The Graduate was always going to be in the headline of the great director Mike Nichols’ obituary. A long list of his accomplishments must necessarily focus on some while obscuring others. Who can fault the obit writer who mentions Who’s Afraid of Virgina Woolf?, The Birdcage and Silkwood, intermixed with stage triumphs like Tom Stoppard’s The Real Thing, Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya and definitive productions of Neil Simon’s work, including The Odd Couple? And of course the resonant later work in bringing the unwieldy epic Angels in America to TV.
After all, Nichols was one of the winners in show biz, a force of nature who won entertainment’s Grand Slam–Oscar, Emmy, Tony, Grammy–and married Diane Sawyer to boot. So it’s understandable that Primary Colors, the film starring John Travolta that Nichols wrote with his old partner Elaine May , gets overlooked. But for anyone who wants to deeply understand American politics while being immensely entertained, Primary Colors is your ticket. Nichols and Travolta team up to make you forget you’re watching John Travolta, and even forget your watching something fictional. (Not surprisingly: Travolta’s character bears painful similarities to Bill Clinton.) We’re talking about a film that also starred Emma Thompson, Billy Bob Thornton, Kathy Bates, Maura Tierney, Adrian Lester and Larry Hagman. An artistic triumph and great entertainment, it may have hit too close to home in 1998–a year scarred by political upheaval and a presidential impeachment process. But the film, like all Nichols’ great work, holds up beautifully. It’s a mini-masterpiece.