Mikey and Nicky: The Life of a Film

| Daniel Eckman-Thomas |

Artwork by Daniel Eckman-Thomas

Mickey and Nickey screens at the Trylon from Sunday, September 26 to Tuesday, September 28. For tickets and more informationscroll to the bottom of this page.

On the third floor of the Minneapolis Central Library, in the American Literature block (more precisely, PS3573.I455.2011, for those in the know) there was, until very recently, a play entitled Mikey and Nicky: The Life of a Film, a theatrical retelling of  Elaine May’s heroic battle against Paramount Pictures to retain creative control of her third feature film. Due to collection maintenance guidelines, my colleagues and I were forced to withdraw the title from the system because it had failed to find a reader in ten years. The posture of the book’s spine was tall and stiff, so solidly at attention, and yet also sun-worn – the usual signs of having been forgotten. But before casting it into the recycling bin for its final handling, I decided to crack the spine, and thumb my way through a piece of theater that was soon to be lost forever. 

I will admit that the experience of reading this play was mostly awful, and I felt pretty good about the book’s bright future of being recycled into something else. The playwright, whose name I’ll compassionately keep from the page, had most likely never attended a play and believed the magic of theater to be a free and unlimited resource. In fact, it is often hauled in on the backs of cranky and underpaid theater technicians, and you’d need an entire fleet to make this play possible. The dialogue is clunky, the stage directions are far too specific, and the structure is strange, but overall the play means well. Hollywood has swept a lot of secrets under the rug they made out of Leo the Lion (a former employee of MGM) and this play aims to expose a very specific clod of truth beneath that hide. If it had ever been performed, it would surely have proven to be a hellish bit of theater, but maybe, if summarized in the broadest of strokes, it could be more entertaining than reading factoids on the subject found easily online, and can, in a sense, live another day. So if you’re brave and willing, I’ll ask you now to take your seat. The lights are just dimming now.

Behold! The curtain lifts and the stage lights rise above a garage in Connecticut. Elaine May sits center stage in a folding chair with her head in her hands. On either side of her is a 35mm projector, aimed upstage toward the closed white garage door. She sits in silence. Suddenly, one of the projectors activates itself, as if possessed, and begins to spin a foot of film through its mechanism, projecting John Cassavetes’ Nicky onto the garage door saying, “I’m going to die!” before promptly shutting back down. Elaine May lifts herself from her hands, and with her eyes still closed, yells, “You’re Fine! We’re Fine!” And so begins her tale. She addresses the audience: she has stolen two reels of film and hidden them here in her husband’s friend’s garage in order to gain leverage against Paramount in her fight for creative control. But the reels of film have gone paranoid on her, and believe it’s only a matter of time before she sells them out and ships them back to Paramount’s butcher block. The scene runs like a one-woman show with technical difficulties. Each projector takes turns interrupting May by illuminating the garage door with Nicky’s desperate exclamations. A superfluous bit of stage direction reads: “giving the effect of a servant pleading to its master for life with the words that she has gifted it.” Anyway, after far too many pages and a couple of shortcuts taken by the playwright in the emotional development of our protagonist, it becomes clear that the two reels of film aren’t unnecessarily paranoid. May, tired and out of options, intends to give them up to the studio, and does exactly that at the scene’s climax. She takes the garage door opener in her hand, and with the dramatic weight of launching a nuclear weapon, pushes the button. The garage door groans and begins to heave its way upward. But before it can fully rise, a projector comes to life one last time. It lights the garage door with a frame of Ned Beaty’s character firing his gun – played in slow motion. The image stays there on the door until it’s lost to the darkness of the outside world. The projector shuts down. End of Scene.

Scene Two. Editing Room. Before we begin, theater technicians are advised to do a quick buddy check and keep to their toes; this one’s a doozy. Elaine May famously shot 1.4 million feet of film for Mikey and Nicky, and in this scene we are to see every foot of that descend from the theater’s ceiling to the stage below, which has been swept of its previous set and been given little else: an ancient stump for a chopping block planted front and center. The sole character of the scene is a new one: ostensibly an editor, but more likely a symbol of the Hollywood system as a whole. This man is described in the character list as a “W.C. Fields type. Where he isn’t pockmarked and pale, he is red—candy apple—at his heaviest gleams of sweat.” He enters wielding an axe and takes up his post at the chopping block. After rolling his starched white sleeves to the elbows, he yells upwards to the catwalk, “Send it down!” Seconds later, a black ribbon of celluloid appears in the air above the stage. It descends gently from the ceiling to The Editor’s outstretched hand where it flashes a bit. He examines several feet of it with the help of the stage lights, places his target on the stump, and chops it in two. This action is repeated over and over again for the first several thousand feet of film, until, in a kind of blood lust, he screams upward for “More! More!” The command is understood as a doubling of speed—indefinitely and exponentially. The film crashes all around The Editor, coiling in large heaps. Surrounded, he throws himself at the film, biting it, tearing it, wrestling it—and still the speed doubles. The film falls in waves on its rapid descent, until finally the ceiling looses the last several thousand feet of film, and The Editor is lost. A silence comes over the stage. Nothing moves (though I could imagine a hell of a draft blowing around the place, due to the audience breathing a sigh of relief in unison at the thought of the scene being over). But before the scene can end we must first watch the giant mass of film collapse inward and drain through the stage’s trap door, taking with it The Editor and his stump. And so we do, and for our patience we are granted passage to the next and final scene. 

Scene Three. Graveyard. Before the audience knows they have been transported to a funeral setting, or that the stage’s trap door has been piled with earth and spiked with a headstone, they are introduced to the first half of a chorus of critics: The Downers of 1977, featuring William Bernard of Films in Review, Time Magazine’s Jay Cocks, and Judith Crist from Saturday Review. They appear one at a time in a sequence of spotlights across the stage with nothing nice to say about the production company’s cut of the film. Judith Crist ends her review and this segment by saying, “Her long night’s tale is as dull, dreary, and unlikable as her stars.” And after a moment of darkness on stage, a soft light shines on the grave. Elaine May is there. She is working: attaching a crank to an empty film reel, which she then hooks to a hip-height tripod. Then she gets to the ground and works at the dirt of the grave. She pushes what is loose to all sides and digs down to her elbows. Then, a shift in her face, a sudden freeze of all struggle. The newly airborne sands of dirt twist in the spotlight as she begins excavating something upward. The audience can recognize the black ribbon of film as she pulls it up to the surface with a gentle pincer grip. It is as if all 1.4 million feet of film were perfectly coiled beneath the ground, repaired by death and willing to rise in one long piece. She pulls enough of it up to thread it into the empty film reel of her mechanism, and begins to turn the crank. Rewinding her film from the grave, she says, 

“Y’know, the beautiful thing about film is that it lives many lives. I mean, some don’t even begin to live until long after they’ve rolled their last credits in a discount theater in Omaha. Movies are constantly being re-discovered, re-evaluated, and recycled into a new and current mainstream. And at each showtime, a film is capable of being rewarded an afterlife in the head of some schlub who got it and can’t shake the magic of it. It lives on in that person’s head for as long as it means something to them. They’ll take it to work, to dinner, to bed. And that is the ultimate reward for both the filmmaker and the film. We all know what Hollywood is: an industry that hunts the creative spirit for sport… and yet we write a script, we choreograph 90 pairs of legs in a sound studio, we wrangle poisonous snakes for B-roll footage—and we do it so someone will take us to bed!” 

A strange landing at the end there, but about as good as a monologue gets in this play. As she continues to twist the crank, a second chorus of critics begins to light up around the stage—those of new and different times, Peter Bradshaw, Marjorie Baumgarten, Gene Siskel, and more—so many, it seems they must be standing shoulder to shoulder and heels to toes in the darkness around the grave, each waiting for their golden moment to deliver fresh and glowing praise. The word “masterpiece” is used, Peter Bradshaw considers the film “a neglected 1976 gem, from a neglected Hollywood genius.” They are all passionately piling praise upon praise and interrupting each other at such speed that the spotlight has to strobe itself all over the stage, with many agreeing in their own best words that it’s one of the greatest American movies of the 1970s. Now the lights begin to show the first signs of dimming as the voices of the critics fall away. Elaine continues her work, only marginally moved by the words of this chorus. The critics are in agreement, that is obvious, but not the point. Will you, dear viewer, give it a life inside your head?


Edited by Brad Stiffler

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