Video Essay: Partition and Division in Mikey and Nicky

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.

Ivana Brehas

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.