These Mike Nichols Movies Aren’t the Late Director’s Most Popular, But They Should Be

A remembrance of the filmmaker, who passed away this week

Farewell, Mike Nichols. The multitalented comedian, producer, stage and screen director, and EGOT recipient passed away yesterday at age 83, leaving behind his wife, broadcast journalist Diane Sawyer. Nichols began his career as a sketch performer with Chicago’s Compass Players and came to prominence with Elaine May in their staggeringly adroit comedy duo Nichols and May. Best known for Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, The Graduate, Carnal Knowledge, Silkwood, and Primary Colors, he also directed a host of other films that deserve more attention. Here are three worth revisiting or discoveringand a film starring Nichols.

Catch-22 (1970)
For his version of Joseph Heller’s satirical evisceration of the military mind, Nichols gathered an almost too impeccably chosen cast: Alan Arkin, Richard Benjamin, Bob Balaban, Charles Grodin, Bob Newhart, Anthony Perkins, Art Garfunkel (with whom he would also work in Carnal Knowledge), and Orson Welles. The fact that the scenes in this film never quite add up only serves to reinforce the message of Heller’s book. Upstaged by Robert Altman’s MASH, which had come out five months earlier, and quickly dismissed by critics, the film feels far more surreal when viewed decades later.

The Day of the Dolphin (1973)
This nearly uncategorizable and hypnotic film concerns a scientist (based on real-life scientist and sensory deprivation tank designer John C. Lilly) who attempts to learn how to speak to two dolphins. George C. Scott gives a captivating performance and the film, first meant for Roman Polanski, has both ecological and political facets.

Wolf (1996)
Less a horror film about lycanthropy than a study of waning masculinity, this Jack Nicholson vehicle considered questions about aging and behaving badly as well as the decline of the book business (look for the Bradbury Building as a publishing office). Its look at how to get ahead in the business world could be considered a strange, supernatural companion piece to Nichols’s 1988 Working Girl. The film also features scene-stealing turns by James Spader and David Hyde Pierce.

BONUS: The Designated Mourner (1997)
Nichols portrays Jack, a cheerfully middlebrow idler who ends up telling the tale of the passing of an elite society destroyed by a revolution, in this David Hare film of Wallace Shawn’s play. Shawn has said that he had Nichols’s voice in mind when he wrote the character. Nichols’s delivery in this role highlights Nichols’s great gifts: intelligence, wit, charm, dark humor, and honesty.