“There are only three kinds of scenes: a fight, a seduction or a negotiation,” the protean director Mike Nichols, who died yesterday at age 83, liked to say. It was an idea he often returned to in interviews, often appending as a coda this bit of advice from his former comedy partner Elaine May: “When in doubt, seduce.” It seems an astonishingly simple formulation on which to base a six-decade career spent moving effortlessly from stand-up comedy to theater to film and back to theater again, racking up landmark achievements in every field while always somehow keeping a finger on the pulse of what America was ready to see, needed to see, at that political and cultural moment: the sexual frankness and chilly suburban satire of The Graduate, the impassioned labor activism of Silkwood, the anguished vision of HIV-ravaged gay culture and Reagan-era indifference in Angels in America.
The best scenes from Mike Nichols’ films are seductions, negotiations, and fights all at once. He delighted in moments of high theatricality, intricately blocked verbal showdowns between characters with multiple clashing agendas unknown to each other and sometimes to themselves. But he also excelled at framing such moments cinematically, making the camera movement and music and editing all matter as much as the (always excellent, often world-class) acting.