Mike Nichols: Sex, Language, and the Reinvention of Psychological Realism

Mike Nichols: Sex, Language, and the Reinvention of Psychological Realism

Mike Nichols: Sex, Language, and the Reinvention of Psychological Realism

Mike Nichols: Sex, Language, and the Reinvention of Psychological Realism


With iconic movies like Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, The Graduate, and Carnal Knowledge, Mike Nichols was the most prominent American director during the cultural upheavals of the 1960s. Mike Nichols: Sex, Language, and the Reinvention of Psychological Realism argues that he overhauled the style of psychological realism, and, in doing so, continues to shape the legacies of Hollywood cinema. It also reveals that misreadings of his films were central to foundational debates at the emergence of Cinema Studies as a discipline, inviting new reflections on critical dogma. Focusing on Nichols' classic movies, as well as later films such as Silkwood, The Birdcage, and Angels in America, Kyle Stevens demonstrates that Nichols' realism lies not in the plausibility of his characters but in their inherent mystery. By attending to the puzzling words and silences, breaths and laughter, that comprise these characters, Stevens uncovers new insights into the subversive potential of a range of cinematic elements, and reveals how Nichols' satirical oeuvre, and Hollywood itself, participated in several of the nation's most urgent social, political, and philosophical advances.


MARTHA: Truth and illusion, George. You don’t know the difference?

GEORGE: No, but we must carry on as though we did.

This exchange is from Mike Nichols’ 1966 film Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, an adaptation of Edward Albee’s play and his debut as a film director. It is the story of George and Martha, histrionic, witty spouses who live in a web of half-believed lies. As spectators, we are never certain whether their tales and accusations of past wrongdoings are true, false, or a mixture of both. Similarly, we are never sure whether the language games that they write and perform together throughout the story’s time are manifestations of love or malice. This is to say that the very content of their consciousnesses—their motivations, desires, feelings, and so forth—fluctuates. It flickers like the images before us. We cannot understand George and Martha, arguably the first couple of 1960s New Hollywood cinema and namesakes of America’s founding partners, by merely watching them or thinking about the objects of their actions. Since we remain uncertain of their intentions we are unable to describe exactly what it is that they do, and since characters are constituted by their actions, we are left to doubt who, and even what, these characters are. Hollywood doubted itself at this time, too. It was collapsing financially, fighting for an audience increasingly drawn to television, and finding its reputation as standard-bearer of cinematic style disputed by the sudden flow of international new wave cinemas into the country and around the world. What is more, America doubted its democratic self-identity, as the period of the biggest rights-led revolution in history forced it to confront its historical failures to fully recognize a person when it saw one. Inhabiting such doubt is, I show in the following pages, at the core of Nichols’ style, central to his five decades of remolding the Hollywood human.

Two years later, in 1968, that much-considered year, after Benjamin Braddock’s recondite silences filled Nichols’ momentous The Graduate (1967), the New York Times attributed the enormous spike of students enrolled in film courses to the fact that, “Mike Nichols and Jean-Luc . . .

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