News and Commentary – Another Semester of 70s Films: Mikey and Nicky
This week’s movie was Elaine May’s Mikey and Nicky, a relatively little-known obscurity that should be included in any serious discussion of the great films of the 1970s. That this is generally not the case can be attributed to a number of factors. It was an enormously troubled production—May shot a lot of film (legend holds over a million feet, shedding cinematographers and shattering production schedules and budgets along the way), and she then edited obsessively and endlessly. Eventually studio conflicts mounted and lawsuits followed; ordered to cede the footage to Paramount, May surreptitiously slipped away with several crucial reels and hid them. Thus although principal photography took place in 1973, ultimately Mikey and Nicky was released quietly by an unenthusiastic studio in December 1976, by which time audiences for the more challenging fare of the New Hollywood were already diminishing.
May’s film is also under-appreciated because it is commonly classified as a “minor Cassavetes”—and even major Cassavetes films tend to attract not much more than a cult following. It is certainly understandable why the movie is often categorized (and implicitly dismissed) as such. Mikey and Nicky, like every Cassavetes film, makes you uncomfortable at times—especially when scenes go on for longer than you expect them to, peeling away the artifice of character and situation and exposing the raw emotions hidden below a more conventionally polished surface. And the movie stars Cassavetes and his friend and regular collaborator Peter Falk; their formidable charisma and deep, effortless rapport (and contributions to the dialogue) inevitably, and properly, mark the film with their distinct brand.
But Mikey and Nicky is an Elaine May film. Based on a play she wrote years before the two stars were attached to the project, it reflects her sensibilities both in the tenor of its humor and with its theme of betrayal among intimates (as in her first two efforts, A New Leaf and The Heartbreak Kid). It also has a tighter and more linear structure than typically found in a Cassavetes film. And trafficking in themes of paranoia and trust, wandering through troubled city streets, saturated in darkness, it is also, more than anything, a seventies film.
And what a movie it is. Shot at night, gloriously at night, exclusively at night (even for the interior scenes), Mikey and Nicky is a character study—not so much of its protagonists, but of the complex relationship between them, of which we see only one night but which has roots that go back decades. With that relationship at its center, the power of the film lies in how, as the story unfolds, the loyalty of the audience shifts back and forth from one character to the other. We start out with Mikey—and then suddenly we are with Nicky, but slowly, and with mixed emotions, we are brought back towards a more uncertain position, as the question of who, ultimately, has betrayed whom becomes ambiguous.
A Shakespearean tragedy in three parts and seven movements, the first third of the film involves a bravura “hotel sequence” (a full twenty minutes) in which Nicky, in big trouble (probably), calls on Mikey for help; this is followed by two parallel episodes, where the boys visit first a diner and then a bar, each time impulsively spilling out into the streets to engage in subtext-heavy conversations about everything. Along the way (on the phone, in the first diner) there is an unspeakable betrayal, one that requires a reassessment of everything that preceded. The second part of the film – its crucial, emotional centerpiece – reveals both the depths of the bond between Mikey and Nicky and its ultimate, wrenching rupture. At the cemetery, we understand that these are the sort of friends whose parents knew them when they were children, and whose every funeral has been attended. From there, on a city bus (that second, crucial bus ride), Mikey throws in his lot with loyalty to his childhood friend above all, suddenly declaring “I’m going with you.” But the next stop is the apartment of Nicky’s girlfriend, when, in an excruciating thirteen minute scene, everything comes apart.
Once again the boys spill out into the street—this time to have a fight, their last. “You got all the friends, you got all the money,” Mikey screams, and quite rightly, “did you have to do that to me?”
It’s over, and each is now alone, left to go their own ways in the wee small hours of the night. Mikey reluctantly resumes his responsibilities as dictated by mob boss Dave Resnick (played by the legendary acting teacher Sandy Meisner); Nicky, on the run, seeks refuge in one safe haven after another—but he has burned all his bridges. “Why don’t you get a hold of Mikey? He’ll help you,” his estranged wife advised, sending him on his way. “I can’t,” Nicky explains, “I did too much to him.”
And so after a brief interlude at an all-night candy store, all that’s left is the waiting, and one final, remarkable conversation, this time between Mikey and his wife, who seem to have a decent marriage, if one limited by the expectations of its time and culture. (For a movie about the relationship between two men, Mikey and Nicky has something to say about men and women as well, as it exposes the masculinist rat-pack culture of the late 1950s-early 1960s in moments large and small.) “Did I ever tell you I had a brother Izzy who died,” Mikey asks—and apparently he had not. He also speaks of his father, at the end of a long night that has left him thinking a good bit about his childhood. “He didn’t like any of the women in the family,” Mikey explains, in a line that reveals how powerful Falk’s relatively modulated performance has been over the course of this film. “But he liked Nick, and he liked Izzy.”
Nicky is in Trouble
Discussing the Meaning of Life at the Cemetary
Followed by a Visit to Nicky's Girlfriend
Mikey Waits in the Kitchen
"Did you have to do that to me?"
Call Mikey – “He’s the only friend you’ve got”
In Search of All-Night Candy and Comic Books
"Did I ever tell you I had a brother Izzy who died?"