Mike Nichols would be the first to admit that at 73, he’s entered the old-soldier stage of show business, the season when veterans are summoned to Kennedy or Lincoln Center and decorated for past achievements.

But this vet of the sexual revolution is still very much on active duty.

With his acclaimed miniseries “Angels in America” (seven Emmys in September!), the debut next March of the much-anticipated Broadway musical “Spamalot” (“Monty Python and the Holy Grail” meets “Camelot”!!), and Friday’s opening of the riveting character study “Closer” (Julia Roberts, Jude Law and Natalie Portman in love and lies!!!), Nichols reasserts his rank as a directorial triple-threat.

“Closer,” which also costars Clive Owen, reprises the vitriol-and-venom, four-play-as-foreplay of Nichols’ first film feature, “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” (1966). These are characters who want to change, but can’t or won’t. So instead they change partners. “Carnal Knowledge” redux? Well, let’s just say that “Closer” makes Nichols’ famously stark 1971 film about lust, lies and impotence look positively sentimental.

“Closer” is a movie in which honesty is brandished like a hunting knife and characters savage lovers with the truth. Nichols brings a surgeon’s eye to this unsparing anatomy of love.

His read on “Closer,” written by playwright Patrick Marber: “It’s about the importance of lying. We always say, “I won’t be mad. Just tell me the truth,”‘ he reflects.

“Love is so short, forgetting is so long,” muses Nichols, a walking database of quotations, citing poet Pablo Neruda.

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While for many the very subject of “Closer” makes it the opposite of a date movie, the film has flashes of black comedy as the characters, the last four pieces standing on the chessboard, try to force a checkmate.

During his four decades as a director, Nichols discovered Dustin and Whoopi, made actresses out of Ann-Margret and Cher, goaded the likes of Liz, Dick, Meryl, Jack, Harrison and Melanie to acting honors, and emerged as the go-to guy for playwrights as disparate as Neil Simon and Tom Stoppard. And though he went Hollywood, Nichols stayed close to Broadway.

For these accomplishments, the fellow who began his career as half of the improv-comedy act of Nichols & May now holds the Trophy Grand Slam: Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony grace his mantel. (Mel Brooks, Rita Moreno and Barbra Streisand are other members of this select group.)

And if those rewards aren’t sufficient, consider the Nichols lifestyle. His pal Buck Henry (they collaborated on “The Graduate”) likes to joke that between Nichols and his wife, anchor goddess Diane Sawyer, “they know everyone, they know everything – they even know the capitals of every state.”

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There are those who dismiss the director as a celebrity-worshipper whose greatest skill is in massaging the egos of bankable stars and writers. Some argue Nichols lacks a visual signature.

Tricky thing, a filmmaker’s career. By the time Alfred Hitchcock and Billy Wilder were 73, their directing days were effectively over. Unlike his predecessors, who were considered out of touch during the ‘70s youthquake, Nichols keeps abreast of cultural currents while trolling for the latest acting or literary phenom, be it Natalie Portman or “Primary Colors.” Maybe he likes actors so much because he’s fascinated with the acting involved in everyday life.

And if Nichols’ movies lack the cinematic trademark of a Martin Scorsese or a David Fincher, they do boast a consistency of tone and rhythm. Whether it’s a Nichols drama like “Closer” or a comedy like “Working Girl,” the mood is mordant and the beats are musical. He directs as much for the ear as for the eye. His training in stand-up and stage have made Nichols a master at creating and sustaining real-time emotions in film, where editing can destroy the mood.

At a Nichols tribute hosted by Lincoln Center in 1999, his chum Henry summed up the director’s career by cracking that Nichols is famous for his “long, incisive series of reasonably dirty films.”

“I’m no judge of my own work,” Nichols says in the soothing voice of a doctor about to deliver some bad news. “But I will say is that I think a man and a woman at the breakfast table is the center of the universe.”

The director’s most memorable pieces candidly explore matters of sex and intimacy, whether in movies like “The Graduate or plays like “The Real Thing.”

Early on, Nichols discovered that emotional nakedness was much more shocking than the bare-skin kind. From “Virginia Woolf” to “Closer,” Nichols’ film career has coincided with a cultural shift toward emotional and sexual openness. In fact, “Virginia Woolf” gets most of the credit – and all of the blame – for ushering in the era of movies made specifically for adult audiences (and the warning that “No one under 18 will be admitted unless accompanied by his parent”).

So how weird is it for Nichols to release “Closer”(written in 1997) in a cultural climate that’s increasingly closed?

“Ask Bill O’Reilly,” Nichols quips. The Fox News host “got sued for sexual harassment and then, bang! It was shut up.” O’Reilly settled out of court. “We heard no more about it.

“Suddenly it’s all about suppressing sex rather than exploring it,” he says. But Nichols would say that sometimes sex isn’t just about sex.

At the Lincoln Center tribute a few years back, Nichols thanked the assembled – who included Harrison Ford, Candice Bergen and Meryl Streep – and shared words to live by.

“Anything that’s worth fighting for is worth fighting dirty for,” he said.

Watching “Closer” brings to mind “Virginia Woolf,” “Carnal Knowledge,” “Silkwood,” “Heartburn” and “Working Girl.” In so many Nichols films we see people fighting dirty in sex, in relationships, in business and in politics. And we see the pattern, noted by “Spamalot” producer Roy Furman, that in a Nichols movie, it’s not about the sex – it’s about how acting morally has evolved, for some, into an act.



Carrie Rickey: crickeyphillynews.com



(c) 2004, The Philadelphia Inquirer.

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Mike Nichols

AP-NY-12-02-04 0629EST



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