Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966)
Nichols tapped into the tempestuous off-screen relationship between Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton in this emotionally devastating adaptation of Edward Albee’s play. The verbal fireworks between the actors (also including George Segal and Sandy Dennis) detonate like psychological A-bombs. The performances are so incendiary, so raw, it’s hard to believe that there was a first-time director behind the camera.
The Graduate (1967)
”I just want to say one word to you. One Word?Plastics.” Ostensibly a film about an aimless young man (Dustin Hoffman) spiritually adrift and ensnared in a romance with his parents’ lusty, age-inappropriate friend, Mrs. Robinson (Anne Bancroft), The Graduate—thanks to Buck Henry’s script and Nichols’ direction—puts its finger on the disillusioned zeitgeist of young America in a way that no Hollywood film before it ever had. It was the starting pistol shot of the counterculture’s representation on celluloid.
Carnal Knowledge (1971)
The war between the sexes was a theme that Nichols returned to time and time again. But this adaptation of Jules Feiffer’s screenplay was a merciless depiction of two best friends (Jack Nicholson and Art Garfunkel) as seen through the lens of their relationships with the women in their lives—the fiery ballbusters and compliant belt-notches, the virgins and the whores. What makes the film so revelatory is how much more it ends up saying—damningly so—about its chauvinist male characters than its female ones.
A trio of astoundingly lived-in performances from Meryl Streep, Kurt Russell, and Cher anchors Nichols’ conscience-heavy issues drama about the blue-collar workers in an Oklahoma nuclear parts factory. Streep, in particular, as the real-life martyr Karen Silkwood, gives one of her feistiest and most heartbreaking and harrowing turns…which is saying something.
Based on the shattered marriage between writer Nora Ephron (played again by Streep) and her caddish husband, Watergate reporter Carl Bernstein (Jack Nicholson). The dinner scenes alone are models of gossip and fun-loving sophistication?until they’re not. Again, Nichols proves that he is one of the few male directors who not only understands women but loves them affectionately and deeply.
Working Girl (1988)
”I have a head for business and a bod for sin. Is there anything wrong with that?” Certainly not when it’s coming out of the mouth of Melanie Griffith’s Tess McGill—a big-haired, outer-borough slave in the secretarial pool whose ambition, along with a few well-told lies (not to mention her head and bod), convinces a powerful investment broker (Harrison Ford) that she’s not only his equal in the boardroom—but also in the bedroom. A female-empowerment movie disguised as a deliciously screwball New York City comedy. With Joan Cusack stealing just about every scene she’s in.
Postcards from the Edge (1990)
Carrie Fisher turned her stranger-than-fiction relationship with her bigger-than-life celebrity mother, Debbie Reynolds, (not to mention her battles with addiction) into a bruise-black comedy starring Meryl Streep and Shirley MacLaine. With his signature light touch and prospector’s awareness of where the laughs are buried amid tragedy, Nichols turns what could have been an indulgent showbiz memoir into something that feels universal in its exploration of the laughter-through-tears bonds between mothers and daughters.
The Birdcage (1995)
Beneath all the humor and high camp is an unexpected amount of heart. Nichols and partner Elaine May translate the stage farce La Cage aux Folles to South Beach and let their stars, Nathan Lane, Robin Williams, and Hank Azaria, loose to whip what could have been a swishy, light-as-meringue soufflé into a poignant meditation on family—regardless of how conventional or unconventional it may seem from the outside.
Primary Colors (1998)
For my money, Nichols’ most underrated film. This political satire—a not-so-thinly veiled account of Bill and Hillary Clinton’s rise from the muck of Arkansas politics to the White House—is a wonderful look at what it takes to get elected in contemporary America. It’s not a pretty sight. But John Travolta and Emma Thompson dig beneath the glad-handing good ol’ boy and driven career woman cartoon façades of the Clintons and get at something honest, sobering, and ultimately human.
Angels in America (2003)
Nichols’ toweringly ambitious HBO two-parter based on Tony Kushner’s toweringly ambitious stage play about the AIDS crisis during the mid-’80s is six hours of pure phantasmagorical magic. Mixing flesh-and-blood, real-life figures like Al Pacino’s Roy Cohn and Meryl Streep’s Ethel Rosenberg with tragic fictional characters that thrum with heartbreaking sympathy and, yes, even winged emissaries of divine intervention, this is Nichols’ boldest and most adventurous undertaking—and arguably his most rewarding.