Why I Keep Returning to Mikey and Nicky

Director Jesse Noah Klein on the continuing power of Elaine May's underseen classic, and its influence on his film We're Still Together.

Growing up with two older brothers, I learned early how to experience aggression as intimacy. Play-fighting concealed love, affection — a closeness — they did not know how to express any other way. As we’ve gotten older, the tenor has changed. Sparring has been swapped for guarded conversation and conflicted hugs; the blind fumblings of love we know we share but don’t know how to show.

Fraternal love and male friendship can become clouded by competition and dominance. In recognizing a stark similarity to ourselves, we can’t help but see our own lack, our own gaping fragility, maybe what others see when they look at us. That insecurity, that deep shallow feeling we get when we don’t like what we see in the mirror, that first flash of “This is me?” is what I wanted to put on screen with my film We’re Still Together. I wanted to make something that shows how hard it is for men to be emotionally open, how scared we are to be seen as vulnerable, and how there is everything to be gained when we truly are. Throughout the making of it, there was one movie I never stopped thinking about.

I don’t remember when I first saw Mikey and Nicky but in all the times I’ve seen it since – and I lost count long ago — every viewing has felt like the very first. There is a raging pulse, a worn-down but always fresh tactility to Elaine May’s movie about a gangster and the betrayal he suffers at the hands of his last friend in the world that both made me want to make films and taught me so much about my own experience. Peter Falk and John Cassavetes, who play Mikey and Nicky, had already collaborated together a number of times – Falk acted under Cassavetes’ direction in both A Woman Under the Influence and Husbands, in which Cassavetes also co-starred opposite Falk — and part of what May captures is the bond the two men shared off-screen, as people, collaborators, family.

The relationship between Mikey and Nicky is the fullest, barest, most honest depiction I’ve seen of the knotted entanglements — the resentments so scarring they can only be born of love — that exist in a fraternal bond. Mikey and Nicky don’t have the same parents but they’re nevertheless brothers — this is Cain and Abel on the streets of Philadelphia. The climax happens near the film’s start, not even 30 minutes in. The two sit in a brightly lit bar nursing beers and glasses of milk, munching on crackers, killing time. Falk’s Mikey is an open book; he’s sweaty and nervous, a lousy hood. Cassavetes’ Nicky sits across from him as a smile falls from his face, in a 14-second shot a life’s friendship disintegrating to dust – he knows he’s been set up.

And yet, knowing he’s sealing his own fate, Nicky spends the rest of the night with Mikey. Maybe it’s to win him back, to prove to himself that there is a love worth fighting for, worth living for. Or maybe it’s because he knows it doesn’t exist, and that maybe it never did. Nicky tests Mikey, tests the strength of their love, daring it to break under the weight of his ragged uncertainty. He teases, attacks and finally humiliates him, and through it all Mikey is unflappable because he too is trying to prove something; that he doesn’t have a black heart all the way through, that he too is capable of showing love, as if it’s the truest way to reveal the burden of proof of his own humanity.

But, despite a betrayal that will leave one of them dead by the film’s end, Mikey and Nicky are still open to each other. They still talk about what makes them afraid and insecure, how they feel like frauds, how they have lied to others and cheated themselves. Nicky brings Mikey to a cemetery because he wants to visit his mother’s grave, but both know it’s really to say goodbye. “Mike, now that I’m here I don’t know what to do,” Nicky says, standing there, aghast, in front of his mother’s tomb. Mikey recites the Kaddish for him and though Nicky isn’t Jewish, and that likely neither man knows what the words mean, they connect over losing someone they love. That’s what this night is for.

We’re Still Together

The push-pull of Mikey and Nicky not only taught me so much about how to approach making We’re Still Together (also a film about two men who over the course of one night try to reconcile their feelings of inadequacy and their fundamental inability to connect with others), it also made me re-examine the relationships in my life, and turned them inside out. Watching the film, I saw the men I know and am close to, men for whom showing weakness, insecurity or fear is unthinkable. I admit I find it hard to be vulnerable in front of men, and far easier to confide in women. I talk to my sister, less so my brothers. There are things I want to say to the men I know and trust and love, but I can’t. I want to be close, but I don’t know how. Instead, I tell a story or make a joke. A nagging, wearied feeling sits on my shoulders, slowly weighing me down, making me weak in the backs of my knees. I still haven’t really figured out a way to do it, and I’ve been trying my whole life. So, I made a movie about it.

In Michael Ventura’s book Cassavetes Directs, about the making of Cassavetes’ Love Streams, producer Menahem Golan relates the director telling him, “The last living relative, that’s what this film is about. You know, my mother died this year. … My father is dead, my brother – my elder brother. Every morning I wake up, I want to call somebody –” His ineffable loneliness, his undying need for family, to love and to be loved, is in that last line, in all his movies, and it’s also in Mikey and Nicky – in his performance, in Falk’s, and in May’s direction. The bonds we make are fragile and fleeting. We’re constantly fighting against our own solitude. Despite the final heartbreak, that is what I think May, Cassavetes and Falk set out to show in the film they made together. It’s become what I aspire to in my work and also my life, figuring out ways to connect to others, to bridge that gap.

A friend of mine recently watched my movie and said she found it telling how male failure manifests itself as shame and aggression. It was disarming to have the movie, and in a way my experience, summarized in a sentence she had thought of offhand. Both characters in the film — an overweight bullied teenager and a manic single dad, two people who come together after a chance encounter on the street — are so alienated from those they’re closest to that they lash out at strangers, and at each other. But they spend the duration of the film learning how to be vulnerable, learning how to show love. I made the film to show that it’s worth the effort, and the pain. No matter what.

Jesse Noah Klein is a filmmaker from Montréal. His new film, Like a House on Fire, is currently screening as part of TIFF’s Industry Selects and is slated for release in 2021.