Никита Михалков

Никита Михалков

Mikhalkov began as an actor, receiving early acclaim in Georgy Daniela's "I Step Through Moscow" (1963), as well as appearing in "A Nest of Gentlefolk" (1969) and a film version of Anton Chekhov's "Uncle Vanya" (1972), both directed by his brother. He had acted in more than a score of pictures and helmed several student films before making his feature directing debut with "At Home Among Strangers" (1974), a sort of Soviet Western set amidst the civil war of the 1920s, which received a "slightly condescending" reception in the Soviet Union. However, his next film, "A Slave of Love" (1976, co-written by his brother), a tragi-comedy about a film company making a movie as the Revolution of 1917 rages around them, established his international reputation. Its bittersweet portrait of the clash between romantic ideals and political reality drew praise for its sophistication and "Chekhovian wit," and he went on to strengthen the Chekhov connection with "An Unfinished Piece for Player Piano" (1977), co-adapting the playwright's first play "Platonov," enhanced by material from several stories. A runaway success in the Soviet Union, "Unfinished Piece" won the Grand Prix at the San Sebastian Film Festival and further raised his profile in the West.Mikhalkov's next release was "Five Evenings" (1978), shot in 26 days to keep his crew busy during an unavoidable break in the filming of the much more involved "Oblomov" (1979). Set in 1956, the year of the 20th Party Congress, and a time of optimism and renewal, the political love story captured the period so well that the director delighted in telling how he overheard two middle-aged women emerge from the theater and say, "How did we miss that one 20 years ago?" However, in adapting Ivan Goncharov's massive novel, described as "one of the principal Russian contributions to universal literature," Mikhalkov probably bit off more than he could chew. Essentially unadaptable, the director concentrated on the first half of the four-part novel and created a portrait of the slothful Oblomov counter to the predominant Marxist interpretation, defending a bit of laziness as an alternative to boundless progress and activity at any price. The central character's inability to take action places this work firmly in the director's Chekhovian oeuvre.Mikhalkov continued to act in both his own films and those of others, notably his brother's "Siberiade" as a womanizing oil driller and in two films by Eldar Ryazanov, "Station for Two" (1983, as a black marketer) and "Cruel Romance" (1984, as a heartless playboy). He was a director for hire on the comedy "Family Relations" (1981) and also helmed "A Private Conversation Without Witnesses" (1983), sort of a companion piece to "Five Evenings" in its theatricality, but his next landmark film was "Dark Eyes," which returned him to his beloved Chekhov. Based on several of the author's stories, "Dark Eyes" starred Marcello Mastroianni (who had wanted to work with the director since seeing "Unfinished Piece") as a once-young, idealistic, aspiring architect, who had settled for a life of wealth and ease in his marriage to a banker's daughter. He falls in love with Anna but abandons her to return to his wife, throwing away his last chance to make something of himself. Mastroianni's tour-de-force performance as the haunted Romeo won him the Best Actor Award at Cannes, and the director got his first taste of the Oscars, attending the ceremony to witness the outcome of Mastroianni's Academy Award nomination (he lost to Michael Douglas)."Urga/Close to Eden" (1991), beautifully filmed in the Mongolian steppe region of inner China, elicited many comparisons to Robert Flaherty's classic documentary "Nanook of the North" (1922) for its almost anthropological investigation of the lifestyles of the remote region. Into the world of these nomadic herdsman stumbles a Russian truck driver, an agent of encroaching civilization represented by Sylvester Stallone posters and plastic bubble wrap, which the grandmother in one hysterical scene systematically pops. The "urga" of the title is a long pole with a lasso at the end (for catching animals), which becomes a "Do Not Disturb" sign for nearby love-making when stuck in the ground, but it also bears a striking resemblance to a TV antenna, the strongest symbol of the modern world. Mikhalkov returned to the Oscars to see his charming, insightful depiction of past meeting present beaten out by the vastly inferior "Indochine" for that year's Best Foreign Film.On his next visit to the Oscars, Mikhalkov would not be denied, winning the Best Foreign Film statue for "Burnt by the Sun" (1994) and providing the indelible image of the evening by raising his daughter and co-star Nadia above his head, a move he had originated at Cannes when the film earned the Special Jury Prize. Again his work drew comparisons to Chekhov, only this time the specter of Stalin hung above the self-absorbed extended family basking in pastoral contentment. Mikhalkov starred as Colonel Kotov, an old Bolshevik and intimate of Stalin who believes his heroic contributions to the Party make him inviolable, not realizing that his stature as a beloved hero of the revolution is precisely what makes him a threat to paranoid tyranny. When his wife's former lover Dimitri crashes their idylls, Kotov, despite knowing the man works for the secret police, worries only that the handsome Dimitri may reawaken buried emotions in his wife. Instead, the agent of Stalin's betrayal rips Kotov from his wife and child and conducts him to prison on the sunniest of days.Never a Communist, Mikhalkov, who always aligned himself with his mother's side of the family, enjoyed a very bourgeois upbringing, rejected post-1917 Soviet leadership and evolved into a moderate nationalist, his love affair with Chekhov just one aspect of his affinity for pre-Revolutionary Czarist Russia. On the heels of his Oscar win, he became more political, winning a parliamentary seat as number two man in Viktor Chernomyrdin's "Our Home Is Russia" party. Although he declined to take the seat, he had shown his prowess as a political image-maker with the "feel good" ad he directed (and acted in), and there was talk that the endorsement of Boris Berezovsky, the tycoon credited with bankrolling Yeltsin back into the Kremlin in 1996, could help propel Mikhalkov into the top Kremlin job. Some viewed his $45 million "The Barber of Siberia" (1998) as an extravagant political advertisement and the $10 million of state funds Chernomyrdin swung his way a sort of campaign contribution (this at a time when the government owed millions in unpaid wages to state workers). Mikhalkov in his cameo as Czar Alexander III got a chance to model the crown, giving future subjects an idea of him as Russia's constitution-monarchist president of the coming age.