Mike Nichols

Biloxi Blues (1988, Mike Nichols)

Biloxi Blues has some rather peculiar, rather significant third act problems. Like, it doesn’t have a third act. Did they cut a bunch to keep the PG rating or something? Because at a certain point the rising action stalls out and the film goes into montage summary overdrive. After giving lead Matthew Broderick and ostensible love interest Penelope Ann Miller an amazing “meet cute” first dance, full of chemistry and energy, Miller never gets another line. She’s in a few montage shots, as Broderick romances her, but she’s not even present in the film, just visible. It’s a very weird development, especially considering how phenomenally director Nichols shoots that dance scene.

And Nichols has a lot of very thoughtful direction in the film, which is another reason it feels like it doesn’t have a third act. None of the direction is thoughtful. In fact, it’s tonally regressive. The end of the film—the last real scene—turns everything into a smile, with writer Neil Simon and Nichols running as far away from every question or difficult thought they raised as fast as they can. It just doesn’t make any sense. Unless Simon didn’t have an ending to the movie and for some reason everyone—Nichols, the producer, the studio—just shrugged and said, “Yeah, Matthew Broderick can sell it with narration, he’s Ferris Bueller, it’ll be fine.”

Is Broderick’s narration read good? Yeah… it’s not bad. It’s not great, but it’s not bad. It’s also not his fault because Simon doesn’t give him anything to say really. Whatever lessons Broderick learned from his time in boot camp in 1945 Biloxi don’t come through in the narration. Or Broderick’s onscreen performance. It also turns out he’s supposed to be narrating it from the present, which seems weird with the accompanying shots. There’s got to be a story behind Blues’s production. There’s just got to be.

Because no one has a full character arc in the entire film. Not even Christopher Walken, who’s about one great scene away from a fantastic performance. He never gets his great scene, never unconditionally. It’s usually a combination of script and Broderick; Broderick, not in performance or in role as written, never gets to honestly react to Walken. Walken hounds Broderick for much of the film, because Broderick’s a New York smart-ass and, well, he’s also Jewish. Walken’s not going to take a cheap shot about the Jewish thing, but it’s there. Anytime Walken and Broderick have some kind of showdown where you want to see Broderick’s reaction—or, hell, Walken’s—the action goes to the rest of the platoon.

The rest of the platoon is alpha Matt Mulhern, wannabe alpha Markus Flanagan, average guy Casey Siemaszko, popular but good guy Michael Dolan, and super-nerd (and fellow Jewish guy) Corey Parker. All of the performances are good. It’s exceptional Parker’s able to get away with such an exaggerated stereotype, especially since there’s not a lot of consistency with the character in the script. He starts the film constantly farting and having to take a crap. Apparently it stops being a problem after he starts eating the army food. He’s also supposedly having all sorts of run-ins with Walken; we see some of them, but never the fallout. It’s just like with Broderick… Simon’s not interested in the characters developing from their experiences in Blues.

But Nichols directs for it. The way he positions the actors—Broderick, Parker, Mulhern, Flanagan, Siemaszko, Dolan—Nichols has got a distinct focus. Only then the script goes somewhere else and Nichols lets the film lose that focus. As a result, it always feels like something’s missing. Especially with Walken; especially after the “third act” reveals on Walken. Biloxi Blues should given Walken a Best Supporting Actor Oscar and doesn’t.

Mulhern’s really good. Dolan’s really good. Flanagan and Siemaszko are sort of flat good; the script doesn’t really give them enough. In Siemaszko’s case, Simon forgets about him too.

Great cameo from Park Overall. Good photography from Bill Butler, good music from Georges Delerue, great production design from Paul Sylbert. The forties soundtrack selections aren’t great and tend to be during the ill-advised “for laughs” sections, but they also make the film seem artificial and vaguely insincere, which is definitely not what it ought to be doing.

Biloxi Blues should be really good. It’s got the pieces to be really good. Instead, it’s decent, but a misfire.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Mike Nichols; screenplay by Neil Simon, based on his play; director of photography, Bill Butler; edited by Sam O’Steen; music by Georges Delerue; production designer, Paul Sylbert; produced by Ray Stark; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring Matthew Broderick (Eugene Morris Jerome), Christopher Walken (Sgt. Toomey), Matt Mulhern (Joseph Wykowski), Corey Parker (Arnold B. Epstein), Markus Flanagan (Roy Selridge), Casey Siemaszko (Don Carney), Michael Dolan (James J. Hennesey), Penelope Ann Miller (Daisy), and Park Overall (Rowena).


Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966, Mike Nichols)

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? opens with this gentle, lovely music from Alex North. It’s night, it’s a university campus, a couple is walking silently as the credits roll; the music’s beautiful. Then the couple–Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton–get home. And pretty soon they start yelling at each other. And they don’t stop until the end of the movie, some two hours away–unless they aren’t in a scene together.

Burton is a history professor and Taylor’s suffering husband. Taylor is the university president’s daughter and Burton’s suffering wife. The film starts with them getting home from a faculty party at two in the morning. They’re both drunk and so they start drinking some more. But Taylor has invited over a new professor and his wife so they’re going to have a middle-of-the-night party, much to Burton’s chagrin.

The guests are George Segal and Sandy Dennis. Dennis is a little tipsy when they arrive, but Segal’s basically sober. Burton–correctly–guesses Taylor agreed to host the welcoming party (at her never seen father’s request) because Segal is something of a young blond stud and up-and-comer, not a middle-aged fuddy-duddy career burnout like Burton.

As the film progresses, the group–there are only the four characters in the film (with two uncredited actors at a roadside bar later on)–breaks up and reforms. Taylor gives Dennis a tour of the house, offscreen, while Segal and Burton bond. More Segal realizes his hosts are majorly dysfunctional and wants to get out of there, but ends up sticking around, getting drunker, with Taylor getting bolder and bolder about hitting on him. Dennis is oblivious, Burton is quietly raging.

Eventually–once they’re drunker–Segal and Burton have another bonding moment, while–again–Dennis and Taylor are offscreen. Segal and Taylor get scenes together, Dennis and Burton get scenes together. And little by little, it becomes clear there’s a lot more going on than Taylor’s a drunk unfaithful wife to Burton’s sad sack, drunken academic failure.

Woolf is exceptional on every level. The way Nichols directs the actors. Ernest Lehman’s script–adapting Edward Albee’s play. The performances. That Alex North music. The Haskell Wexler black and white photography, which gives the viewer insight into these uncomfortable moments–like when Taylor starts flirting with Segal and Dennis is in the background and the scene’s not about Taylor’s flirtatious rambling but whether or not Dennis is catching up with what’s going on. And then what her awareness or lack thereof means given Burton’s in the room too.

Dennis has a bunch of surprises in store, narratively and performance-wise, for later in the film. Virginia Woolf gets disquieting before Segal and Dennis even show up at the house, because Taylor’s obviously unstable. Possibly dangerously unstable. The film’s revelations about Taylor and Burton to their guests (and the viewer) drives their character development. This revelation or that revelation calls back to a previous one and where there’s an–intentional or drunken–disconnect fuels the development. Dennis and Segal are different. There’s definitely some development through revelation, but they’re not the film’s subjects. They’re both messed up a little with secrets of their own, but it’s nothing compared to Taylor and Burton.

Taylor gets top-billing and the best monologue. Burton’s second-billed but the protagonist. His monologues are different. He’s not self-reflective drunk or sober. Taylor’s self-reflective sober. Well, sober for her. Burton’s always trying to stay one step ahead of Taylor while she’s just naturally devious and manipulative. They’re both exhausted–the story itself is a marathon, with the two couples getting drunker and drunker as the night goes on. Movie starts at two in the morning, ends four or so hours later. So not real-time, but fairly continuous action. All of the characters (and actors) exhibit the exhaustion in different ways. While Dennis and Segal are the guests and their exhaustion is tied to them being in someone else’s home, Taylor and Burton are sort of in their normal. Their terrifying normal. Exhaustion included.

The script has the dialogue level, with Burton trying to torment his guests with wordplay and maybe embarrass Taylor a little with it, and then the narrative. This development, that revelation, all perfectly plotted out. Nichols hits every one just right. He gets the intensity of the scenes, the dialogue, the performances, all beautifully shot by Wexler, then Sam O’Steen’s editing packages them all together into these astounding, draining scenes. There’s a lot of dread in Virginia Woolf, even if you don’t know what you’re supposed to be dreading. From the first moment after the peaceful opening titles, the film’s primed for an explosion.

Singular acting. Segal’s the least great and he’s still great. Taylor and Burton kind of duke it out for best performance. They’re very different parts with very different requirements. It’s incredible how well Nichols directs the film, given his two leads are operating at different speeds and different narrative distances. And then you throw in Segal and, especially, Dennis. She’s phenomenal in the film’s toughest part. Because she’s got to be quiet. Burton, Taylor, and even Segal all get to be loud but Dennis does this startling, quiet performance.

And even when it seems like you finally get Virginia Woolf as the film goes into the third act, it turns out there are still some big twists. The film’s biggest twist isn’t even its loudest. And the loudest one is head-blowing big.

Richard Sylbert’s production design–the house and its yard where the action mostly takes place (though the roadside bar is also great)–is stellar.

As I said before, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is exceptional. On every level. It’s “run out of positive adjectives” exceptional.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Mike Nichols; screenplay by Ernest Lehman, based on the play by Edward Albee; director of photography, Haskell Wexler; edited by Sam O’Steen; production designer, Richard Sylbert; music by Alex North; produced by Lehman; released by Warner Bros.

Starring Elizabeth Taylor (Martha), Richard Burton (George), George Segal (Nick), and Sandy Dennis (Honey).


Working Girl (1988, Mike Nichols)

Towards the end of Working Girl, the film seems to jump around a bit with the timeline. It seems to jump ahead, but then it turns out it doesn’t. And it only seems to jump ahead because of how director Nichols and editor Sam O’Steen structure a couple transitions. It’s not a big thing, but it does cause the viewer to reseat him or herself; it’s sort of a false ending but not. It’s a tension reliever.

Kevin Wade’s script has a lot of obvious material, but it saves the most important revelation–one the film shockingly gets away with not revealing in the first act–until the last few moments. And it’s all paced out perfectly.

But Working Girl couldn’t possibly function without its principal cast members. In the lead, Melanie Griffith is phenomenal. She needs to be sympathetic, but Nichols and Griffith subtly tone down the sympathy she gets for being unappreciated. There’s an initial shock value to her situation and then, over the course of the film, they show that shock was just to get the viewer paying attention.

As her romantic interest, Harrison Ford is fantastic. His character is one of the film’s more complicated–as the evil harpy boss, Sigourney Weaver is similarly fantastic. Weaver’s able to appear likable even when she shouldn’t. Ford is able to be assured even when he shouldn’t.

Nichols, O’Steen and cinematographer Michael Ballhaus put together some truly great scenes here.

It’s rather great; Griffith and Ford are wonderful together.

3.5/4★★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Mike Nichols; written by Kevin Wade; director of photography, Michael Ballhaus; edited by Sam O’Steen; music by Rob Mounsey; production designer, Patrizia von Brandenstein; produced by Douglas Wick; released by 20th Century Fox.

Starring Melanie Griffith (Tess McGill), Harrison Ford (Jack Trainer), Sigourney Weaver (Katharine Parker), Alec Baldwin (Mick Dugan), Joan Cusack (Cyn), Philip Bosco (Oren Trask), Nora Dunn (Ginny), Oliver Platt (Lutz), James Lally (Turkel), Kevin Spacey (Bob Speck), Robert Easton (Armbrister) and Amy Aquino (Alice Baxter).


Wolf (1994, Mike Nichols)

Mike Nichols has a very peculiar technique in Wolf. He does these intense close-ups, sometimes zooming into them, sometimes zooming out of them. He fixates on his actors–usually Jack Nicholson and Michelle Pfeiffer, but all of the actors get at least one intense close-up (except maybe Eileen Atkins). It’s like he’s drawing attention to the unreality of the film medium, which makes sense since there’s a lengthy conversation between Nicholson and Om Puri about mysticism and modern life.

Wolf is a strange monster movie because, even though it’s about Jack Nicholson turning into a werewolf–he gets bitten in the opening titles no less–it’s not a monster movie. For a while it’s a workplace drama, then it’s a marriage drama, finally it’s a romantic drama between Nicholson and Pfeiffer. The film’s present action is extremely limited. It takes place over a week or so (one could probably easily chart out the days), but the filmmakers sell the roller coaster romance between Nicholson and Pfeiffer.

On the topic of those close-ups of Nichols’s, they wouldn’t be possible without Giuseppe Rotunno’s photography. Wolf is a beautiful looking picture; Nichols and Rotunno have these wonderful reflections in the car windows. They’re stunning. And having Ennio Morricone’s score over them–just great.

All the acting’s good. Pfeiffer gets the third act to herself and is fabulous. Nice supporting work from Kate Nelligan, James Spader, Christopher Plummer.

I’m not even sure Wolf’s a horror movie; it’s more a supernatural drama.

3.5/4★★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Mike Nichols; written by Jim Harrison and Wesley Strick; director of photography, Giuseppe Rotunno; edited by Sam O’Steen; music by Ennio Morricone; production designers, Jim Dultz and Bo Welch; produced by Douglas Wick; released by Columbia Pictures.

Starring Jack Nicholson (Will Randall), Michelle Pfeiffer (Laura Alden), James Spader (Stewart Swinton), Kate Nelligan (Charlotte Randall), Richard Jenkins (Detective Bridger), Christopher Plummer (Raymond Alden), Eileen Atkins (Mary), David Hyde Pierce (Roy), Om Puri (Dr. Vijay Alezais), Ron Rifkin (Doctor) and Prunella Scales (Maude).


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