Mike Nichols, Director of The Birdcage and The Graduate Dies at 83

This was a brutal year for fans of the 1996 box office smash The Birdcage.

There will be no Dumb and Dumber, twenty-year-later sequel for the movie that showcased South Beach as a whimsical American Riviera. This August, the film's star Robin Williams passed away and just yesterday, its director Mike Nichols died of cardiac arrest.

That comedy about a gay couple pretending to be straight helped transform South Florida's image in pop culture as packed with cocaine dealers and riddled with gangland shootings into a region of decadent brunches.

While The Birdcage has great relevance regionally and also portrayed homosexuals in a positive light before Ellen came out or Will & Grace aired, it still might be just an asterisk in Mike Nichols brilliant career.

Born in Germany in 1931, Mike Nichols first shot to fame with his comedy routines with Elaine May. As Nichols and May, the duo was the most influential comedy duo from the Mad Men era, bridging the gap between Vaudeville and Saturday Night Live.

Watching clips like "Mother and Son," -- showing a busy son dealing with the guilt trip for never calling his mother -- you can see their fingerprints all over Woody Allen and Larry David's own brands of comedy. While their partnership only lasted from 1958 until 1962, the two continued to work together. May even wrote the screenplay for The Birdcage.

It was when Nichols moved behind the camera that he gained real notoriety. In his first film, he took the Kanye and Kim of his time, Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, and put them in an arty, black and white talker Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf. It packed the theaters and was one of only two movies ever to be nominated in the Academy Awards in every single category.

It was his next movie though that blew all other films away. 1967's The Graduate singlehandedly created a genre with the coming-of-age story of the alienated rich, white, not-yet-man. Without Benjamin Braddock's existential crisis of what he should do with himself after college, there would be no Garden State, no Fight Club, no There's Something About Mary. Maybe those movies would exist, but they wouldn't have the blueprint in how to combine angst with humor.

The Graduate's ending is as perfect as any ending can be, even if it cheated by using Simon & Garfunkel's "Sound of Silence," a song that'd make you cry even if played over an episode of NCIS.

Benjamin, played by Dustin Hoffman, decides he can't live without Elaine. He runs to the church where she is about to get married and yells her name. She leaves the altar and runs away with him as her family, the churchgoers, and the establishment fight for her stay. They stop a bus and run on it laughing all the way.

In an ordinary romantic comedy, that would be where the movie ends. But the Graduate is extraordinary. Nichols keeps the camera on the two actors faces as they go on the full range of emotions from "That was amazing!" to "What the fuck did we just do?" to "Now what?"

Over the next decades, Nichols continued to have a fine career directing hits on stage and screen from Working Girl to Angels in America, but in a resume with a thousand scenes, that bus ride into the "Sounds of Silence" did something every artist aims for, but so few fulfill, capture the human condition.

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David Rolland is a freelance writer for New Times Broward-Palm Beach and Miami New Times. His novel, The End of the Century, published by Jitney Books, is available at many fine booksellers.
Contact: David Rolland