Thursday, April 21, 2022

Of Elaine May and Mike Nichols

Considering the career of Elaine May and especially the setback--and indeed, kind of setback--Ishtar dealt her career I find myself thinking of her old comedy partnership with Mike Nicholas, and what Andrew Sarris famously said of him very early on in his career (way back in 1968). "No American director since Orson Welles had started off with such a bang"--he was speaking here of that classic, The Graduate--"but Welles . . . followed his own road, and that made all the difference. Nichols seems too shrewd ever to get off the main highway. His is the cinema and theatre of complicity."

So did it seem in the late '80s. In the same years in which it would seem that a dislike of its politics fed into the significantly exaggerated and undeserved blowback against Ishtar Nichols, after satirizing conformist careerism with "Plastics, Benjamin," followed that main highway through its hundred and eighty degree turn to exalt Wall Street careerism in Working Girl, with Carly Simon singing a benediction over it as the New Jerusalem as the final credits roll (Why does no one get how weird this was?), to a far, far friendlier reception than Ishtar got. And then when, for what was ultimately to be his final directorial credit, Nichols turned his hand to a big screen comedy about covert action in the Greater Middle East the result was Charlie Wilson's War--a very different sort of thing, which also got a friendlier reception from the critics (even if, where audiences were concerned, one not as friendly as its backers seem to have hoped). Thus does Sarris' criticism of Nichols stand a half century on--not only in contrast with Welles, but with May, whom it seems found a milieu even less friendly to going one's own way than Welles did in the years of William Randolph Hearst's rage, studio boss control, and the blacklist.

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