The three films Elaine May made during the 1970s make me think of Germaine Greer’s famous line from The Female Eunuch: “Women have very little idea of how much men hate them.” I didn’t read that book until my early 20s, and the statement shocked me, despite how much I thought I already knew about male hatred of women. If there was much more to know, I wasn’t sure that I wanted to know it. Second-wave feminism developed a morbid interest in the subject of men’s hatred of women that was curiously consonant with the macho aesthetic of the auteurist cinema emerging in the same cultural moment of the early to mid-1970s, and the two worlds came together in feminist film criticism. It’s in this milieu that those three May films—A New Leaf in 1971, The Heartbreak Kidin 1972, and Mikey and Nicky in 1976—appear.
For example: The Female Eunuch was published in 1970, the same year that John Cassavetes’ Husbands comes out and he and his two co-stars, Ben Gazzara and Peter Falk, unleash their unruly masculinism on a disconcerted Dick Cavett. The sexual violence in Straw Dogs and A Clockwork Orange, both released near the end of 1971, exemplifies one way of handling the theme of misogyny, while the ending of The Godfather, released early in the following year, exemplifies another. Molly Haskell’s From Reverence to Rape: The Treatment of Women in the Movies, published in 1974, calls attention to the “disheartening” situation, while Laura Mulvey’s “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” launches the still-influential theory of the “male gaze” when it’s published a year later.
In their examination of male hatred of women, May’s ‘70s films therefore share a prime concern of the cultural moment in which they appear. But how do they share it? As examples of radical feminism, or as examples of auteur machismo—of male identification and internalized misogyny? The treatment of women in May’s films provokes wildly different reactions. On the one hand, Haskell calls the images of women in her films “gratuitously nasty;” on the other, I recently heard a young feminist critic say that one of the reasons she loves May’s films is how much May hates men. There seems to be agreement that May hates someone—but is it men, or women? It’s true that the male protagonists of her ‘70s films are sociopaths, but it’s not as though her women represent an attractive alternative position for the viewer to occupy. For that matter, with the limited exception of Cybill Shepherd’s Kelly Corcoran in The Heartbreak Kid, we are not given the point of view of any of the female characters in these films. May limits herself to the perspective of her male protagonists much more strictly than most of the classical Hollywood films on which Mulvey bases her thesis, but “visual pleasure” is not the first thing that comes to mind when we think of her women. So what does it mean to look at women through the eyes of a male protagonist in these three films?
A New Leaf and The Heartbreak Kid: Hitchcock and Sturges
For me, the strength of May’s Sociopath Trilogy (to group her ‘70s films under a name) is their ambiguity: She presents the point of view of a misogynist and tries to see how far she can go in making the viewer feel for the threatened or mistreated women without sacrificing their identification with the protagonist. This is reminiscent of Hitchcock’s identification experiments, but May goes much further by exclusively presenting the transgressor’s point of view, and taking few pains to make her protagonists sympathetic. And in her first two films, A New Leaf and The Heartbreak Kid, she does this while remaining within the realm of comedy.
I like to think of these two comedies as splitting the difference between Hitchcock and Preston Sturges’ dark 1940s comedies of gender and sexual antagonism. Two of the latter, The Lady Eve and Unfaithfully Yours, concern the protagonist’s revenge, or fantasies of revenge, on the person they love, while a third, The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek, lets the diegetic universe itself pummel hapless Eddie Bracken. In The Lady Eve and The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek, the violence is only of the slapstick variety, but the sadism behind that violence is real: in The Lady Eve, Barbara Stanwyck’s seductive con artist declares that she needs her victim, Henry Fonda’s absent-minded scientist and ale heir, “like the axe needs the turkey.”
As the ‘40s go on, Sturges’ comic vision gets ever-darker. The Lady Eve gives Stanwyck an excuse for setting off Fonda’s slapstick punishment: puritanical patriarchy has made women the fall guy for men’s sexual anxiety and shame (Greer would agree), and Stanwyck is “punching up,” as we now say, on behalf of all women. Eddie Bracken in The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek, however, is a sweetheart who would do anything for the heroine. In Sturges’ comic worldview, women are the victims, at the social level, of a sexual double standard created and enforced by men, but at the cosmic level, men are the victims of women, which is to say, their own sexuality. But while it’s good fun to watch Fonda, the patronizing, mansplaining prig, take pratfalls and humiliate himself, watching big-hearted, vulnerable Bracken take his cosmic punishment is as painful as it is hilarious; the fundamental sadism that comedy shares with tragedy is closer to the surface here.
That’s nothing compared to the comic discomfort of Unfaithfully Yours, in which Rex Harrison develops the conviction that his much younger wife is cheating on him and fantasizes about murdering her. The film relies on the viewer’s sadistic enjoyment of both the revenge scenario and Harrison’s slapstick punishment when he tries to enact it and realizes that reality won’t cooperate with his fantasy of omnipotence. In all three films, Sturges wants the audience to get on board with the comedic sadism and also to experience discomfort with it—these are comedies that interrogate the nature of comedy.
As an interrogation of the nature of comedy, A New Leaf is an experiment that doesn’t quite come off. A declared misogynist-on-principle, Henry (Walter Matthau) is too eccentric a figure to seduce the audience into identification; nor is his motive in wanting to kill Henrietta (May herself), appropriating a rich woman’s fortune so that he can continue to enjoy the lifestyle of a gentleman bachelor, sympathetic. The story of a sociopathic misogynist who’s won over to a life of bourgeois usefulness by the most annoying woman in the world has faint echoes of classic screwball comedies: of Fonda’s endearing helplessness making Stanwyck renounce her worldly cynicism not once but twice; of Cary Grant reluctantly admitting that he loves having his life destroyed by Katharine Hepburn at the end of Bringing Up Baby. But what exactly have Henry and Henrietta both won? Henrietta has mired Henry in a life of responsibility, not liberated him, while Henrietta gets a man who can only barely tolerate her existence. Actually, it seems like the perfect romantic comedy ending for an era in which heterosexual relations in America are characterized by, in Haskell’s words, “a separation of the sexes more radical than at any previous point in our history.”
The Heartbreak Kid gets everything right that A New Leaf got wrong: Lenny (Charles Grodin) is an Everyman; the truly grating Lila (Jeannie Berlin) lacks the endearingness of May’s Henrietta; and murder has been downgraded to a honeymoon jilting. In fact, comparing A New Leaf to The Heartbreak Kid allows one to see that The Heartbreak Kid is Dreiser’s An American Tragedy as a comedy. Revenge may be the dramatic motive that invariably seals audience identification, but another way to get viewers to identify with a man’s desire to murder a woman is to make her an obstacle to his attainment of the American dream. An American Tragedy and The Heartbreak Kid agree that this dream is well represented by a sexier woman with a pedigree that will enable him to satisfy his social ambition. With this plot there’s no need even to make us dislike the obstacle; in fact, our sympathies may lie with her, but that doesn’t stop us from desperately wanting her out of the way.
But May does want us to share Lenny’s growing aversion to Lila, so that we can share his guilt: the problem isn’t what he does (which is a massive faux pas, but not a crime), but why he does it. The Heartbreak Kid performs a new variation on an old romantic comedy trope, the wrong love interest vs. the right love interest. In Jane Austen, the heroine flirts with the wrong man before marrying the right one. In the screwball comedy, the hero or heroine may be engaged to the wrong person when they meet the right one. In The Heartbreak Kid, the hero has the terrible luck of meeting the right woman on his honeymoon. But The Heartbreak Kid turns this “right woman” idea of romantic comedy on its head. Lila and Kelly are Hitchcock’s vulgar, earthy, oppressively maternal brunette and his cool, unattainable blonde, as described by Haskell, with “ethnic” added to the brunette’s faults. Hitchcock, though, usually gives the brunette something to say about this. Presenting the situation only from Lenny’s point of view, The Heartbreak Kid increases our discomfort with comedy’s sadism by “punching down.”
In The Heartbreak Kid, the physical comedy of A New Leaf is exchanged for body humor that borders on body horror: Lila makes a mess of herself when she eats, brings food and sex in uncomfortable conjunction by munching on candy bars in bed. The particular kind of disgust reaction that May is looking for is more closely related to the horror genre than to comedy; Roman Polanski explored it from the perspective of a traumatized woman in Repulsion. The culminating image of a badly sunburnt Lila sitting up in bed, covered in thick, nauseatingly visceral-looking cream, reminds us that The Exorcist, released a year after The Heartbreak Kid, was part of a horror trend that was also typical of how American movies were portraying woman in the ‘70s.
Psychoanalytic feminist critics would come to call this female body-based horror “abjection,” and locate its source in the ego’s unconscious need to establish its distinction from the mother. The lighter, comedic form of horror in The Heartbreak Kid, however, is more like the wholly conscious embarrassment an adolescent feels toward his or her mother, and in King Vidor’s Stella Dallas (starring Barbara Stanwyck again), this emotion helps to fuel a social climber’s motivation to break with the past, even as it also fuels her guilt. The visceral source of this embarrassment is apparent in Vidor’s movie, too, in the scene in which Stella’s daughter, Laurel, reacts with horror when her mother accidentally gets some of the cold cream she’s applying in front of the mirror on the photo of Laurel’s refined and elegant future step-mother.
May is interested in misogyny the way that Hitchcock is interested in murder: she wants to know what it’s like, not moralize about it. But that doesn’t mean her standpoint is one of empathy. Whereas Ida Lupino’s The Bigamist extends genuine sympathy to the titular character’s messy male libido, with results that are unintentionally hilarious (as well as sometimes touching), May’s point of view is that of the ironist, and the male libido makes a great subject for irony. Lila may supply visual comedy, but the irony of The Heartbreak Kid is aimed at Lenny and his drive to not only get what he wants but justify his way out of his guilt.
Kelly and her banker father don’t escape caricaturing either, but The Heartbreak Kid pulls a kind of Vertigo in reverse, giving us Madeleine’s point of view instead of Judy’s. Kelly starts out as a teenage bitch goddess caricature, the sadistic beach tease of the movie’s poster. After Lenny follows her home to Minnesota, we learn that she’s a perfectly ordinary Midwestern college girl who was just fooling around on her vacation. But Lenny, far more adamant than Harrison in Unfaithfully Yours, won’t let reality intrude on his fantasy—either the reality of Kelly’s banality or the reality of her lack of interest in pursuing their relationship. In a remarkable scene whose aura of emotional violence anticipates Mikey and Nicky, Lenny confronts her in his car, calling her on her bullshit and forcing her to acknowledge that she did initiate a relationship with him. Before our eyes, we see her transcend her caricature by proving herself ready to take on a serious relationship that was not in her plans with a man who’s going to create a lot of trouble for her. Madeleine, it turns out, is not just a male fantasy but a person with her own desires.
Mikey and Nicky and Husbands
Comedy elicits sadism, but when the sadism becomes too naked (if the victim is too undeserving, or too vulnerable), the laughter becomes nervous and mingles with pain. Gender creates acute discomfort in the comic situations of A New Leaf and The Heartbreak Kid: do we share the horrified embarrassment of the sociopathic protagonist at these gauche and irritating women? Is he, rather, the object of amusement, for being so easily mortified? (“I married a grouch,” as Lila complains.) What’s going on when we witness Henry’s encounter with a female grotesque bursting out of her bikini as, with time running out, he desperately tries to find a woman he can stand long enough to kill? Is this misogyny, or (as in Jerry Lewis’ The Ladies Man) a comment on male hysteria?
In Mikey and Nicky, all that’s left of the scenes between men and women is discomfort, which seems to be, more than comedy, what May is after in her portrayals of gender. Although May was apparently at work on the script for decades, Husbands seems like an obvious influence onthese scenes, but the two movies are worth putting into dialogue in any case, because Mikey and Nicky has been seen as May’s “Cassavetes film,” and the differences between the scenes help one to see where the sensibilities of the two filmmakers diverge.
The key scenes for comparison are Ben Gazarra’s encounter with his wife, which has a counterpart in Mikey and Nicky (even featuring a mother-in-law), and Cassavetes’ and Peter Falk’s dynamics with the women they pick up in London, which have counterpart elements in the scene with Nicky’s girl. While misogyny is crucial to the men’s relationship in both films, May and Cassavetes differ in their depiction of its functioning. While Cassavetes’ protagonists retreat into an emotional adolescence characterized by their uncomplicated love for each other and shared hostility to women, the friendship between May’s protagonists has its basis in sibling rivalry. Cassavetes’ men try, however clumsily, to recapture a prelapsarian period before adult sexuality and responsibilities; May’s men experience a regression to a childhood already characterized by emotional betrayals.
On one’s first few viewings of Mikey and Nicky, one would be forgiven for thinking that women barely factor into the story at all, despite the memorable ugliness of the scenes in which they do appear. In fact, two encounters with women are crucial to the story, one taking place after the other: the trip to the cemetery to visit Nicky’s mother’s grave, and the visit to Nicky’s girl. In the scene in the cemetery, Nicky, who suspects that Mikey is going to betray him but doesn’t know for sure, works upon both Mikey’s superstition and his emotions, reminding Mikey of their shared childhood memories and making him confront his own fear of death. It works: even though Mikey assures Nicky that he doesn’t need him because his wife knows all of his childhood stories, once they’re back on a bus, it’s clear that Mikey has remembered why he cares about Nicky and wants to help him. Whether he’d be able to do so or not is quickly made moot by the visit to Nellie (Carol Grace), which Nicky seems to think will confirm their newly resurrected bond. Instead, what happens with Nellie reminds Mikey of why he hates Nicky, who, he claims, belittles him in front of women and the big boss alike. The two men’s psyches are awash in insecurities, Nicky humiliating Mikey to show off and Mikey resenting him for it. When Mikey tells the childhood story of his brother’s death to his wife while he waits for the hit to be completed, it becomes clear that his relationship with Nicky is a continuation of his childhood psychodrama; in the final moments before he’s gunned down outside Mikey’s door, Nicky seems to consciously take on the role of the dead brother, whether to inspire mercy or guilt in Mikey.
I’ll take the comparisons to Husbands in the order in which the scenes appear in Mikey and Nicky, although the order is reversed in Husbands: violent scene with wife first, then awkward extramarital encounters. The attitudes toward Nellie taken by Mikey and Nicky roughly correspond to the attitudes toward their dates taken by Falk and Cassavetes in Husbands. In both films, Falk is more tentative, while Cassavetes is full of brazen bluster. The viewer—the female viewer, in any case—may initially mistake Falk’s tentativeness and vulnerability for sensitivity. But vulnerability and sensitivity are qualities that are only aligned in the movies—the movies, not these movies.
In Husbands, Falk talks to Julie (Noelle Kao) patiently and touches her tenderly while she remains silent and sullen. We don’t know how much English she understands (we’ve only heard her request a Coca-Cola), and her reactions during their encounter are enigmatic. What we’re certain of, to our deep discomfort, is that she doesn’t want to be there. Why has she let Falk pick her up? Does she want to be degraded? Or is her attitude toward sex so ambivalent that she’s trying to force herself to go through with it despite her shame? Eventually they start to kiss, and as the kissing becomes passionate, the viewer may hope, for a moment, that the tension and awkwardness are finally over and the scene will proceed in normal movie fashion, despite the fact that tears are forming on her eyelashes. No such luck: Falk pushes her away and starts to berate her for her sexual aggression, accusing her, in his sub-articulate way, of deceiving him by pretending to be innocent. She lies still, sobbing, and the camera zooms in on her face, showing it in extreme close-up. Is the camera being sensitive to the female victim by forcing the viewer to confront the suffering caused by Falk’s misogyny? Or is the effect of its avid attention more sadistic—whatever the intention?
At the same time that this is going on, Cassavetes is having just as strange a time with his date. In his bedroom, Mary (Jenny Runacre) suddenly appears acutely uncomfortable, and attacks him first verbally and then physically. He responds by horsing around and trying to make the physical contact sexual, but she insists that she doesn’t want to be touched, a theme that persists even as she periodically laughs in response to his clowning. Despite the fact that she talks as much as Cassavetes, her psychology is just as enigmatic as Julie’s—and her anguish just as naked and apparent. The scene between them proceeds as a quasi-rape, albeit one taking place on another planet—or two other planets, much farther away from each other, and from ours, than Venus and Mars. Eager to get on with the night now that they’ve made it as far as the bedroom, Cassavetes doesn’t take her protests seriously, and the profound discomfort for the viewer of this scene is that it’s unclear throughout how seriously he should take them. Is Mary just a kook, but one who’s serious about not wanting him to touch her, or is she getting some kind of masochistic or sadistic pleasure out of pretending to be disgusted by him? Is she, again, so ashamed of her own desires that she can’t even for a moment allow herself to show enjoyment? Maybe no filmmaker as much as Cassavetes has shown the awkwardness and misery of average, inhibited people attempting to enjoy “sexual liberation” when there has only been a relaxation of external, not internal, attitudes; a situation that, to judge from much of the public discourse about sex and gender, persists to this day.
In the scene, Cassavetes the actor largely proceeds by cajoling and joking with Mary while trying to push their intimacy further, and yet there’s something controlling even in his cajoling. For all of the weirdness of her behavior, Mary acts as though they’re playing a game together, one in which she expresses reluctance and disgust and he acts like a clown, using non-threatening behavior to gain her trust. But Cassavetes, every now and then, comments on her behavior in a genuinely cutting way that makes her real neediness rise to the surface. The same dynamic infuses their morning-after scene in the café. Mary, feeling vulnerable after their night together, goes back to defensively insulting him, and he brings her up short the same way Falk did Julie: by telling her that he hates aggressive women. Cassavetes the writer-director understands that even when men and women seem to be exchanging cutting banter as equals, men have the trump card of telling women they’re not desirable, which they can use to put a woman in her place whenever she assumes male prerogatives.
Nellie, Nicky’s “girl,” has none of Mary’s abrasiveness, but the scene between her and Cassavetes has the same uncomfortable ambiguity. Through her writerly scene construction, however, May amps up the ambiguity: it embraces not only Nellie’s psychology and her interactions with the two men, but Nicky’s motivations and even the status of Nicky and Nellie’s relationship. When Nicky first brings Mikey into the apartment, we seem to have a recognizable enough—if slightly risqué—scenario of a man offering to “share” his girlfriend with another man. It’s more than a little presumptuous of Nicky, but who knows, maybe Nellie, despite her demure appearance and addled manner, is “hip” and will be into it. She seems to respond well enough to Mikey’s attempts to make small talk with her. Whereas in Husbands he seemed potentially sensitive because of his sexual shyness, here he seems potentially sensitive because of his respectful attitude toward Nellie—his attempts to engage her mind. The contrast with Nicky is all the more glaring as Nicky, like a restless kid bored with adult talk, gropes her in front of Mikey. Mikey ignores it; Nellie acts distressed and tells him to stop.
Nicky persists, and Mikey becomes uncomfortable enough to wander off in search of his cigarettes, whereupon he lurks uneasily in the shadows. So far, the scene is strengthening our identification with Mikey: he, like us, is an intruder who can’t understand what’s happening between the other two and feels trapped in the apartment with them. Nicky, having seemingly forgotten not only his original plan but Mikey’s existence, keeps trying to have sex with Nellie, who keeps refusing him. Her distress peaks, and the viewer’s along with it; she, too, up to this point, has been an identification figure for the viewer because of her fragility and because her victim role is one that we can understand, unlike Nicky’s bizarre desire to have sex with his girlfriend in front of his friend despite her protests. Nicky is fed up, Nellie distraught, Mikey embarrassed. The planned fun seems to have run aground, and all is dismal. But then Nicky takes a moment to work himself up, and says the magic words: I love you. Instantly, Nellie changes, and the scene shifts before our eyes. A moment before we were seeing a man abuse a woman; now we seem to be watching a man and a woman acting out some kind of kinky sex ritual. May the writer wittily insists on the parody of gender roles with regard to sex that was only implicit in the Husbands scene: not only does Nellie only put out if a man tells her that he loves her, but she seems to have a positive fetish for the phrase, as if it in itself, and maybe only it, has the power to bring her to orgasm.
As Nicky and Nellie prepare to have sex and Mikey retreats all the way into the kitchen, May makes use of a camera set-up that treats the apartment like a claustrophobic stage set, with living room in the foreground and kitchen in the background. During the sex scene she cuts between Mikey in the kitchen, somewhere between a fifth wheel and a voyeur (or the auditory equivalent), and Nicky and Nellie in the living room, but also returns to the encompassing set-up when she wants to give us a sense of the psychological impact and plot consequences of the space: the adamant separateness and uncomfortable conjoinedness of the two rooms and the people in them, with audio flowing between them.
Afterwards, Nicky—defying the stereotype—stays tender, checking to see if Nellie is alright and offering her a cigarette. For a moment we might imagine that he actually cares for her, and wasn’t just putting on an act to get what he wanted. But only for a moment. The camera stays fixed now, showing us silent Nellie composing herself in the living room, in the foreground, while Nicky confers with Mikey in the kitchen. We know that Nellie can hear what he’s saying, because we can; we don’t know whether he intends for her to overhear or not. Just as a moment before he assured Nellie that he’s going to get rid of Mikey, now he assures Mikey that he was only “warming her up” for him. Is anything he says to either of them true? Mikey wants to leave, but Nicky encourages him to try it with Nellie, assuring him that he’s heard from “20 guys” that she’ll sleep with anyone. When he waves to her, seeing that she’s looking at them, right afterwards, does he assume she didn’t hear, or is he rubbing salt in the wound?
With this new set of claims, the scene we’re watching shifts again. Did we really just watch not a kinky sex ritual between lovers, but a kinky sex ritual that Nellie performs with every man she meets? Mikey tries to make small talk again, and again, Nellie initially seems responsive. But when he tries to put the moves on her, she protests. We, and he, know that she doesn’t mean it. But this time she does: she bites his lip. He smacks her, hard, twice.We’re shocked; he was supposed to be the nice one.
What has happened? Would Nellie have gone for him under normal circumstances? Was her reaction the result of overhearing what Nicky said about her, and the fact that Mikey, egged on by Nicky and revved up by what just occurred, moved too fast? Forgot the magic words? It is possible that, as Mikey starts to think, Nicky has set the whole thing up in order to humiliate him, tricking him into making a pass at his girlfriend, who rightly rejects him? That would perhaps be the most awful scenario of all: that Nicky humiliated his girlfriend in order to humiliate his best friend, and that when he needed him the most. It makes no sense, it’s paranoid, and it’s probably not true. In that case, is Nellie the “psycho” and the “hooker” that Nicky claims she is? In that case, why did she reject Mikey? Is it because (as Nicky also claims) she’s in denial about being a “hooker,” or because she happens to prefer Nicky? And is it possible, despite all we’ve seen Nicky do and all we will see him do, that she has a point? Is it possible that, just like the big boss, Nellie perceives that Nicky’s open obnoxiousness is preferable to the smoldering resentment that’s caused Mikey to betray his best friend?
In the scenes between Falk, himself, and the two women in Husbands, Cassavetes is staging a confrontation between the modern woman and threatened and rebellious men, in which women are shown—not without sympathy—to be at a disadvantage. May couldn’t care less about the modern woman. She’s interested in cruelty and ambiguity, in evoking and calling into question the traditional figure of woman-as-victim. Cassavetes’ cruelty to Mary, his uncanny ability to zero in on her insecurities and calmly press his advantage while her emotions fly all over the place, is just one of many elements in their scenes, but it’s one that stands out for a female viewer. I find Husbands more frightening to watch than any horror movie: the men’s animus toward women is so strong, their behavior so volatile (not following soothingly predictable patterns of fictional, or even psychologically realistic, violence and cruelty), and Cassavetes keeps throwing maximally vulnerable victims in their path.
Cassavetes’ least vulnerable victim, however, is the one wife shown in the film. Cassavetes launches his depiction of American domestic life as surrealistic Bigger Than Life-type nightmare with a hysterical Gazzara whipping around the house half-undressed and having a flurried conversation with his mother-in-law, who he assumes to be on his side, with his pants falling off. Already, roles are blurred, incest simmers (the women are in their housecoats in the scene). Gazzara more or less has two wives, and has appropriated his wife’s mother for himself as well, making a wife/mother of her. Is mother-love (his pairing throughout with older women in ambiguous situations) behind Gazzara’s especially hysterical response to women?
When his wife (Meta Shaw Stevens) appears, she delivers the biggest understatement in cinematic history, informing him that she’s “uncomfortable in front of” him. She makes it clear that she wants to divorce, and when he forcibly kisses her, she frees herself by kneeing him in the groin, then goes after him with a knife. He instructs his mother-in-law to get the knife away from her, and as soon as she does, he forces his wife to her knees in front of him and demands that she tell him that she loves him. His face in these moments is a mask of near-comical demonic frenzy, anticipating the broadness of Ray Wise’s performance in Fire Walk With Me. He gets what he wants, but it’s obvious that his wife is only doing what she has to; she doesn’t even put the conviction into it that Nicky does with Nellie.
In contrast, Nicky gets the admission of love that he appears to be seeking from his wife when he pays her a visit after he and Mikey part. As in the scene with Nellie, our understanding of the characters and their relationship shifts radically throughout the scene.Nicky pleads with his estranged wife, Jan (Joyce Van Patten), to let him in; once inside, he threatens to hit her, but then he collapses on her and embraces her instead. Whereas Gazzara is driven to extremes by his wife’s implacable contempt, it’s obvious that Jan yearns to give in and be pulled back into the cycle of violent emotions and violence. But she fights it off, and a moment later, has him—and us—convinced that she’s really done with him. It only takes time, however, to break her down—and hearing her husband with their infant daughter in the other room. We are, in fact, given privileged access to her emotional state during those moments, which highlights a subtle but crucial difference from the Husbands scene: whereas Cassavetes is interested in how the husband-protagonist feels about his wife, May is interested in how the wife feels about the husband-protagonist. And while the “dark” assertion of Husbands is that men and women are fundamentally hostile toward each other, Mikey and Nicky more realistically shows love and hate as hopelessly mixed up with each other—and not just for women and men.
But once again, May plays with our feelings. Given the sheer rawness of Cassavetes’ and Van Patten’s performances, as well as our understanding of how “wives” work as a cultural signifier, a first-time viewer may assume that in that scene we’ve reached some kind of bedrock emotional truth about Nicky. Maybe we’re not exactly sure how he feels about his wife—the scene seemed to be more about wresting that “I love you” from her—but we know he feels something for her, something that looked pretty real. The next time we see him, however, he pulls the exact same moves on Nellie: demands entrance to her apartment, stalks inside, and threatens her. Now it seems clear that in his mind, wife and mistress/whore are equivalent: the “wife” signifier isn’t privileged. That doesn’t necessarily mean that he can’t feel something real for both women, but it does undermine our simplistic understanding of “authenticity,” based on how it normally operates in narratives, most of which would establish his feelings for one of the women as sincere at the cost of the other. One of the things May is continually doing in Mikey and Nicky is using the sense of authenticity that an actor’s performance is capable of generating to keep the audience in a state of disorientation.
In any case, the scene with Nellie doesn’t develop like the scene with Jan: he’s still angry with her for upsetting Mikey, and after an exchange of slaps we get some more back-and-forth about her sexual habits, and some more shifting of our sympathies. Nicky accuses her of betraying him with his friends, and our confused image of him resolves into a betrayed man; she accuses him of having sent them to her, and our confused image of her returns to “victim,” with which we began. And there May rests. It’s not Nellie who does her “tell me you love me” routine with every man; it’s Nicky who’s set his friends on her sexually before, not just this one time, as a special favor to his closest friend. Nicky, in what seems like a major concession for him, apologizes and explains that he likes to “show off.” What this means exactly is unclear. He likes to show off his girl to his friends? He likes to show off to his friends that he doesn’t care about his girl? Both of these things?
One thing that’s clear is that Nicky has come to the conclusion that Mikey was right about him: maybe he didn’t consciously set his friend up, but their dynamic is so deeply ingrained that he couldn’t help but unconsciously orchestrate Mikey’s sexual humiliation, even at the worst possible moment. But there may also be an element of self-destruction. Squint a little and it’s possible to see the resemblance between Mikey and Nicky and the husbands and wives of May’s two previous films: in fact, taking Mikey and Nicky into account, A New Leaf and the Lenny-Lila relationship in The Heartbreak Kid begin to look like sketches for the idea of a character who deserves to be abandoned or killed (here, it’s both). In Mikey and Nicky we finally get the point of view of the character who’s been designated for oblivion by the person closest to them, turning the masochistic fantasy implicit in the comedies into a hallucinatory fever-dream that the audience is forced to share—and he seems to have nothing to say for himself. But the closer Mikey gets to the goal of his friend’s annihilation, the less he has to say for himself, either. In this non-comedic version of the scenario no punches are pulled, and the masochistic and the sadistic impulses are both seen through to the end. The result is pure, numbing shock as Mikey, like Lenny at the end of The Heartbreak Kid, realizes he must live with the consequences of having achieved his profoundest wish.