Mike Nichols died yesterday at 83. The legendary director won Emmys, Tonys, and an Oscar for his craft. The Grammy Award he won early in his career for Best Comedy Album with his partner Elaine May completed his EGOT.
Nichols transitioned to film from the stage. When he made his film debut with 1966's groundbreaking Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf, he had already won two Tonys for stage direction — after directing his first stage play (Neil Simon's Barefoot in the Park) in 1963. To say he was a natural at direction is underselling his skill, but it's true. He seemed to have an almost intuitive understanding of what would make material play best on stage, on the big screen, or on television.
Often, when directors transition from stage to screen, their work can seem clunky and flat, stagebound and dramatically inert. What makes a play great is often the exact opposite of what makes a screenplay great. Long, winding scenes and characters being confined to a particular location can make for great drama on stage, but they're often murderous to pacing on film.
Yet all you need to do is watch Who's Afraid — a movie that spends the vast majority of its running time in one location but never, ever feels stagebound — to realize that Nichols was different. He adapted many plays to film and television, and he had a keen understanding for how best to make them play in another medium. His stage work had given him an appreciation for great writing he would keep throughout his career, but he also understood that great screen images allowed for greater intimacy than great stage images. The viewer can get right up in a character's face on screen; that's necessarily more difficult on stage.
To see this at play, consider perhaps the most famous scene Nichols ever directed, the seduction scene from The Graduate (only the second film Nichols ever made and the one he won his Oscar for). What makes this scene are the little moments when he checks in with Benjamin (Dustin Hoffman) as he slowly realizes that Mrs. Robinson (Anne Bancroft) is, indeed, trying to seduce him. The closeups of Hoffman's face — occasionally obscured by a fish tank — are the emotional throughline Nichols keeps viewers hooked into.
But this scene is also brilliant in the sense of stage direction, where the director often only has the positioning of actors onstage available as a way to suggest complex emotional ideas visually. Look, for instance, at that long buildup to Mrs. Robinson finally getting Benjamin to realize just what she's doing, where Nichols cuts between shots of the two that leave them positioned at the right and left of the screen, respectively, so that our minds subconsciously want the other to fill the frame, thus bringing them together. Or notice how careful Nichols is to keep Bancroft in positions of power and dominance over Hoffman, the better to suggest Mrs. Robinson's predatory nature in the moment.
There's lots to keep an eye out for in this scene — look for Mrs. Robinson's shadow on the door in Benjamin's bedroom, or the way Nichols uses her cigarette as a way to suggest her presence even when she's not there — but even if you're not specifically watching for Nichols's technique and are, instead, just watching one of the great screen comedies of all time to enjoy and appreciate it, his raw skill will trickle down. Nichols was a great film director, yes, but he was a great stage director first, and it was in how the latter informed the former that he found his greatest strength.