Director / Screenwriter: Elaine May
By Roderick Heath
In memoriam: Ned Beatty 1937-2021
It’s both excruciating and exalting to note that Elaine May was only the third woman to be a member of the Directors Guild of America, after Dorothy Arzner and Ida Lupino. Born Elaine Iva Berlin, May was the daughter of a travelling Yiddish theatre producer. When her father died when she was 11, her family moved to Los Angeles. May finished up dropping out of high school at 14, and later hitchhiked to attend the University of Chicago because it took students without high school diplomas, by which time she had already married her first husband, whose name she took. Quickly gaining a reputation for sparking arguments with teachers and students with outrageous and original statements, May found a simpatico mind in fellow student Mike Nichols. The two of them joined an off-campus theatrical group and began stirring attention, with May’s childhood theatre experience giving her a head start in confidence and authority. After Nichols was asked to leave the group for having too much talent, he and May formed a partnership in a comedy act that was soon generally hailed as groundbreaking and quickly gathered popularity, but their working technique proved to impossible to sustain and they called it quits in 1961. Both started on a path to becoming filmmakers as Nichols concentrated on directing theatre and May started writing for stage and screen and acting in movies.
Whilst Nichols achieved success as a director with Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966) and The Graduate (1967), May had to wait until 1971’s A New Leaf until she arrived as a moviemaker. Despite gaining some cult attention, May’s debut effort wasn’t a good experience, as her initial vision for the film was brutally edited by the studio. Obsessive filming practices, arduous and exacting editing process, and clashes with cast and studios became something of a hallmark of May’s productions as well as their odd and spiky brilliance. Her second film, The Heartbreak Kid (1972), was written by Neil Simon and proved her only real hit. Mikey and Nicky had a long and troubled shoot despite being initially slated as a fairly modest, low-budget drama, with May gaining industry infamy for the amount of film shot on set in her quest to get the best out of her actors. She finished up hiding two reels of the movie to keep the studio from sacking her and re-cutting the film again, but she finally lost a court case over control of the footage and the studio patched together a version to release that ultimately flopped. This, on top of all the squabbling, meant May didn’t get to make another movie until Warren Beatty, believing she still had unfulfilled potential as a filmmakers after she had written his Heaven Can Wait (1978) and parts of Reds (1981), hired her to make 1987’s Ishtar. But that experience proved another debacle as Ishtar became synonymous with egotistical on-set clashes and messy production resulting in a violently uneven if excessively criticized film. Her directing career finished, May nonetheless had success writing scripts for Nichols’ The Birdcage (1996) and Primary Colors (1997).
Mikey and Nicky is certainly a highpoint and quintessential example of a celebrated strain of 1970s American cinema with emphasis on a raw, urban, unruly texture, as well as Hollywood’s uneasy and ultimately brief turn to auteurist cinema at the time, willing to give much rope to directors on the off-chance they might come back with a hit. Because May, who originally wanted Charles Grodin to play Nicky, finished up hiring John Cassavetes and Peter Falk to play the title characters, Mikey and Nicky is often seen as an extension-cum-assimilation of Cassavetes’ heavily improvised, off-kilter brand of independent filmmaking and narratives often revolving around stressed-out menopausal males. But whilst like Martin Scorsese’s early films and others on the ‘70s film scene May was assimilating Cassavetes’ influence, Mikey and Nicky is subtly distinct from Cassavetes’ films in form and style. It represents amongst other things May’s carbolic portrait of relationships between characters whose surface amity contains aspects of parasitism and destructive intent, sometimes mutual. To a certain extent May’s second two films reflect a meditation on her own artistic method over and above their immediate subjects, fumbling with deliberately errant process towards synthesis and insight in a manner reminiscent of the way she and Nichols made comedy: the shambolic texture, actually, carefully achieved, is the entire point.
If the dopey songwriters of Ishtar presented a tellingly non-talented meditation on the concept of creative partnership, Mikey and Nicky is quietly vicious as well as wryly melancholic in portraying the hallowed, in pop culture terms, pair of pals from the old neighbourhood who know each-other inside out, resentments and failures of support turning gangrenous. Mikey and Nicky begins with Nicky (Cassavetes) locked in a hotel room in downtown Philadelphia, unshaven, filthy, stewing in a zone of fetid fear and paranoia. Having called his friend Mikey (Falk) and begged him to come but arranging a rendezvous down in the street, he sees Mikey down below wandering around in confusion, and gets his attention by tossing down a towel wrapped around an empty bottle. Mikey ascends to his room and quickly gets annoyed and frustrated as Nicky insists on grilling him timorously through the locked door. Once he finally does gain entrance, Mikey learns that Nicky expects he’s a target to be killed by mob assassins, for reasons hinted at throughout: Mikey and Nicky both work for gangster Dave Reznick (Sanford Meisner). Nicky and another employee, Ed Lipsky, who were in charge of the syndicate’s bank, started pilfering funds. Now Lipsky’s turned up dead, and Nicky expects to follow him soon. Mikey’s best advice to Nicky is to get out of town while he has the chance. What Nicky doesn’t know is that Mikey is trying to lead Reznick’s hired killer Kinney (Ned Beatty) to him.
May’s perverse and sandpapery sense of humour manifests in the opening scene of Mikey’s attempts to follow the signs literally dropping from the sky that lead him to Nicky, before attempting to mollify the pathetic man within with gentle, increasingly irked entreaties through the hotel room door. “I don’t want you to see me like this!” Nicky insists. “Will you stop being a horse’s ass?” Nicky retorts: “How’m I gonna see you I haven’t seen you before?” Mikey tries breaking the door down and fails, but Nicky finally lets him in. Nicky is at his most desperately needy, embraced by Mikey and sobbing, and Mikey is soon making like a parent trying to feed an errant baby in trying to give Nicky a pill for his stomach ulcer, a sign of just how well the two men know each-other in all their physical and mental sore points. The latent ferocity and edginess within Mikey contrasts Nicky’s dishevelled paranoia, as Mikey quickly swerves from softly patient appeals to sudden ruptures, first when trying to access Nicky’s room and later when he goes to get coffee for him, an expedition that takes much reassurance and negotiation to undertake. Watched by the frantic Nicky from on high, Mikey enters a diner where the counter man (Peter Scoppa, who was also the assistant director) refuses his request of two coffees with separate milk and cream because that’s not how their orders work: Mikey tries playing along but suddenly leaps over the counter and manhandles the waiter until he surrenders the cream.
Part of the reason for the film’s long and expensive filming was May’s delight in Cassavetes and Falk’s well-oiled and expert improvisatory energy and underlying friendship. But May wasn’t being merely indulgent, as the film evolves less as a portrait of a couple of mob-connected schmucks than an investigation of what friendship, particularly the male variety, actually means. May covers similar ground in a way to what Scorsese tackled in Mean Streets (1973), in the deep affection and mutual frustration of Harvey Keitel and Robert De Niro’s characters, but more mature, more deeply ingrained and spoiled. The official topic is the complexity and sometimes downright strangeness of male friendship, whilst at the same time, May’s fascination with people locked together in a blend of expedience and needfulness is a connecting thread in the three films she wrote as well as directed, particularly the marriage in A New Leaf where one of the partners is intent on murdering the oblivious other, but here gets its most complete examination. As Mikey and Nicky leave the hotel room once Nicky shaves and regains a modicum of his former savoir faire, they wander around town (May had to shift the shoot from Philadelphia to Los Angeles mid-film because of the budget overrun) and winnow through their lives and keep getting into randomly combative encounters. Nicky constantly seems to sense, however inchoately, the trap Mikey is leading him into, whilst Mikey often seems barely aware of his role in this lurking danger, even at one point deciding to leave town with Nicky to make sure he’s okay, even though he also reports back to Reznick on the phone, who then passes along the mission details to Kinney.
Mikey and Nicky was a highly personal project for May. She reportedly drew on memories of members of her family connected with the mob, and had been kicking around variations on the material since the 1950s, perhaps with an eye initially to realising it is a theatrical project. The relationship of the two men has a more than faint echo of a classical kind of comedy duo, not perhaps May and Nichols themselves, but with distinct conceptual roots in the same kind of theatrical diptych. A schlemiel Vladimir and Estragon with all the shaggy, disparate energy that can well ironically from mental and moral exhaustion preserved. Once freed from the cage of his room and also set up on the open range that are the city streets, Nicky keeps wanting to go see a movie at his favourite theatre: a true movie lover will defy death to get their fix. This proves a curveball for Mikey’s efforts to rendezvous with Kinney, as he initially manages to get Nicky to settle down with him in a seedy bar to drink beer and milk: Kinney however gets lost when trying to find the bar, having to ask directions, and gets there too late. Mikey this time uses his oblivious wife Annie (Rose Arric) as interlocutor with Kinney by leaving word with her about the movie theatre they’re heading to. But as they ride the bus to the theatre Nicky suddenly decides he wants to visit his mother’s grave as they pass by the cemetery where she’s buried, and the two manage to get off after a fight with the driver (M. Emmett Walsh).
Nicky’s unique capacity to keep pushing the envelope mixed with an edge of compelling charm, contrasts Mikey’s initially more disarming but also blindsiding blend of the gentle and the eruptive. When the two men go into a bar filled mostly with black patrons, Nicky get into an altercation with a man (Eugene Hobgood) after paying attention to a woman who proves to be his wife (Marilyn Randall). Rather than act apologetic or otherwise back down, Nicky responds with racist provocations, both infuriating but also unbalancing the other men, seeming just feckless enough to make them unsure as to what secret reserves of power or mere masochism he has. When another patron (Reuben Greene) tries to intervene and prevent a fight, he squares off against Nicky and comments, “We might be black, but we ain’t stupid,” to which Nicky retorts, “Then how come you’re black?” Later he insists on smoking on the bus and draws Mikey into helping him wrestle with the driver when he won’t let them get off the bus by the front exit. It’s a wonder he lives as long as he does. Nicky’s displays of crazy-brave truculence and his ever-ticking metre of macho investment in power relationships are given a rare edge by his fatalistic paranoia and efforts to prove he still has some remnant potency in the world with his refusal to be intimidated, but are also seemingly distinct aspects of his character, only more circumspectly worked.
Mikey and Nicky roam through an insomniac world of intractable service workers, hostile gun-wielding storekeepers, edgy drinkers, exasperated hit men, sanguine but increasingly annoyed gang bosses, frayed and exhausted wives and mistresses, and all the other flotsam of the great American city at night. Their own messy and random shows of will and wont, incarnating the spasmodic spirit of people adrift on such a night even if they are technically renegades from the daylight world, contrast the people who need rigid lines of demarcation to keep up defences between them and the general craziness at loose. Meanwhile Kinney, who has the demeanour of a travelling salesman and about the same level of passion for his job – at one points he grumbles that with all the expenses he’s occurring the pay for the hit will hardly be worth it – is led on a merry dance through the same nocturnal world looking entirely out of place and sighing his way wearily through trying to find them in the movie theatre and driving around in circles in a haphazard search pattern. It’s hard to believe Kinney is a killer, but as the finale finally demonstrates, he’s good enough at it. Once he and Mikey are thrust into each-other’s orbit they form a duet of mutual aggravation as Mikey tries to guide him to where he last saw Nicky, before they’re forced to go to Reznick and argue over whose fault it is they couldn’t find him.
“You won’t like ‘em,” ran Paramount’s resolutely uncommercial tagline for the film’s poster, and it is perhaps truth in advertising, as Mikey and Nicky are not particularly lovable or admirable or interesting guys, even as May and the actors makes them so palpable it’s impossible not to identify with them on some level. Nicky’s clammy, heart-galloping awareness of danger loans him a veneer of relevance as a representative of mundanity on the edge, all the voracity, conceit, pathos, and sheer balls of a natural-born shyster amplified and given glamour by proximity to death. Part of May’s fascination with the two, as avatars of the male of the species in general, seems to stem from a queasy amusement and desire to grasp at how they’re essentially a married couple, and have certainly sustained a more profound relationship with each-other than the women in their lives. One portion of Nicky’s seething lode of angst lies in his recent break-up with his wife Jan (Joyce Van Patten), who’s taken their baby to live with her mother after finally wearying of his general bullshit. Mikey by contrast plays at maintaining a stable suburban life with a wife who seems to barely know him but who insists he maintains a respectful and adult relationship with: “I don’t treat my wife the way you do,” he tells Nicky reproachfully, “If I’m gonna be late, or if I’m gonna be out all night, I call.” Mikey’s way with putting people on the spot with peculiar shows of honesty is both fascinatingly unguarded and also explains why he tends to put people on edge.
Despite their closeness however there are vast gaps in what Mikey and Nicky know of each-other. Their fumbling search through the darkened cemetery in search of the grave of Nicky’s mother becomes a vaguely philosophical and metaphysical quandary couched in resolutely regular guy terms. Mikey bats off Nicky’s questions about his feeling about the possibility of an afterlife, which Nicky confesses he’s feeling keenly with his life under threat, before stating he doesn’t believe in it: “That mishigas I leave to the Catholics.” Mikey notes with a certain remnant resentment how much his late father liked Nicky because he always used to kid him. The two men are just about the only people they remember from their shared youth still alive, and Nicky himself confesses to wishing everyone from their youth was still alive, trying to articulate the feeling of being adrift in a world that has lost all its old markers of insularity and recognition, the gravity of identity that provided some illusion that the world at large had coherence: now there’s only the night world. Eventually it’s revealed Mikey gave Nicky his introduction to Reznick’s crew only for Nicky to quickly take root and become a bigger and flashier success, whereas Mikey learns that he makes Reznick uncomfortable. Mikey’s playing along with the attempt to set up the hit on Nicky is partly motivated through self-preservation instincts, knowing well his proximity to Nicky could make him suspect.
The apotheosis for Nicky’s brinkmanship tendencies comes when he finally decides to visit his current girlfriend, Nellie (Carol Grace), a lonely woman willing to do just about anything for company. Mikey tries to strike up conversation with her as she explains her liking for keeping up to date by listening to the radio news, but it eventually forced to sit in her kitchen whilst Nicky seduces her and screws her on the living room floor. May shoots much of the scene in one, long, deadpan long shot from the corner of the room, encompassing both the carnal act in the foreground and with Mikey shrunken to his outpost in the adjoining kitchen at the back of the frame: May eventually moves to a shot of Mikey sitting and listening with a queasy look of wonder at how he’s finished up at such a point in life. Nicky however needs to twist the knife in both his companions a little more by convincing Mikey all he needs to do is make a play and he can have sex with Nellie too, but when he tries Nellie bites him and Mikey slaps her back before storming out. Nicky chases him, but Mikey furiously repudiates any remaining friendship with Nicky in recognising this as just the latest in many acts of wilful humiliation and bastardry, and the two men begin a fumbling brawl in the street.
This entire sequence is remarkable in the fine-tuned inflicting of discomfort on both characters and audience, exposing the cruelly casual misogyny wound into Nicky’s worldview and which Mikey buys into until it literally bites him back, along with the signals of perversity that make all three of act the way they do, their mixture of need and pain and old-fashioned lust that must be worked through in a series of false guises. The encounter also rips the scab off all the wounds suffered by Mikey and Nicky’s supposedly umbilical relationship. Every slight, every piece of Nicky’s macho showmanship and one-upmanship, becomes a seed of grievance, whilst Nicky insists on further provocation and retaliation by smashing Mikey’s watch, which he loaned him earlier, Mikey’s only keepsake of his father, sparking their tussle. May gives away the fact that Mikey is betraying Nicky and leading him to his death so early in the film it removes any hint of suspense or mystery, and instead demands the viewer ponder why Mikey is doing this. During their fight Mikey confirms his belief Nicky sabotaged him with Reznick by “Making me out to be a joke.” Nicky defends himself by claiming he brought Mikey into the bank and also reminds him of the time he loaned him $200 when he needed it. Mikey response is to take $200 from his wallet, throw it on the ground, and tell Nicky, “You’re a piece of nothing,” the gesture that finally drives Nicky to attack him.
The foreboding, which never really feels like such until the axe drops, invests Mikey and Nicky’s vignettes with implicit irony often intensified by Mikey’s split mind, as when Mikey, offended by Nicky’s suspicious questions, tells him, “I suggest you find somebody you can trust.” Once they split apart, the film changes gear subtly, as Nicky’s peregrinations become a series of encounters that underline how completely he’s managed to destroy his life and alienate anyone who might help him, in a manner that both fulfils the character study aspect of the tale and also its echoes of classic poetic realist and film noir works where a man out of time and luck searches for safe harbour. Meanwhile Mikey, in a manner quietly similar to the way Walter Matthau’s antihero of A New Leaf finds himself trapped within matrimony, is obliged to suffer his way through the rest of the night in the company first of Kinney, and then Annie, who reflect back only incomprehension and pettiness. Mikey finds Kinney in his car still waiting outside the movie theatre and drives with him around the streets where he left Nicky, at one point seeming to finally spot him and chasing him down, only to find it’s the wrong guy. The pair’s low-level bickering and frustration at not being able to find Nicky leads them to both go to Reznick and explain their failure.
May used two different cinematographers in the course of shooting the bulk of a third and then had Lucien Ballard film the finale. The film’s ragged aural and visual language stemmed in part from the long shoot and the studio’s ultimately dismissive approach to getting it finally finished (at various points in the release version you can see film equipment and crew members hiding in bushes, flaws May cleaned up in her director’s cut), and the technical problems May had in making sense of the footage she had shot, often ending up with sound and vision forcibly patched together, particularly noticeable during the fight with the bus driver. But it also feels entirely appropriate for a portrayal of such flailing straits and exploring the fringes of big city life. May’s vision of her characters’ nocturnal odyssey pungent and authentic in its evocation of dive bars and dirty phone booths, rain-sodden streets and blearily bright shops backed up by the woozily intense and intimate camerawork, very often using hand-held camerawork. Beatty’s Kinney is the most conspicuously lost figure in this world, sometimes threatening to dissolve into the haze of mist and neon. The role deftly exploits Beatty’s excellence at playing superficially bland characters harbouring hidden strata of weirdness, sharpened to a wicked point when the man’s true nature emerges in the climax. Safe harbours beckon but a gauntlet has to be run with so many: the succession of encounters with taciturn workers in boles of commercial life ends with Nicky entering a candy store where he seeks out ice cream and comic books as if he’s reverting to childhood whilst the elderly owner packs a pistol and curtly tells his customer not to get the comic books sticky.
Mikey and Nicky’s relationship to power, the dynamo of their city’s underworld life however cutely it’s hidden behind the dreary frontage of Reznick’s perfectly ordinary house, is the force that keeps them in an orbit, each allowing them to put up Potemkin villages in their lives to maintain some basic semblance of purpose and prosperity, something Mikey seems better equipped at maintaining than Nicky. May’s simultaneously sarcastic and realistic approach to depicting authority was to cast Meisner and William Hickey as Reznick and his lieutenant Sid Fine as both men were hugely influential and respected as acting teachers more than as performers at that point. Supposedly she originally wanted to cast a Paramount executive as one of the gangsters, only for the studio’s owner to nix the idea, but the mischievous attempt confirms the film is in part a sardonic meditation on May’s own relationship with money men. Meisner is particularly good as the stony, terse mob boss who is nonetheless as much prisoner of his employees’ quirks and incompetency as they are of his power, worn to quiet exasperation by the comedy of errors reported to him throughout the night and then grunting uncomfortably as Mikey insists on apologising for Reznick not liking him before laughing and sending him home. Reznick proves why he’s the man at the top of the totem pole at least by realising Nicky will probably turn up at Mikey’s house at some point and he insists Kinney wait outside for him, obliging Mikey to explain patiently that his neighbourhood has its own patrol service that will swoop down on anyone loitering like that.
Nicky is at least canny enough to keep dashing into the shadows anytime a car passes by, in between attempts to take refuge first with Jan and then with Nellie. Jan is charged with hissing rage at him, at first barely interested in his protestations that he’s being hunted: “They’re gonna kill me.” “Well, I’m not interested…people get angry when you steal their money.” Nicky’s desperately clingy attempts to wring some iota of affection from her earns her smouldering anger, telling him to instruct her how his girlfriends and Reznick treat him so she can copy them. Nicky’s rejection is compounded as his infant daughter starts crying when he tries to play with her. There’s a final show of something like compassion from Jan as she asks of Nicky before embracing him, “What do you want from me, to die for you?” Nicky’s final scenes have grace-notes of self-awareness, as when he comments toJan about his fight with Mikey, “I did too much to him.” There’s similarity in May’s simultaneously acerbic and empathetic portrayal of Nicky’s unmoored neediness to what Lupino offered the more officially sympathetic title character in The Bigamist (1953), viewing masculinity in its troubled, exposed, love-needing state. At the same time May and Jan and Nellie share a trait of sensing the limits of such empathy.
Nicky’s return to Nellie’s apartment is an even more telling seen as he busts her door chain and swaps slaps with her, before wearily settling on her bed and confessing he set up the scene earlier because he was angry she slept with two other guys he knows, only for Nellie to retort that he sent them to her, well aware of the games Nicky likes to play and was happy to go along with their subterranean logic, but finally rebelled when it became too obvious, too clumsy, too much about Nicky’s ego rather than some kind of naughty conspiracy. Mikey meanwhile keeps a vigil looking out his living room windows, groaning as Kinney keeps circling the house and attracting the patrol’s attention, whilst Annie insists on staying awake with him, leading to the pair to begin a fumbling conversation as the insecure Mikey asks his wife whether he repeats himself when he talks as Nicky accused him of, and when she says, “I never notice it,” he commands, “From now on when I do something, notice it.”
May evokes her own character in A New Leaf as Annie is defined as a woman blankly grateful for the semblance of suburban normality Mikey has given her even, half-singing “You walked into my life!” in her gratitude for being delivered from solitude and pining, even if the cost is living with someone she barely knows in the real sense, scarcely aware of what he seems to do for a living or the meaning of all the signs and portents accumulating through the night until the final gunshots. And yet she doesn’t know things that have cemented him and Nicky together in their shared reality. Mikey eventually mentions to Annie his younger brother Izzy who died of a fever when he was a teenager, one of the tales of the past mentioned briefly between Mikey and Nicky earlier. Mikey begins recounting the pathetic story relating to the smashed watch, which his father, who he describes as “a sour man,” gave to Izzy as he was dying, then reclaimed it after he passed and gave it to Mikey. The one totem of Mikey’s father he has had and lost was actually a kind of cursed object reminding him of the paternal love he was never granted, whereas Nicky and Izzy were able to illicit it.
Annie’s bewildered, empty reactions reveal a total incapacity to process her husband suddenly revealing the void in himself. May here seems to be clawing at some common, barely acknowledged sense of trauma connecting the bodies of American life, ensconced now in prosperity but with feet in the muck of a past that’s still raw in memory. This sets the scene for the devastating climax as Nicky arrives, demanding entry, with Mikey pretending to not be home and getting Annie to fend him off instead. When Nicky spots Kinney approaching in his car, his demands become more frantic and desperate, slamming the wood and crying out “Get me a doctor Mikey!” over and over. Mikey starts pushing furniture up against the door to keep him out, barricading himself against the looming chaos with the stuff of his bourgeois life. Finally Nicky’s cries are silenced as Kinney fills him bullets and drives off with a look of satisfaction. May fades out on Mikey’s haggard expression as he rasps a final request for Annie to go to bed. As May started regarded Nicky’s face in the first seconds of the film, so she ends it regarding Mikey’s look of glazed, haggard fatigue and dumbfounding, as if Mikey is not so much shocked and sad that he finally did such a thing to a friend as he is amazed he had the capacity to do it, that in the end self-preservation was the strongest and most authentic of instincts. Now Mikey is alone in the most profound sense, the last keeper of profound memory, full of stories boring and irrelevant to anyone else. One of the great endings, for one of the great American films.