Lasting legacies in any field have their ups and downs, and that of the extraordinary director/producer/comedian/ mentor-of-careers Mike Nichols (1931-2014), born 86 years ago today, was no exception. Perhaps his greatest gift was as a ringmaster of diverse talents and as a wizard-like shaper of evocative material into efficiently stylish stage and screen entertainments that would resonate, often to popular and influential success, occasionally to scattershot and lackluster effect, but never without their inherent fascinations, even a project of powerhouse potential like The Fortune (1975). A 1930s screwball farce pairing Warren Beatty and Jack Nicholson as self-deluding, wannabe-lothario conmen scheming to swindle a scatterbrained heiress out of her huge wealth seemed like a sure bet, goofily lighthearted not topically top-heavy, something akin to recent audience favorites like Paper Moon or The Sting (both 1973). Nichols had worked miraculously with Neil Simon on Broadway the previous decade on four hit comedies with earned him Tony® Awards for his direction, but collaborating with The Fortune screenwriter Adrien Joyce (Carole Eastman) proved a challenge, because the vocally opinionated writer reportedly resisted attempts to give shape and pace to her snappy but long-winded work. But Nichols, in tandem with top-of-line Hollywood craftsmen behind the camera, doggedly wrested a shaggy and sweet golden-age Hollywood throwback from the elements on hand. Somehow, the teamwork of pals Beatty and Nicholson, doing dimwitted inversions of their leading-man images, complete with slapstick pratfalls and gradually escalating lunacy, draws the audience into their bizarro camaraderie. For the part of Freddie, the effervescent femme focus of these clueless klutzes, Nichols showcased an enduring treasure, casting Stockard Channing in her first lead role, a move she’s appreciated to this day. In a recent interview heralding her current, critically hailed London stage engagement in a revival of the play Apologia, she recalls: “I have a lot of gratitude for Mike because he kind of discovered me in the sense that he put me into my first big film, and also was there nurturing me. With Warren Beatty and Jack Nicholson, who were marvelous to approve my casting. It wasn’t that I was green as an actress, it was that I was green as a person; there I was with these movie stars!” There would be no green at the box office in 1975: The Fortune fizzled fast. Forty-five years later, it has gradually garnered appreciation for its sheer oddity, its clutch of swell supporting players (John Fiedler, Scatman Crothers, Richard B. Shull, Florence Stanley, Dub Taylor) and its bouncy David Shire score that provides merrily jazzy arrangements of period songs.
Another less chronicled Nichols hallmark was his instinctive discernment when talents marshaled on an endeavor should be left alone to do their best work, and he would step back into an “advisory” or “producing” role. One instance, the 1977 Broadway smash Annie, a huge success under the direction of lyricist Martin Charnin, undoubtedly built up Nichols’ personal nestegg as lead “producer/presenter.” Another occasion was the film adaptation of 2017 Nobel Prize in Literature winner Kazuo Ishiguro’s spellbinding 1989 novel The Remains of the Day (1993), unveiled on North American theater screens 24 years ago yesterday. An original champion of the project from the time film rights were secured, he was on board to direct from a screenplay adaptation by Harold Pinter. But the sponsoring studio chafed at the proposed $26-million budget for an subtly adult, deliberately paced and nuanced period piece about the intrigues among the naïve household servants and Nazi-sympathizing aristocratic overseers at an English manor house in the years leading up to and following World War II. So Nichols decided to step back into a producing role, and let the eminently worthy filmmaking collaborative of director James Ivory, producer Ismail Merchant and screenwriter Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, assume the project; their canny experience in literary adaptations, combined with Merchant's savvy continental connections regarding production logistics, managed to shave the cost by nearly 40 percent. The original Nichols/Pinter vision of Jeremy Irons in the central role of the emotionally repressed butler Stevens and either Meryl Streep or Anjelica Huston as the lovelorn housekeeper Miss Kenton is intriguingly lost to history. But the Merchant/Ivory realization, with Howards End co-stars Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson as final choices for the parts, proved triumphantly ideal. Whether deep in the trenches or wearing velvet gloves at a distance, the Nichols touch reaped distinctive results with above-average rewards, and the birthday honoree's productions of The Fortune and The Remains of the Day [the latter only available here: http://screenarchives.com/title_detail.cfm/ID/28832/THE-REMAINS-OF-THE-DAY-1993/] still sparkle on Twilight Time hi-def Blu-rays.