I had a theory about Mike Nichols which I have tried, with middling success, to expand to other auteurs. Nichols was such a brilliant guy that he didn’t do much work that was really bad. But Nichols always struck me as brain first, heart second. That’s not a bad thing. It’s just a thing. And it meant, to me, that he was better off directing work that had pre-loaded emotion. “Carnal Knowledge” is great because the emotions are already there in every character but Nicholson’s Jonathan. It’s about what happens to emotional people when they fall into the clutches of transactional people. “Primary Colors” is not so good because it’s cerebral layered on cerebral. “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” and “Angels in America” were suited to Nichols because each one was a cluster of volcanoes. In the case of “Angels,” it’s tough to think of anybody better suited to pull all those sprawling sensations into a framework. Nichols could do chilliness like nobody else. Not just Bancroft in “The Graduate,” or Weaver in “Working Girl.” But I think also of a small role in “Carnal Knowledge,” played by Cynthia O’Neal, wife of Patrick. She wasn’t really an actress, but she popped in up in Nichols movies and became a very early AIDS activist. In “Carnal Knowledge,” she plays a player. She makes a pass at Nicholson’s Jonathan and suggests she has more to offer sexually than the woman played by Ann-Margret, whom she calls a fat cow. And you realize that Jonathan is looking at himself writ female and drained of even the small amount of warm blood he still retains. It’s a scary, sexy moment.
It’s a fun game to play with Nichols. Is he too damn chilly for “Closer?” Does “Heartburn” work because it plays against his type? I’m not sure how well it works for other auteurs, but maybe it’s an argument for getting them out of their comfort zones now and then, Maybe Wes Anderson should direct something like “The Departed.” Maybe Christopher Nolan should direct something like “Something’s Gotta Give.” Tarantino should do an “Oklahoma” type musical with no violence or hipness. Play it with your favorite auteurs. Doesn’t work with the Coens because they already would do almost anything.