Film

The Past You Can't Escape: Strained Camaraderie in Elaine May's 'Mikey and Nicky'

John Cassavetes as Nicky Godalin and Peter Falk as Mikey in Mikey and Nicky (1976) (Criterion)

Childhood friends are tricky. They're the friends you leave behind but can never completely escape. Elaine May conveys this with disruptive technique in Mikey and Nicky.

Mikey and Nicky
Elaine May

Criterion

22 Jan 2019

Other


Childhood friendships are tricky. The friends you grew up with know you in a manner that was invisible to your parents, is now invisible to your adult friends, invisible to your significant others, invisible to your children, invisible to your colleagues, and invisible, ultimately, even to you. And part of you realizes that. You recognize that these friends see you in a way that you can't see yourself. You can't help but suspect that they know things about you, things maybe you don't know, things that you're pretty sure you'd rather no one else know. And part of you can't shake the notion that maybe your friends, these friends in particular, maybe they hate you a little bit. Maybe they keep you around because you make them look better by comparison, because it's a natural human instinct to feed off the weaknesses of those closest to you. And you know you're weak. That you know. You know you're weak because your friends, by contrast, seem so strong, so popular, so charismatic.

As you age, you drift away from these friends to a greater or lesser extent. You find someone to love, maybe get married, and you attempt to invest something of yourself into the memory and thoughts of your beloved. You deposit your memories into your beloved through the stories you tell and you hope they're listening. But it nags at you that these stories are inevitably sanitized; you keep finding that in all of your stories you somehow emerge as the hero. You try to tell it like it was but it keeps coming out closer to how you wish it had been. And yet, lingering somewhere in the distance are those friends that know. They know you weren't the hero but rather the patsy. And the fact that they linger and the fact that they know haunts your sense of self. On the one hand, you really want to be seen and these friends see you. You fear that if you are not seen, you might disappear, cease to matter, cease to exist. On the other hand, they see too much, they expose the dark corners you would rather remain obscure.

It doesn't matter if you've never felt this way. Some people have and do. Some don't even realize that's what they're feeling until it's too late, until they get in a situation from which they can't extricate themselves or have said something they can never take back. In Elaine May's brilliant 1976 film, Mikey and Nicky, Mikey (Peter Falk) feels precisely this way about Nicky (John Cassavetes) and it's eating at him just as surely as the ulcer is eating away at his life-long friend's stomach.

Mikey and Nicky are both low-level criminals with connections to the mafia boss Dave Resnick (Sanford Meisner). Mikey introduced Nicky to Resnick, brought him into business with Resnick. Nicky soon charmed the boss and the two men frequently socialized together. Nicky's charisma is of the self-aggrandizing sort; he's the kind of guy that ingratiates himself to men of power by openly and sarcastically demeaning those he knows are not in favor. Mikey is not in favor with Resnick. He annoys Resnick, he tends to repeat himself in an awkward manner; he makes Resnick nervous. Nicky exploits that mild disdain to get closer to the boss. He ignores Mikey's salutations at a restaurant, talks behind Mikey's back, calls him "The Echo". But Nicky is also the kind of fellow that can't resist exploiting an angle. He constantly takes advantage of his connection to Mikey (particularly when, as happens often enough, he's abandoned by everyone else) and he takes advantage of Resnick by stealing from him. So Resnick sends a hitman (Ned Beatty) out to kill Nicky and Nicky, aware of the ordered hit, is in hiding. He has no one else, so he pulls that wire again, calling on his reliable if put-upon friend Mikey to meet him in the hotel room where he awaits death or escape. He needs Mikey to find him a way out of the mess he created for himself, a mess he created only by taking advantage of and then discarding Mikey.

He distrusts everyone, knows his chances of survival are slim. Furthermore, he's aware that he has snubbed and disrespected Mikey. And yet, here he is again, relying on Mikey, because Mikey is an old childhood friend but childhood friends are tricky. There is a lot of history there, and not all of it favorable. As they move through the city, through various bars and buses, cemeteries and women's apartments and, above all, as they move through the dimly lit streets and alleyways of the city, they reminisce. Nicky remembers Mikey's parents and his brother Izzy, who died at ten years of age from scarlet fever—who indeed died one day after Mikey and Nicky, children themselves, picked on the boy for going bald (his hair having fallen out as a reaction to the high fever). Mikey remembers Nicky's mother fondly; he claims to have revered her. Nicky insists that the fact that they remember the same things is what makes them real. Their shared memories verify that these moments occurred but also guarantee that Mikey and Nicky themselves exist, that they were something long before they constructed their adult lives, their business personae. Mikey is duly unnerved because, as the movie wastes little time in revealing, he has betrayed Nicky. He has informed the hitman of Nicky's whereabouts.

The film is the first that was both written as an original story (as opposed to an adaptation) and directed by Elaine May. She was already a successful director—not to mention a celebrated playwright and renowned comedienne—having released two cinematic comedies: A New Leaf (1971), in which she starred alongside Walter Matthau, and The Heartbreak Kid (1972). Indeed, even though she began her directorial career in the '70s, she was only the third woman to have such a role in Hollywood—following Dorothy Arzner and Ida Lupino. Mikey and Nicky was a departure insofar as it was decidedly not a comedy and not a story that accorded with the dubious Hollywood category of "woman's film", nor with anything that might have been thought to be in May's wheelhouse. Rather, she developed the story from situations she remembered from childhood; Julian Schlossberg, a producer who worked closely with May both with respect to this film and to many of her plays, claims in an interview that's included in the new Criterion Collection edition of the film that May's family had some (vague) connections to low-level mob associates and that she drew the story from her recollections.

Unlike her earlier two films, where the directorial vision was somewhat more understated (although by no means absent), May wears her experimental leanings on her sleeve in Mikey and Nicky. She shoots the film as one long night's journey into day and there are very few sets of any sort involved. The film is almost entirely constructed of location shots—moreover, location shots filmed at night. This lends the film, of course, a sense of grittiness but it also gave rise to a host of challenges for May in the editing room. The harsh distinctions of the light from street lamps and neon signs make it all-too-easy to notice the cuts from shots spliced together to form a single scene. May augmented this difficulty by filming scenes many times and allowing extremely long takes. One famous anecdote relates that a camera operator shouted "Cut" when May had allowed the cameras to roll for several minutes after Falk and Cassavetes had left a room. When May scolded him for assuming the director's role, he pointed out that both stars had vacated the scene. "Yes," she responded, "but they might come back."

Given these challenges, May seems not to have attempted to cover them over. Rather, she goes in the opposite direction and allows the film's seams to show through in nearly every scene. Continuity problems (cigarettes appear and disappear at random, the hitman's car jumps in the middle of a "single shot" while parked, voices often fail to match the motions of a character's mouth, a car chase clearly just shows the car starting from a stopped position over and again) abound to such an extent that they can no longer be thought of as problems at all but rather an effect of style. These elements provide an almost improvisatory character to the film. Indeed, many people have falsely assumed that Falk and Cassavetes (famous, as was May, for their improvisatory skill) literally improvised portions of the film. Schlossberg insists that every word was scripted. The improvisational feel and the fragmentary nature of the material derives not from the script and not from the acting, but rather from May's directorial willingness to embrace a certain amount of chaos. What's remarkable is that, after a little acclimation, it works so well. Instead of appearing to be an amateurish lack of technique or editing skill, the continuity jumps and "mistakes" begin to reveal the fractures that pervade the relationship at the heart of the film.

One scene in particular comes to mind. During the beginning of a protracted argument in the middle of the street between Mikey and Nicky, Mikey finally reveals that he knows that Nicky runs him down behind his back. Nicky had just set Mikey up to fail with a woman that Nicky insisted was a sure thing. Instead the woman, Nell (played with aching eloquence by Carol Grace), bites his lip. Out on the street, Mikey lays in to Nicky: "You got all the friends, you got all the money, did you have to do that to me in front of some dumb bitch to prove you got all the women?" Nicky proclaims his innocence and claims "she screws anyone." Mikey immediately picks up on the implicit insult: "Anyone but me." Mikey attempts to take his leave of Nicky and Nicky senselessly and cruelly breaks Mikey's watch, which he was holding onto, the watch that had been given to Mikey by his deceased father, a watch we later learn he considered to be his birthright, the sign that he (and not his dead brother) was the favorite child, even though his father gave it first to Izzy (but only because he was sick and loved the watch, Mikey insists to his wife), even though it later becomes evident that Mikey doubts his father thought very much of him—especially in comparison to Izzy and even Nicky, who apparently kidded Mikey's father and established an easy rapport with a man that Mikey describes as "very solemn … but he liked Nick and he liked Izzy" (he fails to mention if his father liked him).

(Criterion, sneak peak video screengrab)

Mikey censures Nicky for his callousness and his ability to simply ignore Mikey except when it's convenient for him. Continuity mismatches appear at every cut. Early in the conversation the coat Mikey holds randomly jumps from one arm to the other. But the most striking moment is when Mikey complains about that once Mikey got Nicky in with Resnick, he could no longer get him on the phone, nor even get his attention in a restaurant. We see the moment from over Mikey's shoulder. The camera executes a reverse shot so we now see Mikey but the two shots don't line up; they clearly come from two different takes of the scene. Mikey now holds a handkerchief that Nicky attempts to snatch out of his hand. At that moment, Falk as Mikey looks up from the handkerchief and casts a maniacal look at Nicky, he appears crazed. Another reverse shot and Mikey is completely composed, the handkerchief gone, the coat neatly folded over his arm. May clearly chose to intercut the crazed look within the main take that features a more deliberate Mikey. The fragmentary nature of the editing makes it seem almost as if we are witnessing the underlying lunatic rage that suffuses Mikey at that moment, a rage belied by the seeming rationality of his indictment of Nicky. Conventional Hollywood editing would necessarily lack these types of psychological insights, which May achieves throughout the film.

The unconventional nature of May's approach derailed her directorial career. She soon became embattled with Paramount Pictures. She blew her budget of $1.8 million by nearly $3 million; she shot three times as much film as was employed in Gone with the Wind; and she missed her contractual delivery date, thus voiding her privilege of making the final cut decisions. Paramount attempted to wrest the project away from her and in response she hid reels of film to prevent them from finishing it. Finally, Schlossberg formed his own company, Castle Hill Productions, in order to purchase the rights from the studio along with May and Falk. The film was released around Christmas time (perhaps the worst time of year for such a film) and it was not terribly successful. May didn't direct again until the much-maligned Ishtar (1987). This is no small shame because, along with the directorial work of John Cassavetes, Mikey and Nicky is an incredible addition to a canon of cinematic works from the '70s that explore the seamy side of masculinity with its casual violence, its twisted and strained camaraderie, and its unpredictable emotional dependencies.

May explores that camaraderie and those dependencies in a scene set in the cemetery. Nicky impulsively decides that he and Mikey should jump off a bus on their way to the cinema in order to climb the wall of the cemetery where his mother is interred. Mikey neurotically apologizes to each gravestone as he steps on the gravesite. Nicky calls out to his mother, pretending he doesn't know where she is buried. Mikey becomes frustrated and threatens to leave, only to discover they are standing at the exact location. Nicky immediately becomes emotional and begins to laugh in that hysterical manner that might as well be crying. "Now that I'm here I don't know what to do," he stammers. Mikey starts to recite the Kaddish as Nicky attempts to crack wise in a mock conversation with his mother.

"It's very hard to talk to a dead person," Nicky jokes, "We have nothing in common." But the comment cuts two ways for Nicky. On the one hand, he can't reach out to his mother at this moment when he feels the need of her. The night thus far has been about the past, that time in childhood when you rely upon your parents to protect you, to know which is the right path, and your job is to push the boundaries, secure in the knowledge that they will always pull you back from the edge. But now Nicky is an adult, his mother is dead. She can't protect him. He is now entirely reliant upon his childhood friend, Mikey, a friend that Nicky has connected to his mother repeatedly in conversation. Nicky projects the role of parental guidance onto Mikey, but as we know at this point, Mikey cannot occupy that role, he has already failed to protect Nicky. Indeed, he has contributed to his demise.

On the other hand, Nicky speaks for himself when he proclaims the difficulty of speaking to the dead, for he occupies a kind of walking death. His associate in the theft has already been murdered and he knows a hit has been put out on him. He knows his time is nigh. This is another reason he tries so hard to tie Mikey inextricably to his side. Mikey knows Nicky, he's a childhood friend. His memories, those he shares with Nicky, memories about Nicky, memories about the two of them together—these memories make Nicky real. Recalling them means that Nicky maintains some tenuous foothold upon the realm of the living. Nicky desperately needs to ensure that he and Mikey have something in common, to assure himself that he is not truly already dead, or as good as dead.

But childhood friends are tricky. They are the friends you leave behind but can never completely escape. They are the friends that derive as much from happenstance as from volition; why is it that nearly everyone's best childhood friend just happenS to live right down the street? Yet those friends bear witness to the pivotal moments in a life: the first realization of death, the first sexual awakenings, the first lessons in failure and success, the first real understanding that your parents are unaware of a huge element of your being, the beginnings of a self-conscious awareness of the images others construct of you and that in some pernicious manner become a part of who you are—socially, but also privately. Those friends have a purchase upon you others don't have; and thus they make a claim upon you that others can't possibly make.

But you always fail in relation to those friends. You can't help but do so. That's because they are so much a part of you, a part of you that you can only see in an obscure fashion. You can't help but fail them because you can't help but fail yourself. Those memories that seem to guarantee your existence, that Nicky puts so much emphasis on as the proof that he still lives—those memories are gravesites in their own right. They mark a series of deaths, moments in the past that no longer persist, pieces of a former life that are closed off forever. Nicky's mother is dead and even if she weren't, she could no longer offer him the parental protection he so fervently seeks because he Is no longer a child. That Nicky no longer exists—just as this Nicky is doomed soon to go out of existence altogether.

This makes the childhood friend into a figure of the uncanny, the persistence of a past that can't possibly persist as a living present, a haunting reminder of a childhood full of potentiality that eventuated into whatever life is lived now, however disappointing, however mundane. The childhood friend is the nagging suspicion that you took the wrong path, no matter how successful you are now, because you could only take one path but childhood was replete with the visions of so many paths, so many ways to progress through life. That makes the childhood friend a figure of death because the acknowledgment of death involves acceding to the fact that one makes only one twisted path through life; we are essentially and irrevocably limited by our mortality. Death makes life meaningful by making each choice matter but by that same token it makes life seem futile: one is forever doomed to the choices made and each choice forecloses a host of others.

So the childhood friend knows us and knows that we are consigned to death. They are ineluctably tied to us even while we hope to distance ourselves from them, because they are an aching reminder of all the things we could have been if we had not been this. That's what Mikey is for Nicky and Nicky for Mikey. Mikey wishes he had the charm and charisma of Nicky. He wishes he appealed to Resnick, that he could find favor with his father and all of his paternal substitutes in the easy manner in which Nicky found that favor. But Mikey knows that Nicky's life is forfeit, because he helped guarantee that forfeiture.

Nicky knows Mikey will come for him, no matter how mistreated he's been. He'll always return to Nicky's side because he knows he can't be what Nicky is—and being close to it, whatever small satisfaction he derives from that, is the best Mikey can do. But Nicky also knows that Mikey represents the stability he's incapable of achieving. On the one hand, that ensures Mikey's safety. One can't imagine a hit ever being put out on Mikey because he will never register as an important threat for anyone. On the other hand, in this mid-level world of semi-organized crime, it also means that Mikey will never ascend the ranks. He'll never "make it" and that's a kind of living death, a stultifying and suffocating position of immobility and irrelevance. Nicky's life is ending because he couldn't help but transgress and Mikey's life is insufferable because he can't help but fail to act. Each man is caught between two deaths—the death of their childhoods and the deaths brought with the dawn that ends this long night's journey into day. The childhood friend is the emblem of how we live our deaths.

It doesn't matter if you've never felt this way. Some people have and do. Some don't even realize that's what they're feeling until it's too late. Somewhere in this world there is someone who knows you, someone with whom you never have to "catch up" because they've always already caught you up, seized a part of you that only they have. You may find comfort in that or you may find it deeply disturbing. Either way, they see you even when you can't. Childhood friends are tricky.

Criterion Collection presents a blu-ray edition of Elaine May's amazing Mikey and Nicky—a film that has been somewhat hard to come by on DVD or blu-ray previously. This director-approved special edition includes a "making-of" documentary featuring interviews with Julian Schlossberg and actress Joyce Van Patten, interviews with critics Richard Brody and Carrie Rickey, and a 1976 radio interview with Peter Falk.

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