Media Mensches of the Year

Who are the 2004 Media Mensches of the Year?

Just a couple of showbiz big shots, Mike Nichols and Tony Kushner, who stuck to their guns and created an epic merger of comedy, tragedy, history and conscience that gave no ground, that gave America a cumulation of the best this city has to offer in theater and its reawakened TV business, and in the bargain churned up one of the great New York movies, an astonishing apogee of writing, producing, directing.

Why are they Media Mensches? Because it’s so easy not to be one these days; because America sops up the opposite of integrity and rewards it so; because principle-even glitzy principle-takes guts. Because AIDS is still a plague. Because both men are warriors against cultural blight.

One is a former Wunderkind who developed, with Elaine May, a brilliant double-whined shtick of neurotic stand-up comedy in the 1950’s; became Broadway’s foremost director of the 1960’s; then Hollywood’s flavor of the decade in the 1970’s, before subsiding and roaring back in time for the millennium.

The other is the best working American playwright, currently represented downtown with an invigorating new musical, Caroline, or Change .

Who would have thought a 47-year-old gay socialist from New York and a 72-year-old German immigrant would be the ones to bring television back down to earth, and knit up HBO viewers from both the red and blue states into the serious business of American viewership?

Quality in each frame beat queasiness: Mr. Kushner reminded Americans what a monster Roy Cohn was, but through Al Pacino’s put him in the pantheon of scoundrels-with Richard III and Scarface-whose poisoned hemoglobin made irresistible spectacle. Mr. Kushner and Meryl Streep turned Ethel Rosenberg into our Yiddish mama, singing, shreiing , kvelling , a Noxema-faced angel of death, Cohn’s avenging match.

Mr. Kushner wrestled with angels of his own, didn’t sentimentalize AIDS or flinch in holding Ronald Reagan accountable, even as Congress tries to put his face on a dime. Tony Kushner’s New York in the Plague Years exalted the glory of the city’s language, pace and urgency in a way that few works have. Mr. Kushner reconciled naïve prejudice with urban sophistication, reaffirmed the soul- healing power of the city and wrapped it all up in a public park. He reminded us that good works and wisecracks matter in a free republic.

And Mr. Nichols whipped his work into a precision march of comedy, tragedy, politics and conscience. His camera plowed through the clouds before descending to meet the eyes of an angel in the Bethesda Fountain in Central Park, where Mr. Kushner’s hero, Prior Walter, eventually offered some words of hope that are no less valuable today than they were in 1993: “The dead will be commemorated and will struggle on with the living… We won’t die secret deaths anymore. The world only spins forward. We will be citizens. The time has come.” Then: “The Great Work Begins.” Well one, at least, is done.

Tony Kushner and Mike Nichols are The Observer ‘s 2004 Media Mensches of the Year. We congratulate them, thank them and inform them that they are entitled to split a $100 cash award, if they call for it, and a two-week pass from harsh criticism in this newspaper.