How Does Elaine May Make Me Feel For Horrible Men? – A Few Words on ‘Mikey and Nicky’

Posted in What's Streaming? by - March 14, 2024
How Does Elaine May Make Me Feel For Horrible Men? – A Few Words on ‘Mikey and Nicky’

Mikey And Nicky was written and directed by Elaine May, and to me it is one of the greatest films ever made. Since March is International Women’s Month, I thought it would be fitting to highlight a film directed and written by a woman that to me deserves more recognition. Furthermore, Elaine May deserves more recognition for being a brilliant filmmaker, period.

In 2019, the Criterion Collection released it on Blu-Ray and DVD, and finally more people are hearing about it. When it was released in 1976, it unfortunately came and went since Paramount (who produced the film) released it only for a few days to satisfy contractual obligations. There was a lot of conflict between Elaine May and Paramount during the making of this film, and to add insult to injury,the studio version had continuity errors, which led to film critic John Simon calling the film “A Celluloid Death Wish”. A new version of the film (approved by Elaine May) was shown in 1986.

The film has a simple story. Nicky (John Cassavetes) is a gangster who steals  from his boss, Dave Resnick (Sanford Meisner), and as a result his boss hires a hit man named Kinney (Ned Beatty) to kill him. Nick’s friend Mikey (Peter Falk) is in on making sure Nicky gets killed, but he finds himself torn, since Nicky is one of his best friends.

This is where the complexity comes in. It’s a gangster film that doesn’t feel like a gangster film. It is a nuanced portrait about the destruction of a friendship, where over the course of one night we discover the nuanced layers of Mikey’s love and hate for his deeply flawed, possibly narcissistic friend Nicky.

Other characters include Nicky’s wife Jan (Joyce Van Patten) and sort of mistress, Nellie (Carol Grace). Plus, a candy store man, a bar full of Black patrons, a counter man, a bus driver, a lady on a bus, among others.

We discover more and more about Mikey and Nicky as they interact with these various people. But for the most part, these characters are not just meant to push the narrative forward. Elaine May is more interested in how they interact with Mikey and Nicky, and what we as the audience can learn about them individually.

For example, the hitman in this film is a type of hitman I haven’t seen in other films before. He’s not from Philadelphia (where the film takes place), and as a result is constantly getting lost in the city as he tries to find Mikey and Nicky. He also complains that he’s spending more money than he expects on this trip, and so he won’t be making that much. This humanises a character like this, who is often portrayed as confident, menacing and cool in most crime films. It also adds to the seamless blend of humour and drama that happens throughout the film.

I’ve seen the film numerous times, and each time I see it I see something new. This is a story about people and human relationships, and it forces the audience to really pay attention to how the characters interact and to make their own interpretations about what the characters are thinking and feeling.

If Mikey is in on killing Nicky, then why does he suddenly want to save him? If Nicky believes that Mikey is trying to help him (after being suspicious that Mikey is in on killing him), why does he bring him to his mistresses apartment, and tell him that she’s a hooker? Does he do it to humiliate both him and her ? Does he have a death wish? Can he just not help embarrassing others for his own pleasure?

Elaine May sets the story and relationships up in such a way that when we get used to a certain pattern of what a relationship is like, she then breaks that pattern by showing a different side to the way these characters feel about one another.

Isn’t that the way our relationships in life are like? Particularly, if you’ve known someone your whole life, as Mikey and Nicky do. There’s love and hate, and in this case the hate Mikey has for Nicky is stronger than his love for him.

All of this brings me back to my title for this film review. How does Elaine May make me feel for horrible men? It’s a question that’s too difficult to sum up. She had been working on the screenplay for a number of years, and knew men like Mikey And Nicky growing up in Philadelphia.

May reveals insecurities and a need for love in a man like Mikey, where at least I feel for him, while also not shying away from his violent brutality.

It’s possible, from the perspective of being a female, that she is able to see certain traits in these men that perhaps a male director would overlook. The 70s was full of crime dramas that also leaned heavily on characters. However, I can’t think of many that showed a character like Mikey suggesting to his wife that his father liked Nicky and his brother more than him. Peter Falk is so good in this role that we can see the pain in him, as he tells his wife about his childhood.

Every performance in the film is incredible, and it may be one of the most compelling, powerful and nuanced performances John Cassavetes ever gave.

To read more about the film, and the making of it, I highly recommend reading “Aren’t You Gonna Die Someday? Elaine May’s Mikey And Nicky: An Examination, Reflection And Making Of” By Patrick Cooper.

You can rent Mikey And Nicky in Canada on YouTube, Apple TV and Google Play Movies. 

(Editor’s note: the film is also available to stream on Kanopy).

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This post was written by
Robert is an Actor, Acting Teacher and has a Video Podcast dedicated to exploring how stories are told on film! Robert is a graduate of George Brown Theatre School’s certificate program and of The New School of Drama’s two-year diploma program. He also trained at The Actor’s Temple in London, England. Some credits include Private Eyes (TV Series) Robbery (Feature Film On Amazon Prime), Mariner (winner, 10 Best Short Films of Canada, TIFF, 2016), Moose On The Loose (Magnus Theatre), My Big Fat Greek Wedding 2, The Next Scorsese (short film), Anna (short film, winner of numerous film festival awards). As an acting coach and teacher, Robert runs his own workshops, and has taught at Fraser Studios and Improv Your Acting Studio. Robert has been a cinephile for many years and has always been fascinated by all kinds of movies. He feels that educating people on the importance of how movies reflect our lives is essential. Films open up our hearts, minds and sense of empathy and nothing is more valuable than that! The worst thing you can say to Robert is "It's Just A Movie". Follow me on Letterboxd @RBellissimo X/Twitter - @RBatthemovies Instagram - @RobertBellissimoAtTheMovies Facebook -
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