Although Mike Nichols had already been established as a well-regarded auteur (and not without good reason), his comedy partner Elaine May was robbed of having the same legendary status after her third film. Which is utterly baffling to me, because there’s a particularly unflinching angle in Mikey and Nicky that many crime dramas of the time period had never captured, and it’s also what made this film so terrifying on the inside. But to think that this was the sort of film that Elaine May, whose best-known works have often come by in the comedy genre, makes it even more astounding because it’s clear enough that this film was made with a skilled eye that already would be placing her among many of the all-time greats, had her career really taken off to the degree that it absolutely deserved to. Like many great artists who get their start in the comedy genre, Elaine May sought to branch out even further with Mikey and Nicky but for many more reasons I also consider this to be her best film yet. And to me, there’s nothing more shameful than the fact we never got to see Elaine May create more films of this sort.
Mikey (Peter Falk) and Nicky (John Cassavetes) have been friends since childhood. Both of them have led lives of crime, but Nicky has always been more susceptible to getting himself in trouble. After having called Mikey over to bail him out, we see another level of frailty coming forward in the time they spend together. More often than not, we see Mikey and Nicky fighting with one another over any scenario that they find themselves entangled within. It’s clear enough that Nicky sees Mikey as being a more dominant figure over how his life continues to move forward, but Mikey is also under a lot of stress of his own at the same time. Yet what makes this tale of friendship even more heartbreaking is just the very toxicity of the established dynamics between one another, thus even creating a harsh portrait of masculinity. Coming out from a director like Elaine May, this isn’t a film that merely feels like it could easily have been made by any other male filmmaker, rather it is a film that was made from the perspective of someone who has clearly suffered enough in an empire that was primarily male dominant. This is a film all about the sort of people that have continuously been pushing her around day by day, and how their lives have gone on and about because they follow along idolized figures to a damaging degree. It’s a film that damns the effects that toxic masculinity leaves upon the psyche, especially when it has only ever been glamourized by many in popular culture, as if this film couldn’t be any more perfect for what it is.
There’s a lot worth noting about how Elaine May crafts a film all about the most dangerous aspects of masculinity, from how she contrasts the lifestyles of her lead characters – yet the most damning aspects of May’s craft are also not far removed from her style. May, then known for her career in comedy as the performing partner of Mike Nichols and also having directed A New Leaf and The Heartbreak Kid beforehand, creates a dark comedy that jabs right at where gangster films of the time had also become so popular among moviegoers at the time. Amidst the popularity of films like The Godfather which portrayed members of organized crime as people who were damaged by the American way, Elaine May shifted her focus over to small-time gangsters simply trying to find ways to climb much higher than where they stay at the very moment. The dark comedy is there, but perhaps it may not be overt, but the bite comes clear from how well she understands the male dynamic. It becomes even funnier from the way in which Elaine May heightens up the sense of dominance from either side of the picture, but also incredibly tragic because she does not shy away from the damage that the toxicity of these men being themselves would leave upon others.
Even as the most unpleasant aspects of the relationship between Mikey and Nicky take up the screen, tenderness is never left out of the picture. We can see in the instincts of the film’s title characters that they merely want to survive, but it’s also become so difficult to trust one another. But it’s always remained a distinctive characteristic of Elaine May’s work in which she would only ever push around her leads to make you feel all the more uncomfortable watching them go on about their lives, yet there’s a clear picture that May allows you to witness in which these people are also their own worst enemy. Mikey is not particularly trustworthy, Nicky is hated by mobsters all around Philadelphia. These people are in danger because they aren’t listened to, but it’s also their own fault for putting themselves in such a position. You feel a distaste growing for the both of them and how they treat others in their lives, yet it’s also what makes watching the moments Mikey and Nicky have with one another even more endearing. This whole film is a cry for help from one contrast to the other, for Elaine May’s deep focus on the small moments capture a physical chemistry between Falk and Cassavetes in a way that many male filmmakers could not capture.
While it may seem small in scale, the alienating atmosphere of the city of Philadelphia also makes for a more haunting work to a larger extent. It also gives greater emphasis to the plight of May’s two leads, because you already feel something more oppressive in as much as the atmosphere surrounding Mikey and Nicky. You already feel that bleakness is going to lead to somewhere more oppressive, and fittingly enough, it also leads into a greater plight especially for the women who interact with the two. From the opening of the film, you already know something is heading to Nicky’s way, but his crime is not the point and rather the psychological aftermath. John Cassavetes becomes that broken down figure on the spot, just as Peter Falk plays a sleazy figure not without a sense of compassion. Everything that one can say about their performances would already be covered, but exactly what Elaine May brings out from the two of them, given her background on improv comedy doesn’t only shine in her script, but how she directs the film. Notably, she shot for far longer than expected and lingered upon scripted scenes for long after they finished, yet they also capture another dynamic that feels missing from films of this sort – even today. It’s not just interactions that put you inside the mindset of the leads, it’s the lingering upon such moments where you feel these people as themselves that creates a greater sense of oppression.
Simply put, this film would not be the same if it were directed by a male. It’s a film that breaks down masculinity to its core, exposing weaknesses often overlooked by the public. It’s clear that this was a vision that was so personal to Elaine May, she didn’t want anyone else tampering around with what she created because it’s also where her own style of filmmaking had found itself at its most broken down. You recognize the fun moments for what they are, but they still lead to the film’s most harrowing sequences, but it’s not until that ending sequence where you find it’s already met its own ultimatum. There’s a certain truth that Elaine May wanted to reflect in Mikey and Nicky that many filmmakers would be afraid to admit, even today. In every moment of paranoia, you’re seeing Elaine May getting down to the bones of what happens when such a lifestyle can be glorified too much. This isn’t any ordinary buddy film nor is it any other gangster film of the era, this is a film all about the fundamentals that build up masculinity and its more damaging aspects, something that men would be in denial about even today. And it’s a shame we never got to see Elaine May branch out more behind the camera because of what this film did to her reputation, especially when this may very well be her best film.
Watch the trailer right here.
All images via Janus Films.
Directed by Elaine May
Screenplay by Elaine May
Produced by Michael Hausman
Starring Peter Falk, John Cassavetes, Ned Beatty, Carol Grace, Rose Arrick
Release Date: December 21, 1976
Running Time: 106 minutes