Wednesday Editor’s Pick: Mikey and Nicky (1976)

by on November 2, 2011Posted in: Editor's Pick

Playing Wed Nov 9 at 6:45* & Sun Nov 13 at 12:30 at the Museum of Modern Art [Program & Tix]
*Introduced by Director Elaine May


New York has certainly been spoiled as of late by appearances of a filmmaker Jonathan Rosenbaum once described as “avoiding interviews about her work almost as rigorously as J.D. Salinger and Thomas Pynchon.” MoMA performs another minor miracle in their gem-packed 9th Annual Festival of Film Preservation, “To Serve and Project,” continuing thru Nov 25.


Rosenbaum continues on his blog:

But I hasten to add that, well over a quarter of a century later, Mikey and Nicky speaks pretty well for itself—and in fact always has, even in its original scattershot version. It even has clear links to May’s other features. All four of her films to date include the same obsessive theme, the secret betrayal of one member of a couple by the other. The first two of these couples are newlyweds (in A New Leaf and The Heartbreak Kid) and the second two are heterosexual men and best friends (in Mikey and Nicky and the underrated Ishtar)—a Jew and a Gentile in both cases. But only in Mikey and Nicky is this theme pushed to its limits, beyond comedy.


It’s a betrayal with many fluctuations, hesitations, reversals, and ambiguities, and May might be the least sentimental woman storyteller since Flannery O’Connor in her stark refusal to sweeten the pill. If her relentless realism evokes the epic sweep of Erich von Stroheim’s Greed, her narrative still manages to cram a lifetime of troubled friendship, rivalry, money, and pain into the vicissitudes of a single night. And when women figure in the pivotal margins of this tragic tale, May is every bit as merciless as she is towards her two leads, whom she clearly loves as well as fears.

Rosenbaum also discusses the different cuts of the film, as May grappled with the “1.4 million feet of footage she’d shot, which culminated in her psychoanalyst helping her to remove some of the reels and hiding them somewhere in Connecticut.” No word on the MoMA site what will be presented.


An encapsulating scene:


Richard Brody for The New Yorker (view his video essay here):

That it should be a feast of performance is no surprise, given what May had already accomplished as a director (in “A New Leaf” and “The Heartbreak Kid”), and given the extraordinary cast—Peter Falk and John Cassavetes, in the title roles, dominate the film. Though they’re quite as freewheeling and spontaneous and dangerously alive onscreen as they are together in Cassavetes’s own films (they were two-thirds of the desperately rampaging trio in “Husbands”), May takes a different perspective on their rowdy male antics. The lack of sympathy, even the cruelty, of men toward women in Cassavetes’s films is one side of a battle in which men are fighting with and against women—even the women they love—for their lives and their identities, against their better natures and better judgment. For May, the stakes are different. She presents two men—a smooth-talking swinger and a bland, practical square—who are small-time mob players in Philadelphia. The swinger has overplayed his hand—he’s been thrown out of his house and, after the murder of an associate, knows he’s the target of a planned hit by his boss (played spicily by the famed acting teacher Sanford Meisner); the square is happily married and, though not exactly prized by the boss, manages nonetheless to make himself useful and keep his steady foothold in a turbulent realm.


May’s judgment on manhood is harsh: it entails renunciation, submission, humiliation, and the willingness to betray and to break the relationships forged in the heat of male bonding. Or, to be a man, one must stop being one of the guys.



Unfortunately the Stanley Kauffmann review in the New Republic, in which he calls Mikey and Nicky “the best film that I know by an American woman,” can’t be found online. Here are bits and pieces assembled:

An odd, biting, grinning, sideways-scuttling rodent of a picture…

[The plot] sounds like the schema of a “character” crime picture, a so-called film noir, particularly since most of it is shadowy. (Virtually all of it takes place at night.) It is those things, but it is several things more. The first additional thing is, incredibly, that it’s comic. Actual laughs are scattered, but the overall view of the two men is through a prism of comic detail. The script is by Elaine May, who also directed. Her previous scripts A New Leaf and The Heartbreak Kid, both adapted from other people’s stories, were ungainly and ill-focused. Mikey and Nicky is her own work, and she sees its grimness through her well-known comic temperament. Nicky’s neuroses, the squabbles, the horseplay that Mikey has to sustain in order to keep credible to Nicky, even the put-upon-drudge dialogue of the hit man, are seen by May as a kind of gallows-humor vaudeville. We get no sense that she thought up the plot and then decided to do it at a blackly comic angle: this is the way she saw the moral swamp from the start.

Kauffmann went on to name it one of the 10 Best Pictures of the decade.

Chuck Stephens in Film Comment (March/April 2006):

May’s savagely funny Mikey and Nicky is still widely misperceived as some sort of stillborn Cassavetes knockoff, or worse still, as the non-comedy of her filmmaking career. Despite the wisdom of people like cinematographer Victor J. Kemper-who in his commentary on Home Vision’s DVD rather thickly states, “I don’t remember any humor in the entire film.” Mikey and Nicky is altogether saturated in black humor. The laughs may catch in your throat, but they’re present right from the opening scene, where the clearly sociopathic Nicky attracts the attention of Falk’s Mikey, his best friend of some 30 years and eventual Judas, by lobbing towel-wrapped liquor bottles out of his flophouse window and perilously close to his savior/betrayer’s skull as he waits in the street below. Breathless upon arrival outside his friend’s door, Mikey announces, “Nicky? It’s me Mikey-from the corner. I came as soon as I got your towel.”



Dave Kehr for the Chicago Reader:

Elaine May’s film is one of the most innovative, engaging, and insightful films of that turbulent era of American moviemaking. May allows the improvisational rhythms of her actors to establish the surface realism of the film, but beneath the surface lies a tight, poetically stylized screenplay that leads the two characters, as they pass a fearful, frenzied night together, back over the range of their lives, from infancy to adulthood. At every step May tests the two men’s affection against the conflicting demands of making a living and finding a measure of security in a brutal, unstable world; what emerges is a profound, unsentimental portrait of male friendship—and of its ultimate impossibility


Kehr has even more to say in the New York Times:

DVD release firmly sets this neglected wonder among the finest American movies of the 1970’s, and perhaps of all time. Seen today, ”Mikey and Nicky” offers an almost Shakespearean appreciation of human complexity, paradoxically centered on two characters who are anything but self-aware.


In a movie filled with unforgettable performances, it is worth underlining the contribution of Carol Grace, who in two brief scenes creates an indelible portrait of Nellie, Nicky’s sweet, sad mistress. Truman Capote’s inspiration for Holly Golightly of ”Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” and later the wife of William Saroyan and Walter Matthau, Grace, who died last year, modestly displays a magical presence that more than justifies the tales that have grown up around her life.


Geoff Andrew for Time Out (London):

Nicky (Cassavetes), cooped up in a dingy hotel room, dreading lethal reprisals from a mobster he’s betrayed, calls upon Mikey (Falk) for help. But as they search the city’s backstreets for sanctuary, it becomes clear that his buddy is less saviour than Judas (and that the sacrificial victim is no saint either). May’s script simply observes the way old wounds are reopened as the pair reminisce about their past friendship, while allowing her actors ample space to emote with adolescent exuberance and paranoia. The vérité style, complete with itchy focus finger and rambling narrative, often seems less assured than in Cassavetes’ own films. But with an imaginative use of locations, carefully controlled atmosphere, and superb performances all round, it’s an often impressive, always watchable modern noir thriller, based on credible human motivations.


J. Hoberman for the Village Voice:

A picaresque tale of two petty racketeers, May’s purposefully raw journey to the end of the night (via downtown Philadelphia) showcased the always volatile John Cassavetes in his most manic performance ever, opposite the sanguine Peter Falk. Among other things, Mikey and Nicky is the greatest Cassavetes film Cassavetes never made—although, in its grit and gangster-buddy thematics, it also suggests the period’s other great non-Cassavetes Cassavetes film, Mean Streets. To produce a seemingly spontaneous Actors Studio exercise, May shot an astounding 1.4 million feet of film (nearly three times the amount exposed for Gone With the Wind) and some began to whisper her name with that of the ultimate footage fetishist, Erich von Stroheim.



A New York Magazine report from the set:

The movie had been largely improvised, in the style of the movies Cassavetes himself directs, and often the camera rolled for hours as the two men talked to each other in and out of character about whatever happened to be on their minds.


At this particular moment, the two stars were not talking to each other ata ll. Falk had walked down the block to talk to a friend, and Cassavetes wandered off the set entirely.


Still, the camera kept running. And running.


After several minutes of shooting film of a scene with no actors in it, the new camera operator called “Cut!” and turned off the camera.


May, who’d been sitting quietly behind the cameraman, suddenly jumped from her seat.


“Why did you turn the camera off?” she yelled. “You don’t say ‘Cut.’ I say ‘Cut.’ I’m the director, and only the director says ‘Cut.’ ”


“I know,” the camera operator replied, “but the actors left. They walked away!”


To which May answered, “Yes… but they might come back.”



Vincent Canby viewed the film as an admirable failure, in his original review for The New York Times:

Elaine May’s first two films, “A New Leaf” and “The Heartbreak Kid,” were comedies of sometimes inspired and often touching lunacy, mostly about the uncertain progress of romantic love between men and women. Her third film is something else entirely. It’s a melodrama about male friendship told in such insistently claustrophobic detail that to watch it is to risk an artificially induced anxiety attack. It’s nearly two hours of being locked in a telephone booth with a couple of method actors who won’t stop talking, though they have nothing of interest to say, and who won’t stop jiggling around, though they plainly aren’t going anywhere.


Short portions of the film come to vivid life, especially toward the end. There’s a very funny, typically urban confrontation between Mr. Cassavetes and an officious lady on a bus who doesn’t want to start up with his “element,” and a fine sequence in an all-black bar whose patrons take Mikey and Nicky for white cops. What Mr. Cassavetes and Mr. Falk do, though, exists beyond the fringe of film criticism. They just seem to be carrying on—making elaborate actorish fusses—in front of the camera.


Miss May is a witty, gifted, very intelligent director. It took guts for her to attempt a film like this, but she failed.



David Thomson in Have You Seen…?:

Like a moon in the solar system of John Cassevetes, there is Elaine May’s Mikey and Nicky. Apparently May had a play version dating back to the days of her celebrated nightclub act with Mike Nichols. Along the way, Peter Falk read the play and said he loved it. The trouble with Mikey and Nicky seems to have been that May have been thinking about it so long, entertaining so many variations, that she couldn’t make up her mind what she wanted. Add that dilemma to the burning appetite of Falk and Cassavetes to turn it into an acting class for two improv-wild guys and you begin to understand the problem.


The film was buried by reviews and ignored by the public. Yet, like many of the Cassavetes project, it ha a seething intelligence at work that is reluctant to accept any formal discipline. It’s not just that these two guys are unlikable (they are). It’s more that their situation is not very interesting. Had May lived with it so long that she no longer saw it as a project or story? All one can say is this picture serves to enlarge the strange story of her undoubted but unresolved talent.


– Compiled by Brynn White

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