The story behind the production of Elaine May’s brilliant Mikey and Nicky is the stuff of a working nightmare. Fret with technical problems, including faulty sound and tricky lighting, multi-year delays (the film was shot in 1973 but first released in December 1976) to fix the technical problems and to edit down an extensive amount of film, and eventually litigation between May and Paramount, we’re fortunate that there’s a film to behold at all. These problems led to it essentially being put in a drawer, so for most of the forty years since it was first released it hasn’t been impossible to find, but it’s been hard. Fortunately, it is now readily available from The Criterion Collection, and it’s a treasure. Elaine May had the story for this film going through her mind for a couple of decades before finally working with Peter Falk and John Cassavetes to create a unique look at two fragile men, the damage done to them by each other and the damage they do to so many — particularly the women — in their wake.
When the film begins, Nicky is in deep trouble, and the only person he trusts to help him is Mikey, a friend since childhood. Holed up in a cheap hotel room in Philadelphia, Nicky is having a panic attack, smoking one cigarette after another, picking up and putting down a pistol, unable to look away from the bad news printed in the paper on his bed. Nicky is a low-level member of an organized crime syndicate, and he and colleague lifted $1,000 from the boss. His colleague is dead. Nicky is convinced he’s next.
Mikey comes right over, but Nicky is so paranoid he doesn’t tell Mikey exactly where he is. Instead, maybe to see if Mikey is being followed, he watches Mikey from the window, eventually throwing a bottle to get his attention.
Let the complex landscape of their relationship unfold.
Even though he’s called Mikey, and even though he has helped Mikey come to his door, Nicky won’t let Mikey in. Perhaps it’s just the paranoia. But we also come to realize that a part of Nicky knows Mikey could be in on the hit. Part of him knows this because he sees the same propensity in himself. But Mikey knows the right things to say, and he seems genuinely concerned and willing to do all he can for his friend.
Finally in the hotel room with Nicky, Mikey adopts a parenting role, trying to talk Nicky down, trying to help him walk away from the edge, trying to help him care for an ulcer. He asks how Nicky knows he has a hit out on him, but he promises to help him get away if that’s what Nicky believes.
The next third of the film is a series of nocturnal vignettes as Nicky’s whims — driven by his fear but also by his cocksure attitude that covers up a series of broken bridges — govern where they go. He wants to go to a bar. He wants to go to a movie. He wants to go see a girl. He wants to stop at the cemetery where his mom is buried. All the while, Mikey follows along, periodically calling his wife to let her know he’s going to be later than expected.
Throughout the night, their friendship is on display for us, and somehow May shows us a genuine relationship that is made of deep love and deep hatred. Their deep love, though, seems to come from strange loyalties that arose in their youth. Their hatred from petty sniping and griping over the years.
And should we ever think they are good men deep down, May shows us that each of them is cruel and petty and bitter. They think as men they are naturally strong, so their weaknesses grate, and they compensate by with mock affection while berating anyone they see as lesser, particularly the women in their lives. Through these two men, May explored toxic masculinity before it was called toxic masculinity.
The nuances are underscored by some horrific dramatic irony. May lets us know nearly from the start of the film that Nicky is right: there is a hit out on him. Yes, it’s for a mere $1,000; that’s how small-time Nicky is to his bosses. Worse, Mikey has been called on and has taken it upon himself to coordinate a trek over Philadelphia that will bring together Nicky and the hired gun — played wonderfully by Ned Beatty.
This is a film that has it so many compelling elements: gangsters, night in the city, chases, paranoia, friendship. I find it gripping. May is a master at dialogue, so it’s also always a pleasure when the film slows down and we get to settle into exploring the horrific (but probably somewhat familiar) relationship between Mikey and Nicky. May shows so much through the dialogue but also through the direction, something I don’t think she gets as much credit for here as she deserves. I mean, look at this shot. Nicky is on the couch with his girlfriend. Mikey sits patiently in the other room. Only it’s clear there’s so much going on here. Sadly, the girlfriend is a prop these two will use to get at each other.
The women in this film — from an offended bystander on the bus, to Nicky’s girlfriend and wife, to Mikey’s wife — are all memorable. Nicky’s relationships are, of course, more volatile. At first it seems that Mikey has a good relationship with his wife, but when we finally see them together we see an ugly situation where even his most calm statements make her sit straight and answer carefully. Like so much in this film, it’s painful to watch. At the same time, it’s important, May knows this, and she ensures the women, as sad as they are, are not mere props in the film.
As a final note, I wanted to touch on the technical issues the film suffers. The sound is a bit wonky at times. The lighting has been criticized. At times there’s a crew member in a bush. I don’t mind any of this. In fact, I consider these weaknesses to be strengths. I think a long essay could be written on how these problems (I don’t pretend they’re intentional) serve the film in the end. It lends it a lo-fi fragility that suits Mikey and Nicky wonderfully. They are mostly subliminal. Something’s off. I certainly don’t think the film is hindered; I think it’s powerful from beginning to end, and I heartily recommend it.