Elaine May’s Feature ‘Mikey and Nicky’ is a Portrait of Male Friendship Tainted by Society’s Expectations

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Mikey and Nicky is Oscar-nominee Elaine May’s third feature from 1976. The film is a dark mystery laced with comedy and social commentary—all dressed up in a gangster setting. Starring John Cassavetes and Peter Falk, May’s piece is an intimate observation of a wavering friendship between two men over a long, long night in Philadelphia. (KIZJ: 4.5/5)

A nervous and sweaty middle-aged “Nicky” (John Cassavetes) is hiding in a dinky hotel room in Philadelphia. Every so often, he peers outside the window, fearful that a bounty hunter has found his whereabouts. Nicky has once again gotten himself into trouble—his partner from this low-level mobster robbery scheme has already been killed. From the looks of it, Nicky’s next on the list. Unsure of where to go and what to do next, Nicky calls up his childhood friend, “Mikey” (Peter Falk). When Mikey arrives, Nicky takes a lot of persuading before finally agreeing to let his old friend into the room. Nicky is plagued by paranoia and a painful stomach ulcer; he questions everything—even good ole Mikey’s reliability.

After mugging a local diner for fifteen small packs of half-and-half and milk to ease Nicky’s rupturing ulcer, the pair finally agreed to leave via the stairs. The aim was to be as subtle as possible, of course, but their scurrying was ironically loud and clumsy. They swap coats and jackets, and somehow their talk of leaving the city got them to a bar nearby. At this point, the relationship between the two men is still quite vague. But suffice it to say that Nicky’s suspicions and Mikey’s sketchy phone calls at the back of the bar, giving addresses and times to an unknown recipient, make their friendship very questionable. This was going to be a long night.

The story itself is inspired by Elaine May’s own childhood. May became known for shooting vast amounts of film, and although the entire movie takes place over one night, the filming took 120 nights. This method could have been due to May’s directing style, where she would choose to leave the camera rolling long after the actors had finished the scripted scene. As much as possible, she wanted to capture performances as they came naturally—who’s to say that the actors won’t return to the scene? Without extensively built sets, shooting at night was already complicated enough. And with so many scenes set in existing locations and on the streets, there were difficulties in the editing room. For one, it was hard to match the lighting from one shot to another. Yet this did not phase critics because the film was so well-pieced together that any of these minute imperfections became part of this film’s on-the-streets-at-night style.

Film school teaches the students to “show” rather than “tell” an audience what is happening in a scene. Yet, May’s film is filled with dialogue; there is so much talking and bantering. Strangely enough, the constant nattering never bores because it’s used in a way that reveals the intricacies of their friendship. There is a misconception that the free-flowing style of the film and its dialogue is from improvisation. Although May, Cassavetes, and Falk are known for their improvisatory skills, these dialogues were a result of May’s writing choices. The exchanges between the characters bounce directions in a very well-crafted and unexpected way, and with the unmissable chemistry between Cassavetes a Falk, the pair maintains our interest. As the viewer, we ponder the emotions that weave through the two men’s minds as they stagger back and forth between honesty and distrust. The viewers become witnesses of poor attitudes towards women, racism, and what happens when two people are at their wit’s end. Ultimately when everything is stripped away, Mikey and Nicky are about the friendship of two defeated men and how their interactions with other people reflect their personalities.

This film was a tough sell at the time because people were used to May’s comedic styles in A New Leaf and The Heartbreak Kid. They were hardly expecting anything as dark as Mikey and Nicky. The tagline, “Don’t expect to like ‘em,” which was on the posters, was also no help. Despite good critical reception, the film was not a commercial success. It would be years later before people would realize that what had been buried as a mediocre film was—in fact—a gem.

At the end of 2019, there were rumors that the 87-year-old director was ready to get back into action with a new feature film, Crackpot, starring Dakota Johnson. However, little has been heard of this since. We can only hope that after more than three decades, Oscar-nominee May will once again grace our screens with her writing and directing work.

© Katusha Jin (09/18/2020) FF2 Media

Featured Photo: Peter FalkJohn Cassavetes, and Jean Shevlin in Mikey and Nicky (1976)

Middle Photo: Peter Falk as Mikey making a phonecall

Bottom Photo: Peter Falk as Mikey, and John Cassavetes as Nicky, sitting at a bar

Photo Credits: HBO Max (2020) (USA) (video) (VOD)/

Q: Does Mikey and Nicky pass the Bechdel-Wallace Test? 

Barely… the film is about the friendship between two men and there are very few instances of women being in a scene together at all. The only one that I remember is when “Jan” (Joyce Van Patten), who is Nick’s wife, tells her mother (Virginia Smith) to go to bed when Nick knocks at the door.

Tags: Cassavetes, FF2 Media, HBO Max, Peter Falk, TCM, Turner Classic Movies, WomenMakeFilm

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As part of the FF2 Media team, Katusha Jin interviews filmmakers, write features and reviews, and coaches other associates. She grew up in the UK and studied briefly in Russia and China before moving to New York for college. Graduating magna cum laude from New York University, Katusha majored in Film and Television at Tisch School of the Arts with minors in Business and Philosophy. She has worked as a producer, director, writer, and composer for various award-winning projects including short films, branded content, independent features, and music videos.
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