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film fatales #51: mikey and nicky (elaine may, 1976)

Mikey and Nicky shows the perils of creating a "Film Fatales" category solely on the basis of who directed the film. Because this movie plays very much like a Cassavetes movie, not one of his Gena Rowlands specials like A Woman Under the Influence but more like the ode to masculinity that was Husbands. Elaine May (who wrote and directed Mikey and Nicky) doesn't shy away from showing the toxic nature of that masculinity. But it remains very much a Guy Movie, and the rare female characters are treated badly.

The film is most famous for behind the scenes action. May was not new to directing ... this was her third film, after A New Leaf and The Heartbreak Kid ... and the final product looks and feels professional, again in the way that Cassavetes movies often do. But apparently it took a lot for May to get what she wanted on the screen, and it's not clear the result is what she wanted. Here's Wikipedia:

The film's original $1.8 million budget had grown to nearly $4.3 million ($16.6 million in contemporary dollars) by the time May turned the film over to Paramount. She shot 1.4 million feet of film, almost three times as much as was shot for Gone with the Wind. By using three cameras that she sometimes left running for hours, May captured spontaneous interaction between Falk and Cassavetes. At one point, Cassavetes and Falk had both left the set and the cameras remained rolling for several minutes. A new camera operator said "Cut!" only to be immediately rebuked by May for usurping what is traditionally a director's command. He protested that the two actors had left the set. "Yes", replied May, "but they might come back". May was even said to have hidden reels of film from Paramount in order to maintain control during postproduction.

It's only fair to note that May had the right idea, trying to get Falk-Cassavetes interaction. They always work well together, if self-indulgently. But clearly the studio had a different notion of what kind of movie May was making ... she was pouring herself into something big, they expected a small-scale character study with gangster undertones. For the audience, what matters is that Mikey and Nicky fails on most levels. It's not much of a gangster picture, it's certainly not what we think of as a "big" picture, and the interplay between Cassavetes and Falk only goes so far (and I like them together).

Still, it's hard not to think that May would have gotten better treatment and more respect from the studio if she were a man. The three films she made in the 1970s were personal in the way of many directors of that time. While I am not a big fan of The Heartbreak Kid, it has been a critical fave since its release. And if Mikey and Nicky (and, for that matter, apparently A New Leaf) involved battles between director and studio, well, let me introduce you to Sam Peckinpah. But May's career was seemingly destroyed by these three movies, Mikey and Nicky in particular. And when, a decade later, she finally directed another movie, it was Ishtar, which almost immediately was considered a monumental flop (and a lot more expensive than Mikey and Nicky). May is still alive, but she never directed another feature.

Mikey and Nicky was chosen as the first film on the new streaming service from Criterion.


(Explanation of the Film Fatales Series.)

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