomitable Doris Day in The Thrill of it All and Move Over, Darling (both 1963). His dark Indian handsomeness perfectly fit heroic, military roles in The Great Escape and The Americanization of Emily and Garner exuded masculinity without coming off as brooding, tortured or macho like some of his tough guy peers. He conveyed the sense he could knock an adversary out with a single punch while equally portraying a subtle quality that he’d only do so upon his own independent judgment that taking a swing was warranted, was his decision alone and that he would do so almost always as a last resort.

Blending comedy and drama and making it look seamlessly integrated, the Korean War veteran kept his most challenging roles grounded in reality with an intensity rarely seen among actors of his type, caliber and range. In The Children’s Hour, he plays a doctor in love with one of the female teachers accused of lesbianism in Lillian Hellman’s story of friendship and persecution, yet he does so deftly without overwhelming the tale and all while adding depth to every scene. It’s a small, serious and crucial role which delivers an early glimpse at his ability to play men of the mind.

He played off forbidden sexual orientation again in 1972’s They Only Kill Their Masters with June Allyson and fabulously as the object of Julie Andrews’ sexual impersonator’s affections in Victor/Victoria (1982) after returning to television as the title’s reformed criminal character in NBC’s successful crime comedy-drama The Rockford Files. By then, his charisma, dry wit and physical attractiveness were a tonic for troubled times and became popular in the culture, parlaying into an endorsement deal for a commercial series about Polaroid’s cameras featuring Mariette Hartley.

James Garner’s humor was always sharp, not snide. His persona was a bit jaded, not cynical. He was never depraved. His characters were always smart, attuned to reality and ultimately interested in achieving some higher value, whether helping a troubled friend on Rockford or stepping up to help the helpless, as he did in trying to rescue Donald Pleasance’s blind man in The Great Escape, a role which capably demonstrates his skill in combining the qualities of a big and tall friendly U.S. soldier with a modern sensibility to be the non-conformist who is confident to take on a task no one else will dare attempt and to do so with humor, grace and kindness. Garner played some variation of this unique mixture in many dimensional performances; in Grand Prix (1966), Skin Game (1971), Murphy’s Romance (1985), the CBS medical drama Chicago Hope, Space Cowboys (2000), Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood (2002), and, of course, as Duke in The Notebook (2004). He was like a more modern, enlightened version of Clark Gable or Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.

James Garner had the movie star looks, charm and larger than life heroism. But he possessed a distinctly American characteristic of wanting to do what’s right even when doing what’s right is not obvious. With his body, eyes and tone of voice, he expressed an attitude of ‘to hell with what others think’ in each climactic scene with just the right degree of Devil-may-care and heroism to make the conflict resolution seem jovial, serious and never without the top value clearly at stake – with the dilemma never taken lightly, unseriously or undertaken as a trivial or reckless gesture. That he acted with an exact balance of ease and self-confidence is why his death is widely impacting people who live in an age when men of action, reason and joie de vivre are especially rare, particularly in pictures.

He wrote his memoirs with Jon Winokur a few years ago (read my review here) and capped off a remarkable career with the equally remarkable story of triumph in his personal life over an evil stepmother who physically, sexually and in all ways abused the Garner children. That James Garner chose to come out and speak up is an honest, strong testament from an amazingly talented and entertaining artist. Now that he is gone, it is perhaps better known that he also embodied the virtues of characters he portrayed. This makes watching his screen performances more rewarding.

May James Garner rest in peace.

Eli Wallach Dies

Actor Eli Wallach, an exceptional actor whose work in motion pictures, stage and television spans decades, has died. He was 98 years old. From his role as a sexually predatory cotton gin owner in Elia Kazan’s Baby Doll (1956) to his performance as an embittered writer in The Holiday (2006), the Brooklyn-born Army veteran Wallach was electrifying on screen.

EliWallachYou couldn’t take your eyes off of him. I’d just watched him the other night as Guido on Turner Classic Movies dancing with Marilyn Monroe in her last movie, The Misfits (1961), another fine film. It’s a haunting Western co-starring Thelma Ritter and Clark Gable in his last movie, too, and Wallach depicts a sidekick to Gable’s cowboy. But he makes the character into so much more than that. Wallach’s Guido is an automotive mechanic in Reno who up and quits his job to chase wild Mustangs as part of this strange, lonely and unlikely quartet. His character starts as a regular fellow who spots Monroe’s newly divorced bombshell in an upstairs window and he unfolds as a widower with a past worth knowing about, and letting go of, in an unforgettable scene in which he dances, really dances, with the bombshell who is suddenly a human not merely an object. Her tender yet biting insights revive his lust for life but it’s Wallach’s eyes that transmit everything essential about his character’s story.

Small, important roles were masterfully rendered through his artistry. He was excellent in Lasse Hallstrom’s The Hoax (2007), memorable in NBC’s ER (2003) and as a judge in LA Law (1991), and he added to Godfather, Wall Street and Chinatown sequels. He could play hard or soft, gay or straight, monsignor or rabbi and he played them all. He was featured or co-starred in pictures with Clint Eastwood, Audrey Hepburn, Mickey Rooney, Gregory Peck, Barbra Streisand and Omar Sharif. His 1960s work in such influential films as The Magnificent Seven (1960), How the West Was Won (1962) and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966) stayed true to his abilities and his dedication to his work continued in exemplary performances in The Deep (1977) and Skokie (1981) and until a few years ago. Eli Wallach ended his career as he had started it in his film debut as the villain in Baby Doll, pictured here, with his form fitting each role flawlessly and with his character as the highest purpose of each performance.