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Hot Movie Takes – Alexander Payne and Mike Nichols


Hot Movie Takes – Alexander Payne and Mike Nichols
@By Leo Adam Biga, Author of “Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film”

Comparing artists, in this case film directors, is a hazardous business, but that isn’t stopping me from doing it. As someone who thinks and writes a lot about writer-director Alexander Payne, I sometimes search for resonance between his work and that of other filmmakers. When first exposed to his satirical cinema I was immediately reminded of Billy Wilder. Later, I saw parallels between Payne’s mis en scene and that of James L. Brooks, Joan Micklin Silver and Paul Thomas Anderson. More recently, I found continuity in the mordant, highly composed worlds of Payne and Stanley Kubrick. My newest reference point connects the work of Payne with that of the late Mike Nichols. The difficulty with this particular comparison is that Payne is a writer and director and Nichols was a director who, while I’m sure he had a great hand in the scripts he helmed, practically owned no writing credits. On the other hand, Nichols consistently worked with and interpreted great writers and the spirit of his satirical sensibilities is evident in his oeuvre. The term auteur is overused and misapplied to many filmmakers but it certainly fits both Nichols and Payne. Their work shares in common strong humanistic and satirical strains that reveal character in states of extremis. The comedy and tragedy in the stories they tell co-exist side by side and thus it’s hard to describe their movies as just one thing or another. Their movies are like life in that they are a mix of things. Nichols comes from an improvisational comedy, Actors Studio and Broadway stage background that gives his films a distinctive look, feel and sound that is at once realistic and poetic. Payne is most heavily influenced by classic world cinema and his films correspondingly have a formal narrative structure and compositional quality that also retain a sense of freedom and anarchy in line with their sharp tragic-comic turns.

These filmmakers are also both identified with producing thought provoking, highly literate work, I believe that is a reflection of how well read and rounded Nichols was and how-well read and rounded Payne is. Just as Nichols was steeped in literature, music fine art, theater and film, so is Payne. Bandying words and references with Nichols was a game played at your own risk because he seemingly had read everything. Payne is much the same.

But it’s one thing to have a great mind and it’s another thing to have a great heart, or vice versa, and here’s where these two separated themselves from many other directors of comedy. Their films show an intuitiveness and empathy that serve to leaven their sharp insights and harsh satire and to make their characters and situations, no matter how chaotic and desperate, more human and therefore more relatable. This is the same gift that their fellow comedy director masters shared and I’m referring here to:

Charles Chaplin
Buster Keaton
Frank Capra
George Stevens
Howard Hawks
Ernest Lubitsch
Preston Sturges
George Cukor
Billy Wilder
Woody Allen
James L. Brooks

I don’t know of Payne and Nichols ever met, but I have to think that if they did they would have hit it off and found they shared similar sensibilities and interests. At the very least, they would have made each other laugh.

My favorite Nichols films are “The Graduate,” “Catch 22,” “Silkwood,” “Working Girl,” “Postcards from the Edge,” and “Charlie Wilson’s War.” I don’t think there’s a great film among them, though those are all really good movies, and the rest of his career was pretty hit and miss. As for some of his other films, I admire “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf?” and “Carnal Knowledge,” for example, but they’re not films I feel compelled to see again. His “Heartburn,” “Wolf” and “The Birdcage” are interesting but minor works. Full disclosure: I haven’t seen his “Angels in America.” But I’ve seen enough of his output to know that while he almost never made a flat out bad film, several of his works are flawed and inconsistent.

By contrast, Payne hasn’t missed yet. I have yet to see Payne’s new film “Downsizing,” but based on his six previous features and other work he’s done, I am very comfortable saying that Payne is a consistently better filmmaker than Nichols was even at the peak of Nichols’ career. Now, some may argue that Nichols directed touchstone pictures for different eras in “The Graduate” and “Working Girl” and may go on to question whether Payne has done the same. I would assert that “Sideways” is that equivalent picture in the Payne canon. I would also suggest that Payne has made at least five films that are timeless: “Election,” “About Schmidt,” “Sideways,” “The Descendants” and “Nebraska” and that it’s hard to find even a single Nichols film that could be so described with the possible exception of “The Graduate.” Some may further argue, and I can see the point, that Nichols was a more adventurous filmmaker than Payne in trying sometimes wildly different subjects and approaches from film to film, whereas Payne, to date anyway, has perhaps played it safe by staying within certain parameters and comfort levels that he likes revisiting. His new film “Downsizing” is definitely a departure for Payne in terms of scope – both physical and thematic – and we’ll soon know how well he handled that. Nichols made everything from social satires to farces to straight out dramas. I would counter that the few times Nichols departed from his own comfort zones resulted in some mis-steps – “The Fortune,” “The Day of the Dolphin,” “Wolf” and “What Planet Are You From?” – though Nichols does deserve an A for effort. Most observers count “Catch-22” as a mis-fire but I like its mordant tone and, unusual for Nichols, brilliant visuals. I actually think the best work he did that I’ve seen was the intense drama “Silkwood” and not the ironic, satiric pieces he’s best known for.

Granted, Payne may be taking fewer chances than Nichols did in terms of stretching himself, but I contend that even within the familiar confines of Payne’s work, he consistently goes deeper than Nichols usually did. For me, Nichols was more of a surface director, and Payne is more of an interior director, which is to say that in Nichols’ films the exterior lives of his characters predominate while in Payne’s films the interior lives of his characters speak to us Now, to be sure, there are exceptions to these artificial boundaries.

Certainly, the films of Nichols and Payne both show great respect for the written word and strong performances by actors. On this score, I think we can all agree.

Of course, all this is totally subjective and in the long run doesn’t really mean a hill of beans because they’re both among the best directors of comedy and of dramedies that have ever worked in Hollywood and they each have stand the test of time films to their credit.

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  1. September 1, 2017 at 6:10 pm

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