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Sunday Scaries: The Curious Case of Mike Nichols’ ‘Wolf’

Mike Nichols is a director well-regarded for his many contributions to the history of cinema. Films such as Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, The Graduate, and Working Girl have earned him love from audiences and critics alike. He’s one of the few people to have received the coveted EGOT, meaning that he won an Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, and Tony award. While Nichols has a filmography that any director would dream of, there is one entry into that list which stands out like a sore thumb – 1994’s Wolf

A werewolf movie? Directed by Mike Nichols? Surrounded in his canon by the mediocre Harrison Ford amnesia drama Regarding Henry and beloved queer comedy The Birdcage, this monster flick is the black sheep of Nichols’ career, and has largely been forgotten. With mixed reviews from critics and a dismal response from audiences, it’s astonishing to look back now and see the amount of quality contributors that Wolf had amongst its cast and crew, and to analyze where these individuals were at during this point in their career. 

Nichols, as mentioned, was coming off a slight misstep in Regarding Henry, but he was still Mike Nichols, with his two films prior to that being Postcards from the Edge and Working Girl, both acclaimed pictures with plenty of awards love. To star in the picture, as publishing house editor-in-chief Will Randall who is bitten by a wolf one night and starts to experience changes, Nichols recruited none other than Jack Nicholson, reuniting the two after their previous collaboration on 1986’s Heartburn

Nicholson was at perhaps the most interesting point of his entire career. Coming onto the Hollywood scene like a bat out of hell with his firebrand performances in films like The Last Detail, Chinatown, and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, the late ‘80s and early ‘90s were a time where Nicholson was figuring out what kind of actor he was aging into. He couldn’t be that freewheeling rebel without a cause anymore, so where did he fit in now? 

Nicholson’s 1992 Jimmy Hoffa biopic Hoffa (directed by Danny DeVito) was a bit of a dud, but that same year he was nominated for an Oscar for his scene-stealing supporting role in Rob Reiner’s A Few Good Men. Just before that, he directed himself in the big misfire that was The Two Jakes, a sequel to Chinatown, and the year prior saw his iconic portrayal of The Joker in Tim Burton’s Batman

While the casting of Nicholson as a man who turns into a werewolf initially gives shades of those who criticize The Shining for casting a madman actor to play a man who audiences are supposed to see gradually descend into madness, the misdirect here is that Will Randall is actually the good guy in Wolf. His antagonist, Randall’s scheming, backstabbing protégé Stewart Stinton is played by James Spader, recently having ascended into his position as the mischievous male sexpot (sort of a new Nicholson, as it were) of films like Sex, Lies, and Videotape, Bad Influence, and White Palace

Sharon Stone was offered the role of Randall’s love interest Laura Alden, but turned it down. Instead, Alden was played by Michelle Pfeiffer, fresh off a star turn in a Batman film of her own, playing Catwoman in Batman Returns, and two years off her third Oscar nomination, a Best Leading Actress contender for Love Fields. Elsewhere in the cast were Christopher Plummer as Alden’s father, Richard Jenkins as the detective who begins to investigate the werewolf’s crimes, and early appearances from David Schwimmer (as a cop!) and Allison Janney in bit parts. An interesting tidbit to note: Mia Farrow was considered for the role of Randall’s wife, but was considered too controversial at the time due to the Woody Allen/Soon-Yi Previn affair which had dominated the news cycle. Kate Nelligan was eventually cast in the part. 

The high caliber doesn’t stop at the cast. Nichols brought on longtime collaborator Giuseppe Rotunno as cinematographer, a man who had worked with Luchino Visconti, Federico Fellini, Lina Wertmüller, and Bob Fosse. To compose the score, the legendary Ennio Morricone was put in charge. 2-time Oscar winner Ann Roth designed the costumes. Practically every single hand on Wolf is someone utterly beloved in the industry, so how did it become a film that people rarely, if ever, discuss today? 

Part of the answer may lie in the story of screenwriter Jim Harrison. Harrison left the production of the film after having those dreaded creative differences with Nichols. The writer would later say to the Los Angeles Times, “I wanted Dionysian, but he wanted Apollonian. He took my wolf and made it into a Chihuahua. I cracked up for 10 minutes and then went out into the country and stood in front of a wolf den and apologized while my dog hid under the truck.” Harrison had such a negative experience on the film that he would decide to leave Hollywood and never look back. 

It seems that most critics may have agreed with Harrison’s take that him and Nichols had conflicting visions for what the film should be. In his review for Variety, Todd McCarthy wrote, “The studio must convince the horror/special-effects crowd to attend a Jack Nicholson/Michelle Pfeiffer/Mike Nichols picture and persuade the filmmakers’ fans to see a genre pic.” That pushback against audiences’ traditional understanding of what either of these types of films would look like is understandable, as the experience of watching Wolf is a peculiar one that doesn’t quite seem to fit, yet draws you in nevertheless. 

Nichols wasn’t the only acclaimed director at this time who found himself wading into genre territory. In 1992, Francis Ford Coppola released his rendition of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, a film which has only earned more acclaim with time. The same year as Wolf, Kenneth Branagh directed Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, which was received with quite a bit less positivity and has mostly been forgotten. 

Does Wolf deserve the same fate? While it’s true that the ideas of the picture can occasionally clash, and the pacing suffers a bit around the midway point as it shifts away from using the werewolf archetype as a metaphor for office politics and towards being a more generic werewolf movie, this is still a curio well worth checking out. It’s a film that was neither good nor bad enough to be remembered by the canon, and yet that in and of itself almost makes it an exciting experience in its own way – seeing all of these prestigious legends unite for a genre picture that is only mentioned in passing as a little oddity that happened in the mid-‘90s. It’s also a movie where Jack Nicholson pees on James Spader and says that he’s “marking his territory”, and if that’s not enough reason to watch a film, then what is? 

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Written by Mitchell Beaupre

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