Ishtar (1985), Mikey and Nicky (1976), and Elaine May’s Commercial Follies

One of the biggest head-scratchers about May’s Movie of the Month, the small stakes crime thriller Mikey and Nicky, is why it isn’t often listed among similarly energized, ramshackle crime pictures of its era like Mean Streets & The French Connection. That question extends to the entire career of its director, Elaine May, as well. May’s improvisational narrative style & slyly dark sense of humor should have landed her name among undisputed greats like Scorsese, Friedkin, De Palma, Coppola, etc. Yet, she only directed four feature films while her early creative partner Mike Nichols directed twenty. Surely, some of her struggles in the industry has to do with the Hollywood system being a stubbornly unchanging boys’ club that offers second, third, fourth, and fifth chances to male directors that it wouldn’t as readily offer to women. Elaine May’s track record doesn’t at all help shift the blame away from her own failings as a businesswoman, however. Mikey and Nicky isn’t the only financial disaster of Elaine May’s career, nor is it her worst. Of her four feature films, only one was a commercial success, The Heartbreak Kid. The other three, including both Mikey and Nicky & the Walter Matthau comedy A New Leaf, were each drastically behind schedule and wildly over budget, never really recovering their financial losses no matter how critically adored. It was May’s fourth & final feature, however, that truly sealed her fate as box office poison & a director to be readily forgotten. Even the critics had turned on May at the arrival of her final feature, seemingly eager to tear it down before it was even released. Why they were so harsh on that film in particular is a mystery.

Ishtar stars Dustin Hoffman & Warren Beatty as a pair of sub-mediocre songwriters who abandon their shared dream of making it big in New York City to make some money as a nightclub act in Morocco. Shot on location in both cities, the film boasted a lavish, out of control production budget that swelled by the day. Reports of May, an eternal perfectionist, fighting with Beatty & the film’s producers over minuscule details like the filming of vultures & camels leaked to the press during production, souring the film’s name as a disaster before it was even completed. Reviewers pounced on it, prematurely solidifying its reputation as One of the Worst Comedies of All Time. Although I do believe some of their griping was extratextually influenced by the film’s troubled production, it’s easy to see why contemporary critics may not have been able to latch onto the film’s humor even without those setbacks. In its best moments, Ishtar explores a Tim & Eric style of post-Andy Kauffman anti-humor. Beatty & Hoffman play goddawful singers & songwriters. May amplifies their awkward tension by playing Beatty against type as the neurotic nerd & Hoffman as the smooth-talking ladykiller. They’re visibly uncomfortable in the roles, which works for the film’s off-kilter humor, an aesthetic that feels like that one stretch of Boogie Nights where Dirk & his buddy are foolishly convinced they’re going to be successful rock n’ roll singers teased out to a feature length comedy. With a smaller budget and a lower profile, the movie might actually have been heralded as one of the greatest comedies of all time. Unfortunately you can feel it spinning out of May’s control onscreen as its story blows up too big to be anchored by Hoffman & Beatty’s talentless buffoons.

Part of what’s so charming about Mikey and Nicky is the intimacy of its scale. The story mostly concerns two low level gangsters as they tear through New York City streetlights in a paranoid rage, various betrayals & hurt feelings emerging in their trail of drunken destruction. Ishtar is similarly intimate in its early goings, perfectly capturing the frustration of songwriting’s improvisational stops & starts. Our two heroic buffoons write songs in real time in the movie’s opening sequences, singing the film’s opening lines “Telling the truth can be bad news. Telling the truth is a bad idea. Telling the truth is a difficult problem. Honest and popular don’t go hand in hand.” The frustrated labor of pursuing their art, which ruins them both financially & romantically, leads to drunken suicide attempts and the strange business of hitting rock bottom in North Africa (at a club cutely named Cher Casablanca). There’s a lot of genuine pathos in this desperation, just as there is in Mikey and Nicky, but the movie does eventually get too big to hold onto its more intimate virtues. Beatty & Hoffman’s buffoons are gradually inducted against their will into a conflict between the CIA, leftist guerillas, and the dictator of the fictional country of Ishtar.  The movie loses a little of its proto-Tim & Eric sheen as the whole battle comes to a head in its third act slump involving a blind camel, some unfortunate detours into brown face, and the movie literally & figuratively getting lost in the desert. Despite some of that exhausting, comedy-killing bloat in the third act, however, it’s difficult to conceive of Ishtar being held up as One of the Worst Comedies of All Time. It’s doubtful it was even the worst comedy released in May of 1985. The film is largely funny in a strikingly subversive, adventurously unconventional way. It even goes as far as to include harsh criticisms of US interference with political affairs in the Middle East instead of broadly stereotyping the people of the region the way lazier 80s comedies would (for the most part).

The sad truth, though, is that limiting the scale of Ishtar would’ve helped May keep the film in control creatively, but not necessarily financially. As small & intimate as Mikey and Nicky is in scope, the film still suffered major financial setbacks that nearly had May booted from her own project. The heightened production values and exploding costs of Ishtar certainly made May’s inability to produce a film on time & on budget more of a public spectacle due to increased media scrutiny. I wouldn’t be surprised if that scrutiny lead directly to the end of her career as a director, either. May was never as skilled a businesswoman as she was an artist, which is an essential balance to strike in cinema, which is just as much commerce as it is art. If she were making films in a 2010s climate, however, her career would likely have gone much differently. May had a tendency to shoot an absurd amount of footage for each project and then later, as they say, “find the film in the editing room.” This was an extravagance in the days of celluloid, an indulgence that skyrocketed May’s budgets well beyond reason in all three of her commercial failures. In the current post-Apatow era of comedies, that style of lengthy, improv-heavy shoots & extensive editing room post production is essentially the norm. Digital photography has greatly lowered the cost of May’s production style, supposing a world where Ishtar & Mikey and Nicky might’ve had a less cost-prohibitive chance to actually turn a profit. Regardless of May’s shortcomings on the commercial end of cinema, though, it’s at least easy to acknowledge that the idea that she made One of the Worst Comedies of All Time is a silly myth at best and a vicious lie at worst. As unwieldy as Ishtar can be in its third act (a problem for most comedies, let’s be honest), it’s still a delightfully awkward character piece that in its best moments mirrors the intimate tension of Mikey and Nicky and pioneers an awkward anti-comedy aesthetic that later became an industry standard. Elaine May may be responsible for a string of commercial follies, but I’m not convinced she ever made a bad movie, not one, much less a worst of all time contender.

For more on May’s Movie of the Month, Elaine May’s small scale mafia drama Mickey and Nicky, check out our Swampchat discussion of the film, this look at its closest Scorsese comparison point, Mean Streets (1973), and last week’s reflection on how its crime world paranoia stacks up to Mikey One (1965).

-Brandon Ledet

The Legitimacy of Paranoia in Mikey and Nicky (1976) & Mickey One (1965)

One of the most immediately striking aspects of Elaine May’s Mikey and Nicky is the way the film’s in media res introduction completely disorients anyone trying to get a grip on its overall narrative. The film opens with a strung out criminal played by John Cassavetes bunkered down in a shit hole motel, deathly paranoid that someone is out to kill him. He brings in an old friend, played by Peter Falk, to help him escape this fate and to sober up enough to not die at his own hands from the side effects of nihilistic alcoholism. As time goes on in the film, the audience is gradually clued in to the fact that this fear of assassination is very much legitimate. Cassavetes’s anti-hero (emphasis on the “anti”) is indeed being hunted down by the mafia for a past offense, no matter how often his only friend in the world lies to his face by telling him everything’s going to be okay and that he’s just being paranoid. I got the feeling while watching this story unfold that I had recently seen a similar scenario play out in another ramshackle organized crime picture from the New Hollywood era, its paranoia being especially reminiscent of the early scenes in Cassavetes’s motel hideout.

Arthur Penn’s forgotten surrealist crime thriller gem Mickey One preceeds his New Hollywood kickstarter Bonnie and Clyde by a couple of years, but also stars Warren Beatty and attempts to marry French New Wave sensibilities to a new flavor of American Cinema just like that bonafide classic. In the film, Beatty plays a stand-up comedian who finds himself at odds with the organized crime syndicates who run the nightclubs that employ him as an entertainer. Convinced that he’s in immediate danger of having his life ended and his body anonymously dumped in a junkyard, Mickey changes his identity and attempts to hide out doing menial labor until the spotlight calls his name so loudly that he cannot resist and again risks being assassinated to pursue his craft. Unlike in Mikey and Nicky, however, this paranoia is never explicitly justified in the film by outright threats from the mob. We’re never even sure if Mickey is being targeted by the mob, let alone why. It could very well be all in his head, as it’s only represented onscreen through a few side glances from menacing strangers, a beating in a dark alley way, and the intense scrutiny of stage lights during an existentially terrifying audition sequence. It’s all very abstract in comparison to the real world that represented in May’s film, despite where that one starts.

A significant difference between the depiction of paranoia in Mikey and Nicky & Mickey One might be tied to their positions within the New Hollywood movement. Mickey One was a precursor to New Hollywood sensibilities, still holding on tight to the art film abstraction that guided the French New Wave films that inspired the movement’s young auteurs. Mikey and Nicky arrived a decade later, joining the New Hollywood fray long after crime films like The French Connection and Mean Streets had already mapped out what an artful organized crime picture would look like in that era. What’s interesting to me (along with the odd similarity in the films’ titles) is the way those two sentiments overlap at the beginning of Mikey and Nicky. We begin the film not fully convinced that there’s any organized threat of assassination at all, as if we’re just listening to Cassavetes’s fears like the ravings of a mad man. That intangible threat of baseless paranoia and question of legitimacy carries throughout Mickey One, which easily matches Mikey and Nicky in drunken, ramshackle energy, but feels much more adrift & untethered to the real world. Even though I heartily believe Mikey and Nicky is the better film for that sense of grounded, real world consequences. I greatly respect the way Mickey One was able to sustain that feverish paranoia for the length of an entire picture. I suspect the two titles would make for an exciting double feature if paired together, but be prepared to spend most of the evening checking over your shoulder or else you might get whacked.

For more on May’s Movie of the Month, Elaine May’s small scale mafia drama Mickey and Nicky, check out our Swampchat discussion of the film and last week’s look at its closest Scorsese comparison point, Mean Streets (1973).

-Brandon Ledet

Mickey One (1965)

EPSON MFP image

three star

“I couldn’t be funny if my life depended on it . . . And it did.”

Two years before his landmark film Bonnie & Clyde effectively kicked off what’s since been dubbed the New Hollywood movement, Arthur Penn delivered something much stranger & more deliberately obscure with that film’s same star, Warren Beatty. New Hollywood’s loosely defined aesthetic has several distinguishing features: anti-hero protagonists, avoidance of tidily happy endings, counter culture rebelliousness, etc. A large part of the movement’s appeal, however, derived directly from young American directors borrowing stylistic technique from the films of the French New Wave, particularly in their approach to unconventional cinematography. The film Beatty & Penn made before Bonnie & Clyde didn’t exactly pull influence from the French New Wave the way their breakthrough hit would. Mickey One was more of a French New Wave pastiche than a direct descendant. It wholesale borrowed everything it could grab from directors like Godard & Truffaut right down to their stark black & white cinematography. Just about the only things Mickey One kept distinctly American were the accents & Warren Beatty’s face. The results were messy & less iconic than Bonnie & Clyde and far too pretentious to strike a chord with American audiences in the same way, but they are fascinating as an artifact. It’s like watching New Hollywood’s unevolved ancestor crawling out of the primordial cinematic ooze. It ain’t pretty, but you can’t look away.

In a dizzying opening credits sequence we’re introduced to Beatty’s troubled charmer protagonist as a hopeless lush. He drinks, gambles, and philanders his way through his minor celebrity as a stand-up at nightclubs owned almost exclusively by mafia types. In what feels like the credits to the world’s weirdest sitcom, we learn everything we need to know about this doofus: his world, his ego, his thirsts, his enemies. It’s chaotic surrealism, drunken delirium, abrasive jazz, kaleidoscopic noir. Much like with the opening minutes of the proto-blacksploitation piece Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, it’s easy to be convinced in Mickey One‘s intro that you’re about to watch one of the single greatest cinematic achievements of all time, only to have that same exciting energy turned around to beat your enthusiasm into mush. A young, handsome Warren Beatty lives the high life in those credits and immediately crashes once they conclude. Instead of serving as a makeshift court jester for the club-owning mobsters he amuses with corny punchlines he becomes a persecuted target for an offense no one can name. We’re never sure if Beatty’s tortured stand-up faulted on an outrageous gambling debt, slept with a mobster’s wife, or, quite possibly, never committed any crime at all. Mickey One stubbornly clouds its central conflict in an oppressive air of mystery. It’s a choice that might have worked if the film’s abrasive, jazz-driven pace & tone ever slowed down long enough to allow the audience to properly sink into its sense of existential dread, but it’s just a little too frustrating as is.

Penniless & on the run from faceless, mysterious mobsters, our broken hero finds himself greasy, homeless, as handsome as ever, and hiding under a false pseudonym. After a short period of bottom-of-the-barrel blue collar labor, the spotlight calls to him. He starts gravitating towards the types of nightclubs he used to headline, first as a heckler and then as a performer, despite the danger of breaking his anonymity. A Marcel Marceau-type billed simply as “The Artist” pops up every now & then to mime encouragement and to draw him out of laying low. As his love interest puts it, he’s hiding from he doesn’t know what for a crime he’s not sure he’s committed, but he can’t help delivering corny jokes to mildly amused audiences in the meantime. This all whips by in a blur, only ever settling down for two distinct scenes: one where his mime-muse constructs an intricate Rube Goldberg-style art instillation that reflects his greatest fear (the mob disposing of his body in an automotive junkyard) and one where he “auditions” for faceless mobster club owners, the only visible presence in the room being the menacingly divine shine of the spotlight. Mickey One’s jokes aren’t any funnier than Rupert Pupkin’s in The King of Comedy. Its tone is in a continuous, chaotic shift that never allows its audience to get lost in its world. It’s undeniably messy, embarrassingly pretentious, and has essentially zero potential for commercial value. And yet, you can never shake the feeling that it’s just a half step away from being breathtakingly brilliant.

Distribution companies weren’t sure what to do with Arthur Penn’s French New Wave pastiche in 1965 and silently dumped it in drive-ins instead of giving it a prestigious theatrical release. Fifty years later, I’m still not sure what to do with the badly damaged, mostly forgotten art film mishmash. In an abstract sense I greatly admire the way the source of its Kafkaesque paranoia is never made literal and Beatty’s pre-Clyde anti-hero is made to live out his own stand-up comedy-themed version of The Trial. I was just never given much more than that vague paranoia & some terrible one-liners to associate with the character. It was difficult to care about his anxiety & the beautiful, energetic imagery that borders it in any way outside of distant, detached fascination. There’s never any question why Mickey One isn’t the Beatty-Penn collaboration that broke through instead of Bonnie & Clyde. Its limited appeal is immediately apparent. I do find it weirdly compelling as proto-New Hollywood weirdness, though, and I could easily see my cautious fondness for it growing with a few repeat viewings. The problem is that I can also see my nitpicking annoyances with it growing as well.

-Brandon Ledet