No-one tends to come out of Peter Biskind’s books particularly well. Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, the key pop-history text on ‘New Hollywood’, is marked by the author’s heady brew of salacious tittle-tattle and unsubstantiated rumour; maintaining claims to historical accuracy whilst engaging in the sort of schoolyard ‘who-blew-whom’ gossip unseen since the likes of Kenneth Anger’s Hollywood Babylon. This reached new, dizzying heights in the author’s recent Warren Beatty biography, Star. Beatty is portrayed as a lascivious playboy and a control-freak megalomaniac, whilst Five Easy Pieces screenwriter Carole Eastman comes off like a woman in need of psychiatric help for her part in blundering through the making of 1975’s The Fortune. Beatty’s high profile ex-squeezes Julie Christie and Diane Keaton, too, are written as mercurial creatures enslaved by Beatty’s carnal gaze, kept, in Biskind’s eyes at least, as the actor’s on-call bitches-in-chains.
One of the other women in Beatty’s life, Elaine May, is treated with a similarly mercenary approach. May, a writer and comedian probably still best known for her partnership with Mike Nichols in the late 1950s, is painted by Biskind as an ethereal kook who lucked into career as a major film director almost by accident. Here was a woman who “could get lost in a closet” with her madcap, uncontrollable behaviour, whose reckless impulses were to spectacularly boil over in the late 1980s during the filming of mega-turkey Ishtar and eventually end her career behind the camera.
Whatever the case, Biskind’s sensationalist claims about May’s inherent nuttiness – for good or ill – seem to hold water once we delve into the production history of the film that predates her dalliances with Beatty, Mikey and Nicky. The film, shaped by Biskind as the root cause of her professional madness, was a small, improvisational, blackly funny crime drama that would eventually grow into a monster and display “the full flowering of [May’s] looniness”. Mikey and Nicky famously burned through three times the amount of film Selznick did for Gone with the Wind, and spent over two years in an editing suite before being unceremoniously dumped by a changed regime at the studio who had apparently been expecting – somewhat amazingly given the film’s content – “a comedy for the summer”.
Thematically, the film has little in common with May’s earlier comedic successes, A New Leaf and The Heartbreak Kid, and is riddled with (presumably deliberate) continuity errors. Its two stars, John Cassavetes and Peter Falk, were hardly known for their conformist behaviour either. Added to this, the film’s plot is throwaway. On paper it reads like a reheat of Martin Scorsese’s Mean Streets, only with most of the religious issues excised and the two leads aged ten years or so. Crucially both the successes and weaknesses of the film hinge on the chemistry between Falk’s straight-laced Mikey, with Cassavetes as the wide-eyed Nicky – a vainglorious, proud man whose reckless behaviour informs the film’s louche attitude towards its own plotting.
The film opens with Nicky holed up in a hotel room, gun in hand, sweating bullets, greased all to hell and contemplating suicide. Mikey hammers on the door, insisting he be let in. We quickly learn that Nicky is being pursued by a gangster named David Reznick (Sanford Mesiner) for embezzling money, and a lackey (Ned Beatty) has been deployed to bump him off.
After Nicky warbles, “I don’t shave, you know that? I don’t wanna take care of myself. I think if I don’t care of myself and I sit still and don’t move then maybe they’ll forget about me”, the two spend the rest of the night in transit, ostensibly en route to the airport so Nicky can skip town, but are perpetually waylaid by his impulsive tomfoolery and their fractious, adversarial relationship which stems from their time together as younger men and their respective frustrated ambitions.
Most of the film’s scenes are vignettes that play like the flip side of the Seinfeldian Schadenfreude that Larry David has since made the norm for American sitcom, only where David plays society’s inherent foibles and frustrations for laughs, May splices them with the intensity of Cassavetes’ own Faces. There’s a rawness to her exposé of the underside of civilisation’s inveterate ugliness and absurdity, one prone to descend into petty violence and petulant squabbling at a moment’s notice. This is truly what marks the film out as exceptional and unique, replicating the aesthetic of the films Cassavetes directed himself, but recasting the man as a bullish, asinine thug.
There are several examples of this. Early in the film, Mikey vaults the counter at coffee shop and starts beating up the attendant for his lax commitment to serving his complicated order. Falk’s explanation? “Cause I’m crazy!” Later the pair frequent a bar peopled mostly by African- Americans. Nicky wilfully goads most of the bar’s patrons to the verge of a fistfight by provoking racial tensions (“How come you’re black?”) seemingly not out of any entrenched bigotry on his part, rather for the hell of seeing what would happen. In one of the film’s toughest sequences, Mikey strikes out with a girl that Nicky assured him puts out to all the boys. When she rebuffs Mikey’s lecherous advances – particularly galling, given that he spends much of the film’s running time on the phone to his wife and fretting about his son – he smacks her round the face. “I guess most girls are pretty dumb,” is all she ventures. Nicky goes back to her apartment towards the film’s end and slaps her about some more.
It’s a barbed, vacillating performance from Cassavetes, and he plays every scene with a jackal-like grin on his face, whether he’s blowing up at random members of the public, teetering on the brink of emotional anguish, or bickering with Falk about who should wear his coat when crossing the street in order to avoiding getting shot by unseen goons. Falk and Cassavetes had already played this game to perfection in 1970 with Husbands, and would repeat the trick four years later for A Woman under the Influence. In the hands of lesser performers, one can imagine the conceit not coming off at all, but although the film is sometimes prone to getting lost in its own conversational dead-ends, the chemistry between the two is dynamite, a relationship that explodes the limitations of the dumb critical criterions we’re often beholden to in our own times (to wit: ‘buddy movie’, ‘bromance’) and a filmic alchemy that can’t be matched.
The stand-out scene of the film is one on a public bus, where May’s shoot-from-the-hip freewheeling attitude pays off most richly. After Nicky lights a cigarette, a passenger takes him to task for flouting the rules of the bus. “I’m gonna tell the bus driver,” she insists. “I’m gonna tell your mother,” Nicky shoots back, before blowing a loud raspberry in her face. He then verbally abuses the driver (veteran character actor M. Emmett Walsh) for not letting him flout “company regulation” and exits via the front door. The driver initially tries to stand his ground, but Nicky grips him in a headlock until he relents. In the next scene, Nicky breaks up hysterically laughing at his mother’s grave whilst Mikey attempts to recite the Kaddish from memory, having already been thrown by Mikey’s dismissal of a conversation about his own mortality as “stupid”.
It’s frustrating that May’s career has been defined in the shadow of the men with whom she worked (Beatty, Nichols), or otherwise remains largely unknown by the general public. Mikey and Nicky, too, would likely not have been possible were it not for the presence of Falk and especially Cassavetes, whose insurrectionary approach to American independent cinema had begun with Shadows a decade and a half prior. Only in the case of The Heartbreak Kid did May’s specific brand of frantic humour, simultaneously a self-loathing neurosis and a morbid narcissism, really seem to shine through. There are flashes of that same mad energy in Mikey and Nicky, though May herself simply states her run of bad luck stems from her “just be[ing] a pain in the ass.”
Mikey and Nicky hangs in an odd limbo between comedy and drama; between financial disaster and artistic accomplishment. It’s a maudlin, fitfully comical piece that always feels as if it’s on the verge of darting off a precipice – something that was surely mimicked off-screen as well as on. But what Peter Biskind pejoratively wrote off as May’s downfall – her “looniness” – I see as her primary attribute as director. In Cassavetes on Cassavetes, there’s an anecdote that bears this out. Falk describes Cassavetes mounting the table they were sitting at and crying out:
“What do you think? I don’t know Elaine May can write? I don’t know you can act? You think I’m one of these businessmen! You think I am like you and have to have everything figured out before I begin something? That I have to have all the details in place? That I’m afraid to take a chance? Elaine’s making it; you’re in it; that’s all I need to know.”
It’s a story that takes on a ghoulish and depressing quality if you take account of a recent Q&A May gave. When asked by a member of the audience what she was up to in these days of unadventurous studio comedies starring Adam Sandler, May simply replied, “Nothing.”