Mike Nichols would’ve celebrated his 87th birthday on November 6, 2018. One of the few people to complete the EGOT (Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, and Tony wins), the acclaimed director excelled in film, television and theater until his death in 2014. In honor of his birthday, let’s take a look back at all 18 of his movies, ranked worst to best.
Born in 1931 in Berlin, Germany, Nichols got his start as one half of the comedic improvisational act Nichols and May, working alongside Elaine May. In 1960, the two opened the Broadway show “An Evening with Mike Nichols and Elaine May,” winning a Grammy in 1962 for the LP version. Their partnership ended just a year later, though they would collaborate several times thereafter, including on “The Birdcage” (1996) and “Primary Colors” (1998).
Nichols began his directing career on Broadway, gaining fame for his productions of such Neil Simon classics as “Barefoot in the Park” (1964) and “The Odd Couple” (1965). Both would bring him Tonys for directing (the latter was shared with his work on “Luv”), and he would win nine overall: Best Director of a Play for “Plaza Suite” (1968), “The Prisoner of Second Avenue” (1972), “The Real Thing” (1984), and “Death of a Salesman” (2012); Best Director of a Musical for “Spamalot” (2005); Best Play for “The Real Thing;” and Best Musical for “Annie” (1977).
He turned to filmmaking with a scabrous, controversial adaptation of Edward Albee‘s taboo-shattering play “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” (1966). It’s profanity-laced, sexually-explicit dialogue was so shocking that it led to the creation of the MPAA ratings system as a replacement for the stringent Motion Picture Production Code. The Academy greeted Nichols with his first Oscar nomination for Best Director, one of 13 bids the film received overall. Though it won 5 prizes, including acting awards for Elizabeth Taylor (lead) and Sandy Dennis (supporting), Nichols went home empty-handed.
Oscar voters didn’t take long making it up to him. Just one year later, Nichols took home the gold for helming the groundbreaking sex comedy “The Graduate” (1967). It was the only prize he would win from the Academy, though he would compete three more times (Best Director for “Silkwood” in 1983 and “Working Girl” in 1988; Best Picture for “The Remains of the Day” in 1993).
Nichols showed talent on the small screen as well, bringing a cinematic sensibility that would permanently up the game for television. He won Emmys for directing and producing the TV movie “Wit” (2001) and the landmark limited series “Angels in America” (2003), a star-studded adaptation of Tony Kushner‘s Pulitzer Prize-winning play. These victories allowed him to complete the grand slam of show business awards, otherwise known as the EGOT. (Although they’re worthy of inclusion on lists of the director’s best work, this gallery is strictly for theatrical releases. We also left off the documentary “Gilda Live” to focus on his narrative work.)
Tour our gallery of Nichols’ 18 films, ranked worst to best, including a few for which he should’ve reaped Oscar nominations.
18. WHAT PLANET ARE YOU FROM? (2000)
You’d think the pairing of Nichols and Garry Shandling, the neurotic genius behind “It’s Garry Shandling’s Show” and “The Larry Sanders Show,” would produce gold, and indeed, parts of “What Planet Are You From?” hint at what could’ve been. Yet too much of this sci-fi comedy about an alien (Shandling) sent to Earth to impregnate a woman so that his all-male race can survive falls flat, despite the best efforts of it’s stellar cast.
17. THE DAY OF THE DOLPHIN (1973)
By far the silliest film Nichols ever directed, which is saying a lot for the man who made “The Birdcage.” Based on Robert Merle’s bestselling novel, “The Day of the Dolphin” centers on a marine biologist (George C. Scott) teaching dolphins to communicate in English. He soon learns these super-intelligent mammals are being used by the government in a sinister plot to assassinate the president!
16. REGARDING HENRY (1991)
If there’s one thing you learn from “Regarding Henry,” it’s that it sometimes takes a bullet to the head to become a better person. That’s what happens to Henry Turner (Harrison Ford), a heartless Manhattan lawyer who regularly ignores his wife (Annette Bening) and daughter (Mikki Allen). After he’s shot in a convenience store holdup, he wakes up from a long coma morphed into a childlike novice who has to relearn everything from tying his shoes to loving his family.
15. THE FORTUNE (1975)
Nichols should’ve struck it rich with “The Fortune,” a comedy pairing the biggest superstars (and Lotharios) of the 1970s, Jack Nicholson and Warren Beatty. Yet this fortune turns out to be made up almost entirely of fool’s gold, despite some genuinely energetic performances. Nicholson and Beatty play two bumbling 1920s grifters who hatch a scheme to swindle a ditzy heiress (Stockard Channing in her film debut) by having her marry one and sleep with the other.
14. BILOXI BLUES (1988)
Before starting his big screen career, Nichols drew great acclaim as a Broadway director thanks in large part to his collaborations with Neil Simon, including “Barefoot in the Park” and “The Odd Couple.” So it’s surprising that he only brought one of the playwright’s many works to the screen: the quasi-autobiographical comedy “Biloxi Blues.” Matthew Broderick stars as the Simon surrogate, Eugene Morris Jerome, a young Jewish Brooklynite drafted into bootcamp in Biloxi, Mississippi, during WWII. Christopher Walken is best in show as the psychotic drill instructor.
13. CHARLIE WILSON’S WAR (2007)
Though he remained active in the theater until his death in 2014, this true-life comedic drama would be the last film Nichols ever directed (he was in development on several projects after its release, none of which ever came to fruition). “Charlie Wilson’s War” centers on a flamboyant Texas congressman (Tom Hanks) more interested in chasing skirts than passing legislation. He teams up with a hot-headed, blue collar CIA operative (Supporting Actor nominee Philip Seymour Hoffman) to assist the Afghan mujahideen in their fight against the Soviets.
12. WOLF (1994)
“Wolf” is a horror movie that tries gallantly to exceed its genre expectations, and at times it comes close to succeeding. Jack Nicholson plays a meek New York book editor who loses his job to a ruthlessly ambitious protégé (James Spader) with the arrival of a new boss (Christopher Plummer). He suddenly gets a testosterone boost after a wolf bites him, peeing on Spader’s shoes and romancing Plummer’s daughter (Michelle Pfeiffer).
11. CATCH-22 (1970)
This big-budget adaptation of Joseph Heller’s WWII satire had the misfortune of opening the same year as Robert Altman’s “M*A*S*H,” a ribald antiwar comedy that made everything else look toothless by comparison. That aside, Nichols’ film fails to fully capture the surreal eccentricity of this story about a pilot (Alan Arkin) desperately trying to be certified insane so he can stop flying missions, and that was perhaps inevitable: after all, there’s only so much you can do translating Heller’s nonlinear, third-person omniscient narrative to the screen.
10. HEARTBURN (1986)
“Heartburn” was treated like a bad case of acid-reflux upon its initial release, despite the hefty pedigree of Nichols directing a Nora Ephron script starring Meryl Streep and Jack Nicholson. Adapted from Ephron’s autobiographical novel about her divorce from Watergate journalist Carl Bernstein, the film casts Streep as a prominent food writer and Nicholson as her womanizing husband, who begins an affair soon after she becomes pregnant.
9. CLOSER (2004)
Nichols spent most of his career examining the battle of the sexes, from his first film, “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?,” to one of his last, “Closer.” This adaptation of Patrick Marber’s award-winning play centers on two couples — Dan (Jude Law) and Alice (Natalie Portman); Anna (Julia Roberts) and Larry (Clive Owen) — whose relationships become complicated as they meet each other by chance throughout the years. The actors tear into Marber’s acerbic dialogue with Shakespearean relish, creating selfish, narcissistic characters you love to hate because of who closely they resemble ourselves.
8. POSTCARDS FROM THE EDGE (1990)
“Postcards from the Edge” has taken on a tragic significance following the untimely death of Carrie Fisher in 2016. The actress adapted her own semi-autobiographical novel about a drug-addicted actress (Meryl Streep in one of her many Oscar-nominated performances) clashing with her alcoholic mom (Shirley MacLaine), herself a vainglorious movie star. There are obvious parallels to draw between this fictional familial dynamic and Fisher’s own relationship with her mother, Debbie Reynolds.
7. THE BIRDCAGE (1996)
Here is that rare American remake that’s just as good as it’s European predecessor (if not better). A reimagining of “La Cage aux Folles,” “The Birdcage” casts Robin Williams and Nathan Lane as a long-married couple who own and live above a successful gay cabaret. Their son (Dan Futterman) arrives and begs them to put up a straight front for his fiancee’s (Calista Flockhart) conservative parents (Gene Hackman and Dianne Wiest). They just might pull it off with the help of their flamboyant housekeeper (Hank Azaria) and some creative costuming by Lane.
6. CARNAL KNOWLEDGE (1971)
The insecurities and misogynies of male sexual yearnings have never been so insightfully explored than in this scorching drama from the free-love era. Jack Nicholson and Art Garfunkel star as lifelong friends who are utterly terrible with women. Garfunkel marries his college sweetheart (Candice Bergen) after his buddy beds her, only to wonder if he should’ve waited for a more sexually ambitious partner. Nicholson, meanwhile, goes from one conquest to the next, railing against female “ballbusters” before wedding his well-endowed lover (Supporting Actress nominee Ann-Margret) after she attempts suicide.
5. PRIMARY COLORS (1998)
Nichols teamed up with frequent collaborator Elaine May to adapt Joe Klein’s satirical novel about a Clinton-esque Presidential candidate (John Travolta) running for office alongside his wife and future First Lady (Emma Thompson doing her best Hillary impersonation). The film was released at the height of the Monica Lewinsky sex scandal, which gave its story about a politician embroiled in charges of adultery an extra bit of relevance.
4. WORKING GIRL (1988)
In this delightful feminist comedy, Melanie Griffith stars as a Wall Street secretary whose brain is as big as her hair, but her evil boss (Sigourney Weaver) won’t take her seriously. She gets a chance to prove herself when her employer is incapacitated by a leg injury, impersonating her in business meetings and stealing away her boyfriend (Harrison Ford). “Working Girl” is one of those good stories told well, an old-fashioned entertainment with a modern sensibility.
3. SILKWOOD (1983)
Few films have captured blue collar life as authentically as “Silkwood,” a sort of “Norma Rae” for plutonium workers. The film tells the true story of Karen Silkwood (Meryl Streep), a labor union activist who was killed in a mysterious car crash after blowing the whistle on the power plant where she worked. Rather than making a damning political exposé, Nichols crafts a neo-realistic portrait of American life, aided by Patrizia von Brandenstein’s grungy production design and Ann Roth’s straight-from-the-rack costumes.
2. WHO’S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF? (1966)
Having firmly established himself in the theater, it’s little wonder Nichols would choose as his filmmaking debut an adaptation of a hot Broadway property. Based on Edward Albee’s taboo-shattering play, “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” centers on an embittered couple (Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor) who invite over some newlyweds (George Segal and Sandy Dennis) for an all-night marathon of sex, booze, and bad language. Their profanity-laced bickering was so shocking it led to the creation of the MPAA, which did away with the (slightly) more restrictive Production Code.
1. THE GRADUATE (1967)
Here’s to you, Mrs. Robinson. The highlight of Nichol’s career is this countercultural sex comedy about a disillusioned college student (Dustin Hoffman) who begins an affair with a middle-aged woman (Anne Bancroft), only to fall in love with her daughter (Katharine Ross). When it was released in 1967, “The Graduate” was seen as the ultimate love song to a generation bucking the ideals and materialisms of their parents, although the worldly Mrs. Robinson is by far the most radical character. Set to the tunes of Simon and Garfunkle, “The Graduate” remains a visually arresting, groundbreaking work of cinema. The film reaped 7 Oscar nominations including Best Picture and acting bids for Hoffman (lead), Bancroft (lead), and Ross (supporting), yet walked away with just Best Director for Nichols, who also won at DGA, BAFTA, and the Golden Globes.