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November 20, 2014 06:40 PM

A movie by Mike Nichols is typically an elegant, unruffled ride across a smooth, even chilly surface – the movie’s value glints upward from beneath that ice.

The director, who died Wednesday at 83, over the years pared down any attempt at visual flourish – The Graduate, his groundbreaking early film that remains his most famous, is probably also one of his flashiest.

What fired him up, what he bored down into, was the intellectual germ (or gem) of the story. This meant that he was willing to consider anything for his camera: erotic werewolves (Wolf), World War II (Catch-22), philandering presidents (Primary Colors), Hollywood mothers and daughters (Postcards From the Edge), and even aliens (What Planet Are You From?).

There is great curiosity and agility at work in that list. And a reverence for acting and acting potential: Nichols brought out a seriousness and stillness in Cher for Silkwood. Meryl Streep, a frequent collaborator, was never better, both in her chameleon genius and her sorrowful gravity, than in the small, strange role of Ethel Rosenberg’s ghost in HBO’s Angels in America.

Here are five of Nichols’s best:

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966)

Nichols, who had established himself as the country s hottest theater director, launched himself in Hollywood with this powerfully entertaining adaptation of Edward Albee’s scalding play about two couples drinking and fighting until the cows come home. (There are no cows.) Elizabeth Taylor, who won an Oscar, gives a grand, bleakly funny performance as vulgar, boozy, heartbroken Martha.

The Graduate (1967)

This coming-of-age comedy fell into the cultural fissures of the late ’60s like a small warhead with its nose perfectly aimed to detonate. The Graduate summed up the youth generation’s fear of adult conformity in one single word – “Plastics” – and made a leading man of Dustin Hoffman (and so redefined the whole idea of “leading man”), featured a soundtrack filled with pop hits (by Simon & Garfunkel) and introduced the greatest MILF in cinematic history (Anne Bancroft’s Mrs. Robinson). Just check out the Toyota Camry ad currently airing on TV, the one with the runaway bride – one of the many homages to the film’s famous ending.

Working Girl (1988)

Another big, populist hit, a contemporary parable about workplace feminism. Melanie Griffith, at the peak of the strangely formidable kittenishness that made her a huge star in the ’80s, is the ambitious secretary, big ideas under big hair, who ferries in from Staten Island with her feet in sneakers. Sigourney Weaver, as her horrible boss, has one of the best lines in modern movies. Declining to help Griffith hand out refreshments at a party, she tells her: “We can’t busy the quarterback with passing out the Gatorade.”

The Birdcage (1996)

It might seem odd to pass over some of Nichols’s more ambitious work, including Silkwood, in favor of a very familiar comedy that had begun as a hit French movie (Les Cage Aux Folles), and even been turned into a Broadway musical. But Nichols said this tale about gay men, female impersonators, fatherhood and more was a perfectly set-up farce, and here it’s executed with such a light, sure touch that the plot mechanics disappear beneath the believable, wholly charming performances of a perfect ensemble. They include Robin Williams as one half of a gay couple (Nathan Lane is his partner) and Dianne Wiest as a conservative woman who could really use a hug.

Wit (2001)

Nichols’s adaptation of the Pulitzer-winning play is an intimate, devastating portrayal of one woman’s slow, agonizing journey to death. Emma Thompson, giving the performance of her career, is the cerebral, friendless academic diagnosed with terminal cancer. Everything fails her – her body, medicine and even the words of John Donne, the metaphysical poet she studied so closely. The play had ended with the fleeting, consoling image of a soul released. Nichols’s movie doesn’t, and that makes you cry all the harder.

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