One More Night: Mikey and Nicky
On loving your exes and shared memories
“You can’t come in. I don’t want you to see me like this!”
“What way am I going to see you I haven’t seen you before?”
In Mikey and Nicky, writer and director Elaine May uses the visual language of a crime drama to explore the complications that develop when the intense bonds of long-time relationships come into conflict with our present needs. It is an ode to the pangs felt when that we’ve cherished loses its form. It is without a doubt a love story and, in the weeks since I first viewed it, it has become my favorite love story.
Holed up in a hotel room on the verge of a nervous breakdown, small-time gangster Nicky (John Cassavetes) has gotten himself into more trouble than he knows how to manage. After having a hit put out on him because he stole money from his mob boss, Nicky calls on the only person he feels he can depend on, lifelong companion and fellow mobster Mikey (Peter Falk), to help him get through the evening with his life. What begins as an escape turns into one last night of bonding between two men who’ve traveled the same path all their lives but have never felt farther apart.
Mikey and Nicky’s greatest strength is the explosive and dynamic chemistry shared between its leads (built off Falk and Cassavetes’ real life friendship). The pair’s relationship feels fully inhabited, effortlessly conveying the interpersonal history and messy intimacy of longtime lovers within the film’s opening minutes. There’s a timeworn tenderness as Mikey gently massages Nicky’s neck and shoulders before letting him fall weeping into his arms. When Nick suffers a stress-induced ulcer attack, Mikey dispenses plenty of chewable antacids he brought anticipating his beloved’s illness and plies them on Nicky with a weary paternalistic sternness. There’s a sense of staticity in the roles these two have filled in each other’s lives.
But the film revels in showing this tender affection shift to boyish rowdiness and then to vitriolic distrust. As the night goes on, Nicky grows progressively more erratic and churlish. His fear of death progresses into a fear of abandonment as he begins to suspect the person he trusts most may be setting him up to save his own hide with their boss. In one moment, things are as they always have been. In another, the troubles that have grown between the two are suffocating. It becomes increasingly unclear who is harming who and whether their decades long relationship can survive the night.
I flew to Portland this week to visit my ex-girlfriend who I also count among my best friends. Though we keep in touch multiple times throughout the week via text and video chat, it's been nearly three years since we last saw each other in person. Three years ago is when our relationship fell apart in what I would consider to be the most painful and tumultuous split I’ve gone through (and that’s counting when I got dumped on my 23rd birthday while on vacation).
The two of us met in Oakland in our early 20s when I was painfully aware I was nearing the tail end of my first real long-term relationship (which soon after ended with the aforementioned birthday dumping). Our chemistry was stellar from the first date, both of us outgoing, charming Sagittarians with a thorough love of riffing. By our second date, we had multiple inside jokes revolving around asinine shit like the McDonalds cast of characters and the guy who sang “Cherry Pie”. By the third, we were surely insufferable as we were inseparable and in love.
We each became a lot of firsts for each other. I was her first serious girlfriend and her first experience with non-monogamy. She was the first person to love me the way I always wanted to be loved. The first partner I ever lived with. We came into each others’ lives at a very formative and turbulent juncture and provided each other with care we’d seldom known before. We moved to LA together eventually, a decision that ultimately led to the circumstances in which our romance so spectacularly self-destructed. It took roughly 10 months after she moved away for us to fully reconnect, but since then we’ve been very tight.
Though its shape may have changed, our connection still holds deep value to me. No one where I live now knows the iteration of me I was in Oakland, where I was happiest. The version of myself I consider to be me at my best. But by that same token, she has also seen me at my worst, my most callous and irresponsible and avoidant. The two of us loved each other like no one else could but we also ruined each other just as badly by trying to push through our incompatibilities.
Still being friends with the person who has seen the most polarizing parts of me is incredibly helpful when I fall into self-loathing spirals. The fact that we could cause each other such incomparable pain and still want to be in each other’s lives is a really helpful reminder that I'm surely not as bad of a person as I tend to think I am.
“Ma, if anything happens to me, Mikey did it!”
As Mikey and Nicky goes on, suspicions weigh on the pair. Nicky gets more impish while Mikey grows ever tenser, each of their behavior feeding into the other’s state of mind and unintentionally pushing them further apart. Acting off paranoia and ruled by impulse, Nick changes their plans repeatedly throughout the night, taking them all over the seedier side of the city they grew up in.
In one of the film’s most pivotal scenes, the titular pair take yet another detour, this time to a cemetery as Nicky, fearing for his own life and pondering mortality, wants to visit the place where his mother is buried. But once there, Nick doesn’t know how to pay his respects, instead falling into laughing fits while reminiscing with Mikey about their shared history.
NICKY: I think that’s the reason we’re such good friends. We remember each other from when we were kids, things that happened that no one else knows about but us. It’s in our heads. That’s how we know they really happened.
MIKEY: What are you talking about? I know what really happened when I was a kid.
NICKY: Yeah but no one else does. I mean, everyone we knew when we were kids is dead.
MIKEY: So what? I still remember what happened. And I tell [my wife] Annie about a lot of things that happened to me when I was a kid. And she enjoys listening to that.
Mikey’s responses feel like defensive parries. He’s offended at the idea that his memories don’t have value outside their relationship because it implies he needs Nicky just as much as Nicky needs him.
The joke of it all is they are no longer “such good friends”. As we get deeper into the film, we learn that though working in the same criminal organization, the two have grown apart in recent years, barely aware of the state of each other’s personal lives. Nicky has spent all his time cutting up with their boss, largely ignoring and leaving behind his straight-laced lifelong friend. And now, out of the desire to preserve his new idyllic nuclear family, Mikey is in fact betraying Nicky, diming him out to their employer, and bringing him out into the open for a hitman to kill him.
As the two stand at the grave, bathed in shadows, Nicky continues going on about what they’ve each lost and how he wishes each of their parents were still alive, as well as Mikey’s brother Izzy. Mikey is taken aback by this, having seemingly forgotten Nick knew his long-dead brother, before Nicky vividly recounts how Izzy got scarlet fever at 10, lost all his hair, and died the next day.
It’s at this point the bone deep pain of Mikey’s reluctant betrayal becomes abundantly clear. Though he’s since felt rejected by his long-time friend there’s still a love built on history. shared memories, shared grief, shared joy that binds them together. But there’s also a sense of shared betrayal. While Nicky is a dangerous person who acts selfishly and impulsively, his behavior throughout the film seems a lot less outrageous when considering that he actually does know that the person he loves most in the world is setting him up to be killed and is lying to his face about it. Nicky didn’t bring Mikey to the cemetery to pay his respects, but to remind his betrayer the painful finality of death.
It’s hard loving someone when they may not fit into your life in the way they used to, but also neither can stop loving each other. For Mikey, acknowledging Nicky’s importance would mean confronting what he is giving up for his own security. And so Mikey’s Judas act turns into him spending one last night together with the man he loves but has to let go of. The key difference between the two is that Mikey has plenty left to lose. Nicky doesn’t.
I am friends (or at the very least friendly) with almost all of my exes. I don’t know when this tendency first developed but I know I've resisted severing connections whenever I could help it for most of my adult life. In romantic relationships, I do my best to leave little unspoken and end things as amicably as is possible when we split apart. The way I tend former romantic relationships feels funny in stark contrast to the cold precision with which I’ve cut out blood family members either intentionally or through neglect. Love doesn’t always feel like a choice but I suppose I get some agency in it.
A cynical part of me that assumes the worst of myself for this trait. That my true nature is akin to a hoarder, but instead of collecting physical possessions I compulsively collect and refuse to let go of intimate connections. That it’s not that I don’t want to lose my relationships with those people, but that I’m terrified to lose track of who I was with them and how they made me feel. After all, to burn a bridge is to lose access to what it connects you to.
Memory is a fickle thing. We share experiences with someone but each of us holds on to specific details the other doesn’t. During the production of Mikey and Nicky, Elaine May shot 1.4 million feet of film (totaling up to hundreds of hours). May started her career as an improviser and wanted her actors to embrace improvisation to find the truest human moment in a way not dissimilar to Cassavetes’ own directorial work. She’d often have multiple cameras running for hours wanting to capture every moment Falk and Cassavetes spent together on set to fully realize the intricacies of their intimacy.
That all resonates with me and my obsession with maintaining the truth of my romantic past beyond just my own feelings. Its two cinematographers shooting the same subject from different angles. To have only my perspective would flatten everything. It’s how we know what really happened.
But also maybe it's more than a selfish desire to retain my history. Maybe I just have so much trouble letting go because I see the value and importance of the bonds we’ve shared and don’t want to sever them just because the love we shared has faded or combusted. Obviously there are plenty of understandable reasons to completely end things but it does feel odd that discarding connections with someone who you’ve allowed to see you at your most earnest and vulnerable state is just expected.
We’re just supposed to let go of loving someone who understands parts of us no one else does because things eventually stopped working romantically/sexually? That's weird. A lover is a best friend who makes your heart swell and your pussy wet. I really don’t know how you can see them any other way. If I’m real with myself, the actual reason my ex-girlfriends are such good friends to me is because there is nothing left for us to mystify in each other. We can see each other truly through experience and memory. Who we are may change in some ways, but to me real family is less about blood and more about someone understanding a piece of you that no one else does.
“I just don’t want to do it anymore.”
“Be your friend.”
“Then I’ll be your friend.”
Given his dangerous behavior and childish attitude, it’s easy to interpret Nicky as the “toxic” one in his and Mikey’s relationship. Nicky has taken advantage of their relationship and neglected to care for Mikey in the way he does him. But Nicky also knows that he’s been set up and has every right to lash out at his betrayer. At the end of it all, it’s not about who did what to whom. Neither are good to each other. But Nicky is self-destructive and puts Mikey’s domesticity at risk so the latter has to set boundaries so, while he doesnt want Nick to die, this has to be the last night they share. After an emotional fight that turns physical, all the frustration and feelings of betrayal between the two fully bubble to the surface and they part ways with each trying to figure out how to move on in the wake of the other.
Once home early in the morning with Nicky still out wandering the streets, the events of the night still weigh heavy on Mikey as he sits with his wife Annie. “Did I ever tell you I had a brother Izzy who died?” he asks. His wife Annie can’t recall if he’s shared this pivotal detail of his life with her before. It’s unclear if she forgot or he just never mentioned it. Exhausted, he retells the story of Izzy’s passing. How he got scarlet fever, how all his hair fell out, and how he died soon after.
Mikey’s rambles through his story, letting us feel the wear the night’s events have put on him. We can see him transposing his relationship to his wife against his with Nicky and becoming more and more irritable that she can’t understand him the way Nick had. He keeps interrupting her as she attempts to express her condolences. He feels she isn't focusing on the right details. He mentions a second time how Izzy went bald and Annie looks puzzled as if she wasn't fully listening the first time. The love of his wife, while important to him and worth preserving, won’t ever fulfill him the way that his relationship with Nicky did. Try as he might, he can’t recapture the past he just gave up for the sake of his future.
“Nick Godalin knew Izzy. Nick Godalin knew my mother, my father, and my Aunt Rose”
“Well, I envy him. I wish I had known your father”
“You wouldn’t have liked him. He was a very sour man. And he didn’t like any of the women in the family. But he liked Nick.”