Appreciating Mike Nichols with Neil Labute

I teach film students (for my sins) and it is a never ending shock to me the blank that Mike Nichols’s name can draw on their faces. Maybe they’ve seen The Graduate. Maybe. But Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Carnal Knowledge, Heartburn, Silkwood? Blank. And I think that’s a sin.

Nichols passed away a little over a year ago, nearly the last of a generation of Jewish refugees who escaped the war in Europe and made such a contribution to American cinema — I could be forgetting somebody terribly important but off the top of my head I think Milos Foreman may be the only one left. It was a loss not just for the art he made but for the lessons he passed down to others — as somebody who who had sat at his knee, nobody was more insightful and brilliant at communicating the work of a director than he.

Just days after Nichols passed away I had the opportunity to re-watch Carnal Knowledge (1971), Nichols’s classic depiction of male confusion and immaturity about women and sex, with filmmaker and playwright, Neil Labute (In the Company of Men, Your Friends and Neighbors), who’s work was influenced greatly by Nichols. As a way of expanding the cult of Mike, I thought I’d share that experience here.

“When I was making Your Friends & Neighbors [1998],” LaBute recalled, “I showed Carnal Knowledge, Manhattan, and Contempt to my cast, saying, ‘We’re about to make a movie that’s not as good as these, but this is what we’re shooting for.’”

The quiet, highly contained film, written by Jules Feiffer, traces college roommates Jonathan (Jack Nicholson) and Sandy (Art Garfunkel) through four time periods starting in the ’50s, from their first sexual experiences with the same woman, Susan (Candice Bergen), and through a series of dysfunctional relationships. Sandy marries Susan, eventually grows bored with her, has an affair, and gets a divorce. Jonathan runs through women, committing to none, eventually shacking up with Bobbie (Ann-Margret), who attempts suicide in a desperate effort to escape their dead-end relationship.

As the credits scroll over a black screen, Jonathan’s and Sandy’s disembodied voices speak quietly of women, their own desires, and their related ambivalence. “This is a strong directorial choice from the beginning,” said LaBute. “Playing this as a scene, stretching dialogue over the credits, Nichols makes you listen to what’s being said; he’s emphasizing that the words are paramount to him. But then he doesn’t lead you into the scene you think would come from this. Instead, he opens on a shot of a beautiful woman and continues it with elaborate staging, moving actors like chess pieces within the frame. A really magical first sequence.”

Susan emerges from the darkness, approaching in all her blond glory, before making her way through a sedate, preppy college party. The camera stays on Sandy and Jonathan standing in the framed opening to the room as she walks past them. The two men are positioned at right angles to each other, with Nicholson full faced and Garfunkel in profile.

“Look at this, from the darkness all in one take, introducing them all,” marveled LaBute. “So many people would worry about covering this and being able to see more of Garfunkel’s face. But the way Nichols blocked it for the screen feels so natural, shifting perspective from her to them, and then into this big wide shot,” he says, as the camera pans to follow Sandy’s aborted approach to Susan in the main room. He returns to a smirking Jonathan, and their right-angle positions relative to the camera are now switched.

(Screenpull: MGM Home Entertainment)

“It’s still the same take,” LaBute continued. “There’s a theatrical quality to the way Nichols stages this movie; there’s a character who doesn’t speak and others who do so in direct address to the camera. It still feels modern. If this movie came out today, it would wow with both its singular perspective on its subject and the cinematic choices it makes throughout.” Nichols finally cuts to show Sandy leaning beside Susan at the window. For this Nichols goes wide with the pair in profile and Jonathan, in full focus, watching them in the deep background, an improbable light emphasizing his face.

(Screenpull: MGM Home Entertainment)

“What a great reverse,” said LaBute. “You keep Nicholson in the story without having to cut away. There’s no natural light source there, of course, so they probably put that light on Nicholson from high up. How theatrical is that? You can see into three different rooms without doing coverage. Nichols was such a confident director to say, ‘I’m shooting this relatively long piece in two shots.’”

In the next scene, Nichols likewise shoots Sandy and Susan in a single shot walking and making out in the woods with only subtle, gliding camera moves, letting their relative changes in position tell the story.

“Look at this deliberate control of color with that pop of red,” he said, referring to Sandy’s lumberjack coat, which provides the only real color in the scene.

(Screenpull: MGM Home Entertainment)

“Nichols also framed the camera from below them, which creates a certain mood and image. He so rarely moves the camera, one shot is going to represent this entire scene, so it becomes kind of iconic instead of expected.

(Screenpull: MGM Home Entertainment)

“This sequence in the woods,” LaBute continued, “almost looks like it was shot on a soundstage and has the quality of a Douglas Sirk film, but that’s just due to the precision of Nichols’ images, his masterful color control, and the simplicity of what he’s doing. It’s just so bold. Takes your breath away, scene after scene. Then to get into the next scene, he does an extended dissolve and tracks away from them kissing into a long shot of Sandy and Jonathan walking toward the camera in the dark.”

(Screenpull: MGM Home Entertainment)

After Sandy tells Jonathan about his sexual encounter with Susan, there’s a disrupting cut to Jonathan on the phone asking Susan on a date. LaBute leans forward and notes how Nichols is now changing up the rhythm he’s established.

“Everything’s been so quiet and reserved, but look at how Nichols stages them now,” said LaBute, pointing as the camera tracks quickly back with Jonathan and Susan walking rapidly out of her dorm. “It’s got a speed and they have a nervous energy now,” he continued, as the scene cuts through brief clips of conversation consisting largely of banal questions fired at each other defensively.

“This is something else I stole from this movie,” LaBute said, as we land on Jonathan and Susan facing each other in a bar booth. “These really controlled two-shots are often balanced by framing on both sides, like bookends. But when Nichols goes to close-ups here, you’d think the coverage would be from the same level as the previous two-shot, but instead he goes to close-ups looking down on her. When was the last time you can think of seeing something like that?”

Jonathan sleeps with Susan but out of jealousy breaks it off, and is forced to watch as Sandy and Susan pack for a camping trip together. Nichols shoots the entire scene in a close-up on Jonathan in shadows. “Nichols is just sitting on Jonathan’s reaction,” said LaBute. “The scene is about him, but the whole action is about watching him watch. The camera isn’t restless; it’s probing. And this beat gets us to the end of the first movement, on to the next stage of their lives.”

The sound of ice-rink organ music fades in and whiteness overtakes the screen. Eventually, a woman with the proportions of a Barbie doll dissolves into view, spinning on the ice. “I guess she represents all women to them, costumed in white and unattainable, out on the ice,” he said. “Her figure is improbable, built so unlike every figure skater known to man. But that white on white is just incredible.”

(Screenpull: MGM Home Entertainment)

Nichols uses the entrance of a man skating to propel the movement of his camera wider, revealing Sandy and Jonathan from behind, now older, admiring the skater from above. “Women become objects that are manipulated in the frame. There’s a timelessness to the male-female battle at the heart of this that’s as resonant today as then.”

The next time we see Jonathan, he’s facing the camera beside Bobbie, with the background moving past them in a softly lit revolving restaurant. She’s as buxom and exaggerated as the skater, flirting and jousting with Jonathan.

“Casting Ann-Margret, that’s almost insane,” said LaBute. “What had she done before this? From Viva Las Vegas and Bye Bye Birdie to a performance like this? Nichols really took a chance on her. Physically she’s perfect, but how that sours from this first time you see her to the end! Nichols just gets great performances out of everybody. This is easily the best work she ever did in my opinion, and it holds up every time I see this film.”

For a film about sex, Nichols shows very little of it. The timeline progresses to the next stage as the camera leads us through a dark apartment to the sounds of moaning and Sinatra, until it finds Jonathan and Bobbie in bed. For the most part, though, the window light reveals their faces and only suggestive silhouettes.

“My god, how can you see faces like that and not see their bodies? His sex scenes are so simple and effective. I took a page from that book in most of my work. Sex scenes are not what’s different about people, but the way we go about it before and after is where the differences lie. And from here to this amazing shot, one of my favorite ever of Ann-Margret.” Signaling a narrative jump from early relationship bliss to later disillusionment, Ann-Margret sits up naked in close-up, while off-screen we hear the shower running.

(Screenpull: MGM Home Entertainment)

“Look at how it’s framed; so suggestive and yet everything hidden, against that blank wall. Still the same shot, you just sit on this woman silently while you know the guy’s taking a shower but don’t see him until he comes out. It’s a whole different ballgame when you have an actor who can be so effortlessly still and simple, to play this kind of scene.”

Jonathan acquiesces to Bobbie’s suggestion that they shack up, but won’t marry her. When Sandy comes over with his new girlfriend, Cindy (Cynthia O’Neal), for whom he has apparently dumped Susan, the two men convene in the kitchen. Cindy stands out of focus in the deep background.

“The last time we saw them positioned this way, they were young boys at that party,” said LaBute. “Nichols keeps mirroring images — in this case the boys from the first scene at school, all giddy and excited talking about girls, have become men who really haven’t grown up. Look at that white tile they’re against and tell me this movie doesn’t feel like it’s in black and white. There’s no warmth here. Flesh becomes a color. The film is theatrical and everything they tell you cinema’s not supposed to be.”

(Screenpull: MGM Home Entertainment)

The time jumps again and Jonathan is in his late-’60s bachelor pad, sockless in a suit and loafer slippers. He’s showing Sandy and Sandy’s new 18-year-old girlfriend (Carol Kane) a slide show of the significant women in his life, which he entitles “Ballbusters on Parade.”

“It’s incredible, this advancement of time with just the look and production design,” noted LaBute. “Nothing is out of place in this room, everything seems so calculated, even the pop of the red book on the table.”

Nichols next tracks back in a walk and talk, shooting Sandy and Jonathan close and from below as they argue. “We’re outside, but we don’t see the cars or street activity, he isolates them so much,” said LaBute. “It’s like anthropological cinema, coldly studying these people. It takes place primarily in New York City, but every time you see other people, it comes as a surprise. It almost pulls me out of the hypnotic power of the film when I see ‘the city,’ because I become so wrapped up in the story of these two men and their women. I utilized this idea in Your Friends & Neighbors, where only the principal actors had dialogue — no extras or smaller roles are used as speaking characters.”

(Screenpull: MGM Home Entertainment)
(Screenpull: MGM Home Entertainment)

Later, in a surreal turn, Nichols takes the viewer inside Jonathan’s head as he sprawls arms out with a prostitute (Rita Moreno). An Indian raga plays faster and faster as she delivers what seems like an oft-repeated worshipful monologue in close-up from Jonathan’s POV, reciting his strength and virtues as the patterned wallpaper behind her scrolls up, up, up, mirroring his arousal.

[NOTE: As it happened, just a few weeks before he passed I asked Mike about the wallpaper effect. He told me, “We first put them in an elevator with the wallpaper on the wall of the shaft but that proved unsteady so we just scrolled up the wallpaper.” How wonderfully low tech and surreal (another thing I think Mike is frequently forgotten for is his wonderful hand with surrealism because the performances he captured were so true to life).]

(Screenpull: MGM Home Entertainment)
(Screenpull: MGM Home Entertainment)

“It takes some balls to have this guy end up in a Christ-like position,” LaBute laughed. “And this rolling wallpaper is so audacious because she’s not moving, his eyes aren’t moving to follow her. It should not work in any way, but it does. And then, over this astounding last scene with Moreno and the moving wall and the Indian music, the girl on skates returns, spinning in white in the middle of the frame with the cheap organ music playing,” he said, as the raga and reverse close-up of Jonathan dissolve to the skater and her music.

(Screenpull: MGM Home Entertainment)

“I’d love to know if that was on the page or something he found in the editing room,” said LaBute. “In some ways, this much control on screen suggests to me that he found very little in the editing room that he hadn’t already thought of, measured, and calculated precisely. This really is the work of a master at the height of his gifts.”

(Screenpull: MGM Home Entertainment)

As the brief cast credits overtake the skater, LaBute summed up the experience of the film. “I’m seeing again how Nichols’s visual sense is shaped by form, repetition of images, and patterns. I so admire his control in all things — his actors, his color palette, his movements of the camera. His rigorous simplicity rivals Antonioni in this film, and yet he doesn’t feel like the smart, obnoxious kid in the back of film class who knows everything about European cinema. He feels to me like a man who came from the world that spawned him — the theater. I think he found a way to bridge the invisible but yawning gap between the stage and the screen. He created a singular cinema that didn’t look or feel like anybody else’s. The man was a true pioneer.”

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