For those of a certain age, it wasn’t books or parents or friends that prepared us for what happens in the American bedroom between men and women; it was Mike Nichols. He understood the toxicity and danger that could casually waft into existence when two wounded psyches shared such close proximity, often armored in nothing more than their underwear. The late film and Broadway legend was able to bottle various shades of this intimate poison throughout his career, but most notably in his early years, when he burned brightest. It is there in his stand-up with Elaine May, and is laid on thicker than Thanksgiving gravy in his directorial debut, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? It first bubbles into existence in the lobby and the suites of the old Ambassador Hotel in The Graduate, and then most famously on the back of a bus in what is perhaps the most iconic last shot of any American film.
But for me, Nichols’ understanding of the casual tragedy of coexistence surfaced most powerfully and personally in his fourth film, 1971’s Carnal Knowledge, a movie best remembered by certain sneaky boys born in the ’60s as the first time they ever saw a woman’s breast.
Here, Ann-Margaret’s anguish is so fully realized that she manages to stake her corner of that small bedroom despite an early sighting of the patented Nicholson jerk, a creature that would grow to Godzilla-like proportions in Oscar-winning turns in Terms of Endearment and As Good as It Gets. It is a perfect display of one of Nichols great knacks as a director—allowing his actors to somehow just exist within the confines of the script, much as we exist within the context of our own lives. The result was a kind of equally comic and tragic truth-telling we had not seen before Nichols blazed his lasting place into our pop cultural lives. Now that he’s gone, it’s a perfect time to pour a glass of his vintage poisonous intimacy for ourselves and our loved ones—please, let’s not call them names—and toast a master who understood what was happening between lovers better than we understood ourselves.