Mikey and Nicky: Primeval Regression

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Grime. Pure, thoughtless grime.

A breeding ground for filth, sweat, and brilliance. Like an unregulated market, there was immense opportunity for success in the 1970s, often at the expense of the consumer; that is to say, a lot of crap released in theaters, but it was also an age of innovation: Taxi Driver, The Godfather, Eraserhead, Barry Lyndon; movies that changed the landscape film existed upon, uprooting and re-shaping without a care in the world. In a chauvinistic landscape of Scorsese's, Coppola’s and Kubrick’s, filmmakers like Elaine May flew under the radar, silently crafting some of the most detailed worlds of the era: films like A New Leaf, The Heartbreak Kid, and Mikey and Nicky, a crime-drama that forgoes the typical killings and mafia tensions for a look at two interdependent souls, each grappling to control their instincts. Mikey and Nicky represents the little arguments, petty conversations, and snide remarks that go unnoticed in film, blown into proportion by Elaine May’s vision of toxic masculinity.

Elaine May directing  Mikey and Nicky

Elaine May directing Mikey and Nicky

When Elaine May began working as a director, she carried a pedigree of comedy. Her breakthrough partnership with Mike Nichols (with whom she would write the script for 1996’s The Birdcage), performing as Nichols and May, would establish her as an improvisational genius in the farce-comedy scene. While Nichols turned to directing after their creative split in 1961, May remained largely separate from the film world, writing plays like Adaptation and Not Enough Rope, each squarely in her comfort zone. In 1971, she arrived as a director with A New Leaf, an adaptation of author Jack Ritchie’s short story, “The Green Heart” (which he later retitled “A New Leaf”). The finished product totalled 180 minutes, which the studio cut down to just over 100 for theatrical release. It was not the first time May would run into studio pressure to shorten her vision, or at least contain it, but it stands out as a remarkable debut for someone just beginning to utilize her visual voice.

A New Leaf was followed quickly by The Heartbreak Kid, a farce starring Cybill Shepherd and Charles Grodin, written by Neil Simon (The Odd Couple, Barefoot in the Park): it is listed at #91 on AFI’s 100 funniest movies of all time. In 1973, production began on Mikey and Nicky with a budget of $1.8 million. It would inflate exponentially over the course of three years, suffer from production delays, and produce over 1.4 million feet of film (three times as much as Gone With the Wind). Paramount Studios fired May after missing a Summer 1975 release deadline, but she was rehired after hiding crucial rolls of film from the studio. Mikey and Nicky released in December of 1976, and flopped. May wouldn’t direct again until 1987’s Ishtar, another commercial and critical flop; but before Mikey and Nicky was a failure, it was an untamed beast.

John Cassavetes (left) and Peter Falk (right) in  Mikey and Nicky

John Cassavetes (left) and Peter Falk (right) in Mikey and Nicky

Raised in Philadelphia, it’s not hard to see how May’s surroundings might have influenced Mikey and Nicky. The brooding street corners, expansive multiplexes, escapes from the mundane: this is the world Mikey and Nicky inhabit. Involved in an unnamed crime enterprise, the two friends are on the town one evening when Nicky suffers a nervous breakdown. Fearing someone is after him for stealing money from a powerful mafia boss, he barricades himself in a hotel room. Mikey does what he can to help his lost friend, and later receives a call from said boss: he is ordered to kill Nicky, seeing as he knows him best, but doesn’t have to do it himself. Mikey tells another mafioso where they’ll be, and he’ll do the job. Tension is established as the impulsive Nicky begins to sense that something is off with his friend, and so changes their location several times. Mikey wants this behind him, and struggles to decide whether or not to have his only friend killed, ultimately resolving to allow it.

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As with May’s other films, this is a story of betrayal: two friends, thought to be close as brothers, torn apart by each other’s immaturity and inability to decide. Rarely have style and content coalesced so effortlessly: see the Godfather-like lighting, all darks and slivers of yellow, and insert the disintegration of a partnership, one already on its last legs by the first scene. The paranoiac and the enabler.

Films like The Godfather turn a blind eye to the female gaze. Kay may exist, but she is hardly an instrument of control. Mikey and Nicky dangles a similar status quo, with a meaningful change in the way male-female encounters take place. Nicky’s damaged relationship with his ex-wife isn’t simple or difficult: it’s problematic for both parties. They make concessions for fear of violence and fail to see the other’s needs as their own; it makes sense considering their situation, but doesn’t make their interactions any easier to bear. Nicky receives satisfaction in the benefit of the doubt, and Jan (Joyce Van Patten) is manipulated into his arms. This is in stark contrast to Mikey’s relationship with his wife, Annie (Rose Arrick): the two are seen as loving, content, and communicative; all things a couple should be. Before the final scene, Mikey covers her with questions pertaining to his vices, his unnoticed quirks that Nicky has dragged into the light. The poisoning of a healthy relationship is the final act of war, undermining with betrayal and jealousy what was a thriving dynamic.

Nicky and Jan

Nicky and Jan

In the final scene Mikey and Annie barricade their front door as Nicky begs to be let in. Death is just around the corner, lurking, looping, picking up whatever it can before returning to wherever it came. The danger in Mikey and Nicky is explained, but never detailed: it could be a low-level crime operation or the deadliest syndicate in America. Thus tension doesn’t arise from what the danger is, but for whom it is directed. Nicky’s exasperated screams to be let in are agonizing, exacerbated when the camera pans to see Kinney, the hitman in pursuit, pulling around the corner. Nicky bangs and howls at the door. Let me in! Let me in. And then: bang, bang, a slump on the door. The cycle of manipulation remains undeterred.

In his essay Mikey and Nicky: Difficult Men, critic Nathan Rabin describes Elaine May’s films as “explorations of the world of masculinity, with all its foibles and messy contradictions.” Mikey and Nicky is so awash in its leading men it practically bursts when a woman enters the frame. John Cassavetes, known for his work as a director prior to Mikey and Nicky, and Peter Falk, who would become Columbo for nearly four decades around the time of accepting the film, embody the titular roles. Cassavetes as Nicky is paranoid, vibrating, untethered by the thought of someone out to get him. They could come from any corner, any bus stop.

In the opening scene, he’s barricaded himself in a dingy hotel room, locked out of the world and unable to open the door himself. Mikey soon arrives to bail him out, and the frustration is tangible. Nicky a storm of fear and self-loathing, Mikey a patient antidote: the combination proves lethal, but at the start it is hardly a signifier. A vital moment occurs when Nicky begins to suffer from an ulcer. Mikey leaves for cream to combat it, and runs into a stone-faced bartender. His patience extending only to his friend, Mikey jumps over the counter and beats the bartender, demanding cream: “You give me that in 30 seconds, you hear me? Or I’ll kill you! Because I’m crazy!” Back up the stairs to Nicky’s sanctum, Mikey trips (unscripted), likely spilling the cream.

The lengths men go to to satisfy each other’s needs, inspired by insipid stupidity and rage. This helps explain one of the most difficult scenes, wherein Nicky promises sex for Mikey from the girl he is seeing (played with a devastating vulnerability by Carol Grace), and she refuses. Mikey hits her hard across the face, and storms out in a jarring rage. What follows is the uncoupling of Mikey and Nicky’s already fractured relationship, all desire and lust and stubbornness. Mikey’s instinctual patience and respect have chipped away, and as the two wrestle in the street in full view of a dimly-lit city, no one cares to watch. It’s a pitiful thing, watching men reduced to primal instincts for sex and violence: Mikey and Nicky displays how natural a regression it can be.