Elaine May Perfected Dudes Rock Cinema 45 Years Ago with Mikey and Nicky

Movies Features Elaine May
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Elaine May Perfected Dudes Rock Cinema 45 Years Ago with <i>Mikey and Nicky</i>

...don’t expect to like ‘em.

This was the tagline for Mikey and Nicky, Elaine May’s bleak 1976 examination of its titular characters (Peter Falk and John Cassavetes, respectively), played out over one fateful night in Philadelphia. Those five words were as much a promise as they were a warning to audiences who could have gone into the new film from the director of comedies A New Leaf and The Heartbreak Kid expecting a breezy time at the cinema. And yet…

Going into Mikey and Nicky without the assumption that you will, or even should, like these guys is certainly in your best interest. Over the course of this night, May captures men in all of their repugnant, self-destructive, toxic reality. At the same time, however, that’s not to say that you should expect to dislike them. As is the case with all the best characters in cinema, Mikey and Nicky are complicated—as lovable as they are loathsome.

“Mikey, I’m in trouble.”

The first words we hear Nicky speak to his childhood pal, ringing him over the phone at the start of the film, are a cry for help. Nicky, a small-time mobster, has stolen money from the boss, and there’s now a hit out on his life. Mikey heads over to the hole where his friend is hiding—we can tell right away this isn’t the first time Mikey has dropped everything to try and help Nicky out of a bad spot. After some convincing, Nicky agrees to head outside with Mikey, haphazardly attempting to plot some way out of a conclusion that seems inevitable.

May came from a family that was in some way connected to mob types, drawing from personal experience in order to paint this portrait of two guys who weren’t exactly The Godfather caliber, which would be familiar to audiences as it came out a few years prior to Mikey and Nicky’s release. Hell, these guys weren’t even at the status of the young men in Mean Streets. Mikey and Nicky were schlubs, old chewing gum stuck to the bottom of the mob world’s shoes. The difference is that Mikey knows it, while Nicky always thinks he’s better than the guy everyone else sees him as. This distinction is at the heart of their dynamic, which we learn more details about over the course of the night, as resentment built up over years comes to the surface.

These are two men living completely opposite experiences through the film, and the beauty is that we fully experience both of those POVs, often at the same time. Nicky is an anxious wreck, a ball of unfettered nerves that Mikey is trying his best to keep under control and steer in the right direction, like a mother trying to get a child to brush his teeth while he’s in the middle of a temper tantrum. Of course, the whole time Mikey knows that the only way out for Nicky is with a bullet in the gut—knowledge clearly pulling at his heart despite the partial disdain he has for his old friend.

Those complicated emotions are crucial to this bizarre male friendship, a specific form of hateful camaraderie rarely captured on screen as authentically as this. The games of one-upmanship, the putting down of each other in order to build up their own egos that have become worn down by self-hatred—something we see a lot of from Nicky towards Mikey especially—yet with a sense of loyalty and comfort underneath it all. May is able to draw out this unspoken mixture of love and hate without ever having to put too fine a point on it. She simply allows these two men to exist in the same space for the course of a night, and things take the path they were always fated to take, just like Nicky’s inevitable conclusion.

The free-wheeling energy of Mikey and Nicky has led many to erroneously think the film was largely improvised, when the reality is that it was incredibly scripted. There’s an intentionality to May’s writing, combined with a marvelous dedication to knowing exactly how she wanted the film to play out, that allows it to feel like it’s almost a stream-of-consciousness piece of jazz. We never know what direction it will go in next, not just in the loose narrative of where the characters will head, but even in their conversations, which seem to fly from one talking point to another at random.

There’s an impulsiveness with the filmmaking that matches the spirit of the characters, and that’s all done with precision from a marvelously gifted filmmaker. It’s interesting to note that for a film that feels so defined by the performances, and the chemistry, of John Cassavetes and Peter Falk, the script was written without any actors in mind. May considered plenty of actors for the parts, even at one point having her Heartbreak Kid lead Charles Grodin reading for the role of Nicky opposite Falk, before she settled on Cassavetes for the part. Anyone familiar with Cassavetes as a director will know the history and friendship that he and Falk shared, and that relationship only adds further dimension and emotional weight to both their performances, and the way that we respond to them as viewers.

Without these two men in the leads, it’s tough to imagine how well that balance between their repugnant, violent maleness would match with how loveable they still end up being despite it all. As a director, Cassavetes constantly leaned into the cruel toxicity of men, portraying them in all their filth, perhaps never more effectively than in Husbands, which he co-starred in with Falk and Ben Gazarra as three married men who leave their lives behind after the death of a friend. May takes the black heart of that film and softens it a little bit with her portrayal of Mikey and Nicky, but not in a way that feels disingenuous. If anything, her softening of these guys captures them in an even more authentic light—exposing them for how small and pathetic they truly are.

Mikey and Nicky is a film about men that could only have been made through the eyes of a woman, particularly one like May who was one of the few female filmmakers in Hollywood at this time. May had the confidence to shoot an inordinate amount of footage for the film—three times as much film as was shot for Gone with the Wind—because she knew that’s how she needed to make it to get what she wanted. It’s the kind of auteur chutzpah that is so commonly associated with the dominant male directors of the New Hollywood movement that was in its heyday as this film was going massively over-schedule and over-budget. This, however, was in service of a film that knew all about the cruelty of men and the world they dominate.

While the relationship between the two frenemies is ultimately the core of the film, we learn so much about who these guys are in their interactions with other characters they come into contact with. An early scene shows Mikey, without Nicky, at a diner trying to get some cups of cream from a particularly uncooperative server. Mikey, who we perceive as the calm, put-together and “decent” member of the duo, bursts into a rage where he places his hands on the server and threatens to kill him if he doesn’t get what he wants. In a later moment, Nicky pops into a candy shop to get some ice cream and starts to get surly when the shopkeeper informs him that they don’t have any. The instant Nicky walks into the store, the shopkeeper grabs hold of a pistol he’s hiding behind the register, something to hang onto just in case things take a wrong turn. Moments like these serve to remind us of this darkness, this ever-burning rage that these guys possess that is prone to come out at any moment if the wrong person says the wrong thing.

No interactions better demonstrate the rot of men in Mikey and Nicky than the ones with Dell, Nicky’s mistress played by an utterly heartbreaking Carol Grace. In a deeply unsettling scene that May allows to play out extensively, the two men visit Dell so that Nicky can have his way with her, before offering her up to Mikey as well. She turns Mikey down, which he sees as Nicky tricking him into a moment of humiliation, leading the two to have their biggest falling out, brawling in the streets in as pathetic a fashion as you’ve come to expect by this point. Mikey and Nicky represents an encapsulation of toxic masculinity explored through the lens of two men who hate each other as much as they love each other, foul little creatures but still humans.

Naturally, through it all, neither of them stop to think about the damage they’re doing to Dell. They don’t even see her as human. The portrayal of women in the film is difficult to watch, but that’s exactly why it feels so authentic. May’s perspective was necessary to capture the damage that these men do, not only to the world—including, and especially the women—around them, but also to each other and to themselves. “...don’t expect to like ‘em,” they warned, and we certainly don’t. And yet…

Currently based in Newark, Delaware, Mitchell Beaupre is the Senior Editor at Letterboxd, and a freelance film journalist for sites including The Film Stage, Paste Magazine, and Little White Lies. With every new movie they watch, they’re adding five more to their never-ending Letterboxd watchlist. You can find them on Twitter at @itismitchell.