Mike Nichols' latest movie, Closer, adapted from a play by the British dramatist Patrick Marber, is about four people, arranged in crisscrossing couples, who spend most of two hours slicing one another to bits with witty and vengeful repartee. In this respect it is a lot like his first movie, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, which in 1966 was adapted from Edward Albee's celebrated play, which remains unequaled in its portrayal of heterosexuality as a form of ritualized verbal blood sport.
Looking at the two films side by side can create a vertiginous, time-warp feeling. In the space of 38 years, everything has changed - Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton have been replaced by Julia Roberts and Jude Law, swearing and nudity have supplanted euphemism and double-entendre, and the claustrophobia of suburban marriage has given way to the anomie of Internet chat rooms and feckless metrosexuality - and yet at the same time everything seems now pretty much as it was then. In tracing a route from Albee's pastoral American college town to Marber's cosmopolitan London, Nichols seems to have come full circle.
Nichols has been a presence in American movies for as long as many of us can remember. He was nominated for the best director Oscar twice in the '60s and twice in the '80s, winning on his second try, for The Graduate in 1968. His recent work for HBO has won him two Emmys, for Wit and Angels in America.
Born in Berlin in 1931, he is one of a handful of active American directors - Robert Altman and Clint Eastwood also come to mind - who find themselves, in their 70s, with careers in full and hectic bloom.
At his best Nichols has always been an observer, an adapter and an ironist. Taste, fashion and social arrangements may mutate and evolve, but in Nichols' movies, the comedy and cruelty of human relations - at work, at home, at parties, in bed - remain pretty much constant. Over the course of a long and varied career, he has shown an abiding interest in observing the cruelty and a superior knack for choreographing the comedy. This is not to suggest that his work as a filmmaker, to say nothing of his extensive resume in the theater, is all of a piece. Among the comedies of romantic, domestic and professional manners - The Graduate, Carnal Knowledge, Working Girl, Heartburn, Primary Colors and The Birdcage - are strewn examples of morally serious melodrama (Silkwood, Regarding Henry), anarchic satire (Catch-22) and even some sensitive sci-fi sea creatures (The Day of the Dolphin).
His camera seems drawn to characters who, whether they are designated villains or heroes, perceive themselves to be smart, with all of the complications such perception involves. They also tend to be both vain and self-critical, and to overestimate or overvalue their own intelligence. Law's character in Closer, an obituary writer with aspirations to be a novelist, is one such person: too clever by half and a wit at his own expense. He joins a gallery of hyper-articulate talkers and hypertrophied intellects that includes Burton in Who's Afraid, Emma Thompson in Wit, Sigourney Weaver in Working Girl, Dustin Hoffman in The Graduate, the entire cast of Primary Colors, all the non-Mormon characters in Angels in America, and Jack Nicholson and Meryl Streep whenever they have showed up in a Nichols project.
The fact of his German birth and Russian-Jewish parentage links him to the great generation of Central European emigres whose style and sophistication imported both classicism and modernity to Hollywood's studio era. Nichols may be the last of a venerable line that stretches from Ernst Lubitsch through Billy Wilder.
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