Mike Nichols was a great actors' director. He made some excellent camera choices, but what set him apart from his peers was his consistent facility for coaxing superb performances from his cast. Nichols started in theater as a performer and continued to direct for the stage throughout his life. He was extremely intelligent about analyzing the essence of a story and scene, breaking down the beats (especially the subtext), and helping the performers make them into living moments. If you listen to his commentaries or interviews, it's a real pleasure to hear him discuss small moments in a performance and little tricks he used on set or in rehearsal to get an actor into the right mental space. He possessed great empathy as a director, and had a fine understanding of human behavior, particularly what was going on below the surface and how it drove people to act – the indirect, circuitous, and even self-defeating ways we funny human beings behave. Watch The Graduate, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? or any of his other films, and you'll encounter wonderfully human moments – comic, tragic, or both—of poorly managed anxiety, fearful hope, constrained despair, displaced anger, petty spiteful revenge, small understated kindness, and relaxed grace. Actors and directors who take the art and craft seriously could do far worse than to study the work of Nichols (along with that of Ingmar Bergman and a handful of other directors). Even Nichols' more uneven films (such as Wolf and Primary Colors) contain some accomplished scenes that can serve as master classes on acting and directing.
Nichols confessed that he didn't love performing, that he found it draining, in contrast with his stage (and occasional writing) partner Elaine May, who thrived on it. As a result, he was extremely sympathetic to his actors and tried to support them as much as possible, especially in emotionally vulnerable scenes. My favorite interview moment with Nichols came when he was asked about his directing style (by Charlie Rose) and he spoke about these dynamics. Nichols talked about how lonely and naked it can on stage or in front of the camera, and what he tried to give his actors to alleviate that. Rose then played a clip of Kathy Bates (who justifiably received a Oscar nomination for Primary Colors) gushing about Mike Nichols – with other directors, it was often different, but with Mike, you weren't alone out there. (Brenda Blethyn said something similar in a Q&A session – if she felt her director's support, that level of trust, she could "go anywhere" in a scene.) Nichols was slightly embarrassed but moved by the Bates clip. What she said is about the greatest compliment a director can receive, and for Nichols, it was well-deserved.
“A director’s chief virtue should be to persuade you through a role; Mike’s the only one I know who can do it,” Burton said after the film was finished, a remarkable compliment from a renowned actor for a fledgling director. “He conspires with you to get your best. He’d make me throw away a line where I’d have hit it hard. I’ve seen the film with an audience and he’s right every time. I didn’t think I could learn anything about comedy — I’d done all of Shakespeare’s. But from him I learned.” . . .
“I’ve always been impressed by the fact that upon entering a room full of people, you find them saying one thing, doing another and wishing they were doing a third,” [Nichols] said in a 1965 interview with the weekly newspaper The National Observer, now defunct. “The words are secondary and the secrets are primary. That’s what interests me most.” . . .
“But what I really thought [improvisation] was useful for was directing,” he said, “because it also teaches you what a scene is made of — you know, what needs to happen. See, I think the audience asks the question, ‘Why are you telling me this?’ And improvisation teaches you that you must answer it. There must be a specific answer. It also teaches you when the beginning is over and it’s time for the middle, and when you’ve had enough middle and it’s time already for the end. And those are all very useful things in directing.”
Charlie Rose interviewed Nichols several times, and spoke about him for CBS News.
Elaine May's salute to Nichols for his AFI Life Achievement Award is predictably funny. For his Kennedy Center honors, she observed, "Mike has chosen to do things that are really meaningful and that have real impact and real relevance, but he makes them so entertaining and exciting that they're as much fun as if they were trash."
Roy Edroso has a good remembrance.
Mark Evanier posts a great Nichols and May sketch, recommends a commentary track (and Todd McCarthy's 2012 appreciation of Nichols for The Hollywood Reporter) and passes on Nichols' five rules for filmmaking:
1. The careful application of terror is an important form of communication.
2. Anything worth fighting for is worth fighting dirty for.
3. There's absolutely no substitute for genuine lack of preparation.
4. If you think there's good in everybody, you haven't met everybody.
5. Friends may come and go, but enemies will certainly become studio heads.