The Arty Semite

Mike Nichols Nabs the AFI Life Achievement Award

By Benjamin Ivry

  • Print
  • Share Share

After the honorifics at last year’s MOMA festival and the 2003 Kennedy Center Honors, someone must have decided director Mike Nichols has not been praised enough lately.

Riding to the rescue is the American Film Institute, which will present Nichols with its 38th AFI Life Achievement Award today. Nichols will thereby be placed alongside great directors like John Ford, William Wyler and Billy Wilder.

In recent years actors like Kirk Douglas, Dustin Hoffman, Barbra Streisand and Michael Douglas have received the same award, and if no Ford, Wyler, or Wilder, Nichols has proven himself to be a masterful combination of performer and director.

Born Michael Peschkowsky in Berlin, Nichols’s German-Russian Jewish family fled to the United States in 1939. Although the haughty, grandiose “Roots”-wannabe PBS series “Faces of America” explained in a recent episode that Nichols’s grandfather Gustav Landauer was an anarchist, the full extent of Landauer’s violent Communism, murky mystical anarchism, and fervent civil disobedience is better detailed in Michael Löwy’s trenchant “Redemption and Utopia: Jewish Libertarian Thought in Central Europe, A Study in Elective Affinity” from Stanford University Press.

Before his death by lapidation in a Munich prison in 1919, Landauer also embraced the theater, translating Shakespeare’s plays, Oscar Wilde’s “Salome” and related works with his wife. This contentious and explosive ancestor must have influenced Nichols as a director, both positively and negatively. Nichols has embraced some works laden with murky theorizing, like the TV miniseries of Tony Kushner’s windy, if arresting, “Angels in America,” and the film version of Joseph Heller’s “Catch-22.” Yet as if fleeing the ghost of his grandfather, who exemplifies that Jews who goad people too far may be lapidated, Nichols has also created a host of smoothed-out, edulcorated works, from the de-ethnicized “Graduate” to “The Bird Cage,” the only one of the endless adaptations of “La Cage aux Folles” in which the gay protagonists are mere buffoons instead of convincing lovers.

The willful absence of Yiddishkeit in some Nichols films (Jerry Ohrbach played Meryl Streep’s father in “Postcards from the Edge,” but his role was left on the cutting room floor) may be a subject for some future thesis. Nichols was at his truest, and not coincidentally most Jewish, when performing with Elaine May. Yet enough talent, if not quite tachlis, remains in the solo Nichols canon for us to applaud this well-deserved honor.

Watch Mike Nichols and Elaine May having a brief encounter at a refrigerator:


Permalink | | Share | Email | Print | Filed under: Mike Nichols, American Film Institute, Gustav Landauer

The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.




Find us on Facebook!
  • "It’s the smell that hits me first — musty, almost sweet, emanating from the green felt that cradles each piece of silver cutlery in its own place." Only one week left to submit! Tell us the story of your family's Jewish heirloom.
  • Mazel tov to Chelsea Clinton and Marc Mezvinsky!
  • If it's true, it's pretty terrifying news.
  • “My mom went to cook at the White House and all I got was this tiny piece of leftover raspberry ganache."
  • Planning on catching "Fading Gigolo" this weekend? Read our review.
  • A new initiative will spend $300 million a year towards strengthening Israel's relationship with the Diaspora. http://jd.fo/q3Iaj Is this money spent wisely?
  • Lusia Horowitz left pre-state Israel to fight fascism in Spain — and wound up being captured by the Nazis and sent to die at Auschwitz. Share her remarkable story — told in her letters.
  • Vered Guttman doesn't usually get nervous about cooking for 20 people, even for Passover. But last night was a bit different. She was cooking for the Obamas at the White House Seder.
  • A grumpy Jewish grandfather is wary of his granddaughter's celebrating Easter with the in-laws. But the Seesaw says it might just make her appreciate Judaism more. What do you think?
  • “Twist and Shout.” “Under the Boardwalk.” “Brown-Eyed Girl.” What do these great songs have in common? A forgotten Jewish songwriter. We tracked him down.
  • What can we learn from tragedies like the rampage in suburban Kansas City? For one thing, we must keep our eyes on the real threats that we as Jews face.
  • When is a legume not necessarily a legume? Philologos has the answer.
  • "Sometime in my childhood, I realized that the Exodus wasn’t as remote or as faceless as I thought it was, because I knew a former slave. His name was Hersh Nemes, and he was my grandfather." Share this moving Passover essay!
  • Getting ready for Seder? Chag Sameach! http://jd.fo/q3LO2
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.