Elaine May is a writer and filmmaker and actor and improviser, but beyond that, she is an artist whose career-long quest for truth has driven her to create work that has taken many forms but always sought to cast aside the easy crutches of cliché and convention to express something profound and real about the human condition.
She first exploded into the public consciousness in the late 1950s, as one half of Nichols and May. She and Mike Nichols were the smartest of the smart set, selling albums hand over fist and changing comedy with their sophisticated long-form improvisation. They were less interested in setups and punch lines than in exploring the complexity, wonder, and absurdity of the world we live in.
After the duo broke up, May wrote plays and dabbled in movies, first as an actor and later as a filmmaker. After costarring in Luv (opposite Jack Lemmon and future Mikey and Nicky star Peter Falk) and Carl Reiner’s Enter Laughing (both 1967), May not only adapted the short story on which the brilliant 1971 dark comedy A New Leaf is based and directed the film but was also heartbreaking and hilarious as its female lead, Henrietta Lowell, a daffy botanist and heiress who is on a more cerebral and sublime frequency than the rest of us. She’s so irresistible that Henry Graham, a W. C. Fields–like misanthrope played by Walter Matthau, abandons his plan to murder her for her money. That, in May’s world, is a happy ending: a man maturing beyond his desire to kill a woman oblivious enough to want to spend the rest of her life with him.
A New Leaf could have been a star-making film for May as an actor. She was deservedly nominated for a Golden Globe for best actress in a comedy or musical. Yet (though she occasionally acts to this day) she chose a different path, continuing her directorial career with another discomfiting study of human nature. Lenny Cantrow (Charles Grodin), the protagonist of May’s The Heartbreak Kid (1972), isn’t out to kill anybody, but he’s murderously callous about breaking the heart of his vulnerable new wife, Lila (Jeannie Berlin, May’s daughter)—on their honeymoon, no less—in order to pursue the shiksa goddess Kelly Corcoran (Cybill Shepherd). This painfully hilarious cult classic doubles as a potent allegory for Jewish assimilation. Lenny gets the girl, but this outcome registers more as tragedy than triumph. It’s a “happy ending” that’s actually achingly sad: getting what he wants most in the world is probably the worst thing that could happen to Lenny.
As a director, May specializes in deeply nuanced portrayals of intense, complicated relationships, just as she did in her groundbreaking stage work with Nichols and May. Where other filmmakers might cut away to give audiences room to breathe, May remains close to her dramatis personae in ways that are sometimes uncomfortable for audiences and characters alike. She is adept at getting viewers to empathize with the prickly, complex antiheroes she creates with such care and craft. In The Heartbreak Kid, for example, she pits the Waspy mortification of Eddie Albert’s patriarch against Grodin’s sweaty Jewish desperation and then ratchets up the tension and unblinking awkwardness to levels both hilarious and borderline unbearable.
“May’s sharpest focus is on the grubby desperation of male schemers controlled by greed, by lust, by a need to realize their seedy, selfish goals at any cost.”
May is keenly attuned to the often fraught relationships between men and women as well, but her sharpest focus is on the grubby desperation of male schemers controlled by greed, by lust, by a need to realize their seedy, selfish goals at any cost. Presented from the perspective of these profoundly flawed men, her films are all, on some level, explorations of the world of masculinity, with all its foibles and messy contradictions.
Her genius for finding the squirmy humanity within toxic characters finds its purest and most heartbreaking expression in Mikey and Nicky, on which filming began in 1973 but which wasn’t released till 1976, following all manner of ill will and out-and-out warfare between May and Paramount, the studio that financed the film. At one point, May even hid reels of her own footage so that Paramount could not wrest it from her and release the movie in a bastardized form.
Mikey and Nicky is in many ways May’s first drama, but it can just as easily be described as her darkest and most penetrating comedy. Then again, May seems profoundly uninterested in glib dichotomies like comedy and drama, hero and villain, good and bad, friend and foe. Her obsession is with people and relationships, which rarely fit into such tidy categories.
In search of a new kind of emotional realism, May shot for far longer than planned, and often left the camera running long after a scripted scene had ended, pushing her collaborators and herself in obsessive pursuit of a tricky and delicate cinematic vision. You can practically feel the prolonged shooting schedule in the overwhelming air of exhaustion that hangs heavy over Mikey and Nicky, the sense that we’re entering a long, sad story at its weary end.
We begin, appropriately enough, in total darkness, accompanied by the reassuring white noise of city street sounds—Mikey and Nicky is as bracingly dark visually as it is thematically. May’s film is Godfather-like in its comfort with shadows and darkness. In it, nighttime isn’t just a time of day, it’s a world unto itself, one that its title characters have been haunting long before the events of the film.
Nicky (John Cassavetes), a low-level Philadelphia bookie who is hiding out after stealing from a crime boss, is deeply, deeply tired but also sick—with fear that his luck and his time on earth are both running out, and also with an ulcer born of too much stress and too little self-care. He is marinating in his own sweat, paranoid, holed up in a dingy hotel room in desperate need of help and human kindness. He seems to have burned every other bridge, so he calls on Mikey (Peter Falk), one of his oldest and most dependable friends, to help save him from the hit man he is convinced is after him.
To be a man in Mikey and Nicky is less a condition than an affliction, but before Mikey lashes out with incoherent violence, there is tremendous sweetness in the way he treats his friend, in the way he holds him in his arms while Nicky weeps over the seemingly intractable jam he finds himself in. The warmth and kindness Mikey shows his friend at a low ebb in what appears to be a lifetime full of them makes the inevitable betrayal to come even more devastating.
As a film actor, Cassavetes’s impact and influence rank with those of Marlon Brando. Like Brando, he specialized in raw, violent tenderness—see his turn as the grieving, carousing family man Gus in his own Husbands (1970), for example. He was a macho bruiser of a performer, but beneath Nicky’s anger and incoherent, drunken rage lies a powerful hunger for connection, for salvation. Cassavetes begins the film in a place of weary, scared, wired, vibrating intensity that he maintains to the bitter end. He’s burning with desperation even in his most hushed moments.
In other words, he gave his costar plenty to play off. Falk’s idiosyncratic delivery, dry humor, and quiet intelligence as a performer are most famous from his television role as the rumpled detective Columbo, which he took on right around the same time he met Cassavetes, in 1967, and kept for nearly four decades. It was Falk who passed May’s Mikey and Nicky script to Cassavetes, though they would end up shooting Cassavetes’s Husbands and A Woman Under the Influence (1974) together first. In all three films, Falk plays some version of a family man in whom tenderness and violence perpetually struggle for the upper hand. In Mikey, he has the less showy but arguably more challenging role, as a nurturer who cannot show his true face to his old friend without exposing the simultaneously deadly and banal betrayal at the film’s core.
Part of Mikey and Nicky’s dark night of the soul involves a feverish, self-defeating pursuit of sex. Nicky’s wife has kicked him out, and in his desperation and horniness, he has fallen into a poignantly pathetic sexual relationship with the fragile Nell (Carol Grace, devastatingly vulnerable and sad in one of her only film performances). The scene involving her plays like a warped burlesque of heterosexual courtship, with all of the niceties and formalities stripped away, leaving only a lonely woman’s desperate need for affection, no matter how disingenuously offered, and a man’s beastlike need to satisfy his urges. It’d be a moment of visceral awkwardness even if Mikey did not afterward try to have sex with Nell himself, and erupt into violent rage when his seduction attempt is rejected. If you’re a woman in this milieu, you are hated and abused for putting out too easily but punished for not putting out at all. Mikey’s reaction is all the more shocking coming from a character who has up to this point served as Nicky’s conscience, and from an actor as inveterately warm and innately likable as Falk.
The artfulness of May’s direction, meanwhile, lies in its relative invisibility. Like Cassavetes, she is more invested in capturing the underlying emotional reality of a scene than in flashy camera movement or ostentatious visual style. It is all about serving the actors and the moment. And it is a testament not only to the spontaneity and rawness Cassavetes and Falk bring to their roles and to their lived-in chemistry but also to that patient direction—as well as to May’s tough, naturalistic script—that Mikey and Nicky’s dialogue often feels as immediate as if it were improvised in the moment, though virtually none of it was.
“Like Cassavetes, she is more invested in capturing the underlying emotional reality of a scene than in flashy camera movement or ostentatious visual style.”
For the film’s titular duo, this is a night unlike any other: an endgame, a bleak reckoning. For everyone else, however, it’s just another night. That’s true even of Kinney (Ned Beatty), the man hired to kill Nicky. The same year Mikey and Nicky was barely released, Beatty devoured the screen as a verbose evangelist for big business in Network. Cinema is full of colorful hit men, but Beatty and May upend expectations by crafting a portrayal that bears no trace of the pyrotechnics of his Network performance, making his gunman as unremarkable as possible. He’s just an ordinary guy with an unusual occupation, who goes about his deadly business with a grudging sense of obligation no different, really, from that of an insurance salesman eager to make his quota.
In one of the film’s most quietly incisive moments, Kinney grouses that, after expenses, he’ll barely make any money killing Nicky. Forget morality or legalities: in the sad, sorry world of Mikey and Nicky, where everyone has a price, killing barely even makes sense from an economic perspective.
For Kinney, killing a man he knows only from a photograph is strictly business. For Mikey and Nicky, however, everything is intensely, painfully personal. The same was obviously true of May when she stubbornly birthed this masterful, darkly comic exploration of toxic masculinity through a combination of prickly genius and indefatigable force of will. This was her first wholly original script, based on a play she’d started writing decades before and inspired by real people she’d encountered during her youth. Not to mention the fact that A New Leaf had been taken from her and recut by Paramount, and she had no intention of letting that happen again.
It’s not too much of a stretch to say that the short-fingered vulgarians at Paramount took a hit out on Mikey and Nicky, creatively speaking. They did not understand the movie, nor could they control its strong-willed auteur, so they tried to kill it by taking it out of her hands.
In October 1975, the studio filed a lawsuit against May, claiming ownership of the film, kicking off a series of suits and countersuits between the director and Paramount for control. At one point, the studio sued her and her husband at the time, David Rubinfine, for criminal contempt after he allegedly smuggled some of the film to a colleague to keep it out of Paramount’s hands.
May was finally able to finish an edit of Mikey and Nicky in time for a Christmas 1976 opening, but the release was token at best. The film’s saga was far from over, however. In 1978, May, along with Falk and former Paramount executive Julian Schlossberg, bought the movie back from the studio, and they rereleased it to a more appreciative audience several years later.
Despite her success as a screenwriter and sought-after script doctor on films like Heaven Can Wait (1978), May ended up paying a huge price personally and professionally in an industry where men who fight to realize their vision are considered inspirational while women who do the same are considered “difficult” and cited as grim cautionary tales. She was given the opportunity to direct only one more feature, 1987’s Ishtar, and even that only through the intercession of the film’s producer and star, Warren Beatty.
In many ways, Mikey and Nicky fits perfectly into the uncompromising milieu of the New Hollywood of the late sixties and seventies, with its unrelenting darkness, moral ambiguity, and focus on troubled, unlikable dwellers on the grubby fringes of American society. It is unique, however, in being a major New Hollywood film written and directed by a woman (unbelievably, May was only the third woman to direct a Hollywood film in the sound era). It’s even more unusual in that it’s the furthest thing from what Hollywood would consider a women’s movie, then or now. It’s as insightful about masculinity as Cassavetes’s own dramas about the often ugly world of men.
Perhaps that’s why it has taken the movie so long to be appreciated and seen. A woman ventured boldly into cinematic territory long considered the exclusive domain of men. To the folks in the executive suite, it did not seem to matter that May had made a masterpiece, only that she had made a movie that would be hard to package for a mass audience, even in the heady days of the midseventies.
May set out to use her genius and the overlapping brilliance of Cassavetes and Falk to articulate brutal, profound truths about the joy, horror, and complexities of human experience, as illuminated by the strange codes of a certain subset of insecure, violently overcompensating, crime-prone American men, and a tortured conception of friendship as a messy combination of hatred, love, and everything in between. She succeeded spectacularly, and Mikey and Nicky is an essential reminder that great, deeply personal art endures long after commercial considerations have been rightfully consigned to history.