An anecdote from the set of Elaine May’s 1976 film Mikey and Nicky recalls a moment when leads Peter Falk and John Cassavetes walked off the set, and cameras remained rolling on empty space. After several minutes, a new camera operator called “cut” — only to be chastised by May for assuming the authority to do so. The camera operator didn’t understand why they were still rolling — the actors had left the set. “Yes,” May said, “but they might come back.”
As this story suggests, Mikey and Nicky was a highly improvisational production, with May often leaving three cameras rolling on Cassavetes and Falk for hours at a time. She ended up shooting 1.4 million feet of film — almost thrice what was shot for Gone With The Wind. This bloated production, along with 1987’s costly box-office failure Ishtar, helped to cement May’s legacy in the public memory as a disorganised time- and money- wasting filmmaker.
However, careful examination of Mikey and Nicky reveals an artistic deliberation and thoughtfulness on May’s part that has been largely overshadowed by memories of behind-the-scenes chaos. Her approach may have been loose, but it was not unconsidered.
I recently began transcribing Mikey and Nicky into stage directions and dialogue, excited by the idea of adapting it into a play. It was during this close analysis that I first noticed how much of the film’s onscreen motion involves bodies in conflict with obstacles — Falk and Cassavetes banging on doors, climbing walls, jumping over counters and under arms.
In telling a story of two friends and the divide between them, May fills Mikey and Nicky with figurative and literal symbols of division: from rapid-fire back-and-forth arguments to physical partitions, her characters always seem to be on opposing sides. In this video essay, I present a supercut of these moments of physical opposition, emphasising a coherent, purposeful directorial vision behind the film’s ostensibly spontaneous dialogue and blocking. The consistency of this symbolic vocabulary continues, in fact, right down to its poster: a photo of Mikey and Nicky, a tear down its centre dividing them.
Ivana Brehas (a.k.a. Joaquin Shenix) is a writer and filmmaker living in Naarm (Melbourne). She has written for Dazed, Much Ado About Cinema, The Big Issue, 4:3 and more. She is currently completing her MA in Creative Writing, Publishing and Editing at the University of Melbourne. Contact her at www.ivanabrehas.com.