By Scott Ross
One of those great, underrated (and largely unseen) movies that make you both proud of what can be accomplished on film and despairing that such accomplishment will ever attain popular success. Peter Falk and John Cassavetes are a pair of minor-league hoods, childhood pals who don’t really like each other. Nicky (Cassavetes) is on a downward spiral but can’t stop playing at a boyishness that is no longer as charming as he thinks. Mikey (Falk) is equally attracted to, and repelled by, his friend’s inability to grow up and face the realities of life — the gravest of which is that Mikey has been tasked with the job of helping to eliminate Nicky.
This is an alternately brilliant and appallingly amateurish movie, critically reviled for its mis-matched shots (during a lengthy bus ride sequence, and in alternate cuts, Cassavetes appears both grizzled and clean-shaven), unmotivated background score, visible boom mikes and naked klieg lights shockingly evident at the tops of ersatz living-room walls. Yet the writer-director, Elaine May, working in a form very much akin to Cassavetes’ own, crafted an astoundingly emotional examination of male friendship that is among a handful of American movies so uncompromising and visceral that at times you want to look away from the screen, embarrassed by, and for, a set of creatures on whose pathetic movements we feel we’re eaves-dropping.
When seen on video or DVD, or screened by a projectionist who knows how to frame it, Mikey and Nicky provides an experience unlike any other movie of its time; with a larger budget both for filming and advertising — and, it must be said, more surface professionalism from its director — it could have been a pop classic, like Taxi Driver. The supporting cast includes Ned Beatty, Joyce Van Patten and, in a sequence as raw and poignant as anything Robert Altman ever filmed, Carol Grace (otherwise known as Carol Marcus, muse to William Saroyan and Truman Capote, the possible model for Holly Golightly, and as Carol Matthau, wife of Walter.) Cassavetes gives a performance of enormous range and impact; we see in him what Mikey does — an endearing friend and a vicious, needling rebuke.
Falk is astonishingly effective as Mikey — the kind of performance that should have been universally recognized as among the greatest ever given on film. May made only a tiny handful of movies as a director, all of them (with the exception of The Heartbreak Kid) troubled in production and each one commenting, in a singular voice, on some aspect of American masculinity. If any male writer-director has come closer to mapping the constrained and conflicted heart of contemporary heterosexual men, I’m unaware of him. The movie’s climax is shattering.
Text copyright 2013 by Scott Ross