Unpacking the short but prickly filmography of Elaine May
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Geek obsession: The films of Elaine May
Why it’s daunting: If Elaine May had retired after her partnership with Mike Nichols (as Nichols & May) dissolved in the early ’60s, her place in comedy would be secure as a whip-smart, lightning-fast satirist whose Grammy-winning albums gave a hip, cerebral, contemporary spin on old-school comedy duos. But May’s career as a playwright, actress, script doctor, and screenwriter had only just begun.
Elaine May has only written and directed four films, one of which is widely—and inaccurately—considered one of the worst films of all time, and rightly considered the film that lost Sony a fortune and ended May’s career as a commercial filmmaker: Ishtar. Then again, considering the famously prickly, contentious nature of May’s relationship with the studios who financed her films, then wondered whether they would ever be able to finagle the reels out of May’s notoriously perfectionist hands, it’s remarkable that May even got to make a second film, let alone a third and fourth. May’s remarkable talent got her into all sorts of exciting, glamorous places that her strong-willed personality and readiness to sacrifice just about everything for her films promptly got her kicked out of. May didn’t just make life hard for the studios that financed her films; she also challenged audiences with unsympathetic protagonists, unconventional plots, and awkwardness and tension aplenty.
Where her old comedy partner Mike Nichols forever changed film with his first two directorial efforts, Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf? and The Graduate, and went on to occupy a place of privilege as an in-demand A-list director (sometimes of scripts written or script-doctored by May), pop culture has largely relegated May to the fringes. She’s a quintessential cult filmmaker whose oeuvre is appreciated more by dedicated students of comedy and cinephiles than by the public at large.
Potential gateway: The Heartbreak Kid (1972)
Why? The Heartbreak Kid is the sole hit in May’s directorial arsenal; it even inspired a dreadful Farrelly Brothers remake that’s less a faithful tribute than an unforgivable desecration. May’s most commercial film is an exquisite comedy of bad manners about a young Jewish salesman (Charles Grodin, in a role that would define him) who gets married to a neurotic young woman (Jeannie Berlin, May’s own daughter, in a poignantly fearless performance) whose coterie of annoying quirks soon build into a monsoon of unbearable irritation during a disastrous honeymoon in South Beach. In the film’s masterful early scenes, May subtly amps up the modestly off-putting quirks we learn to tolerate in a partner—like messy eating, bad singing, and a grating but all-too-human need for constant validation—into a symphony of comic aggravation.
Grodin is already doubting his decision to marry Berlin (a decision the film none-too-subtly suggests was motivated more by lust than love) when he meets a gorgeous young woman played by Cybill Shepherd who is everything Berlin is not: arrogant, young, blonde, model-gorgeous, rich, and, most significantly, the shiksa goddess he has been pining for. Where the famously directionless protagonist of Nichols’ simpatico The Graduate doesn’t know what he wants, Grodin’s tragedy is that he knows exactly what he wants and doggedly pursues it without knowing that what he desires is not what he actually needs.
Even by the shaggy standards of ’70s American cinema, The Heartbreak Kid is bold in its willingness to let its protagonist behave abhorrently: Grodin is less a romantic dreamer willing to risk it all for love than a selfish, lust-driven narcissist who leaves his sunburn-addled wife to suffer while he lets the dictates of his libido overrule his common sense and basic decency. Like much of May’s body of work, The Heartbreak Kid shows an unmatched genius for the comedy of discomfort. May’s films live and breathe in the awkward silence between talking. She luxuriates in the agonizing moments more fearful comic minds assiduously avoid to keep the audience from growing uncomfortable. The Heartbreak Kid is about as commercial as May gets, but even at her most audience-friendly she still usurped both audience expectations and the conventions of the romantic comedy with a film where the hero (or rather antihero) getting the girl feels more like his eternal doom rather than a happy ending.
Next steps: Grodin may be a self-absorbed jerk in The Heartbreak Kid, but he’s a saint compared to the incorrigible ne’er do well Walter Matthau plays in 1971’s A New Leaf. Grodin merely falls for another woman while his wife suffers cinema’s most painful case of sunburn; in A New Leaf, Matthau actually sets out to murder his new wife, a daffy heiress, played by May herself, whose life has become a shambles due to her excessive kindness and unwillingness to hold anyone responsible for their actions, particularly a household staff that is robbing her blind.
In a wonderful lead performance, Matthau gloriously channels the misanthropic majesty of W.C. Fields, playing a man of leisure distraught at the prospect of having to contribute to society once his inheritance runs out. To keep the unthinkable from happening—getting a job and engaging in the deplorable practice of honest labor—Matthau seduces and marries May for her money, only to be won over by her blinkered sweetness and vulnerability.
According to Elaine May lore, the filmmaker was working on a much darker, three-hour cut of A New Leaf that was taken out of her hands and edited down to less than two hours. Even in its radically altered form, however, the naughty-but-nice black comedy was still too bracingly dark for a mainstream audience, and was sizable flop despite good reviews, especially for the unlikely couple at the center of the film. (Among her other gifts, May is a brilliant, though frustratingly non-prolific, actress.)
A New Leaf is May’s inspired take on the screwball comedy, every bit as smart and subversive as The Heartbreak Kid. But the film’s paltry box-office returns—and vigorous second life as a cult film—proved there was no genre or style of film she couldn’t subvert in her personal, uncompromising, and, unfortunately, relentlessly non-commercial way.
Uncompromising also describes perhaps the most uncharacteristic film in May’s oeuvre, the 1976 drama Mikey & Nicky. It draws heavily on the films of one of its stars, John Cassavetes, as well as Cassavetes’ famously improvisation-heavy, spontaneous methods. Not surprisingly, the budget soon spiraled out of control as May captured the spontaneous interactions of Cassavetes and co-star/frequent collaborator Peter Falk for hours on end. May wanted to afford herself as many options as possible when it came to the editing process (which is important, since with May the editing process could last years), so she over-shot to an almost comic extent.
According to a story relayed in a New York article about the making of Ishtar, May ordered her crew to continue filming even after Cassavetes and Falk had left for the evening and became enraged when a confused and frustrated cameraman called “cut,” a privilege generally reserved for a film’s director. When the cameraman protested that he only called “cut” because the actors had walked away, May reportedly responded, “Yes… but they might come back.”
That story speaks volumes about May, but there is a method to her madness as well as a madness to her method. Through one long, emotionally charged night in the life of a pair of small-time hoods facing a bleak personal reckoning, Mikey & Nicky poignantly and unblinkingly explores one of May’s pet preoccupations: how partnerships work, and how they fall apart. (It has not escaped the attention of critics that the film’s title sounds awfully similar to the name of May’s old partner.)
Mikey & Nicky isn’t just an unusually accomplished riff on the sweaty intensity of its iconoclastic stars’ oeuvre; it ranks alongside Cassavetes’ best films. It’s remarkable that an artist with such a strong personality and sensibility (the studio heads May habitually butted heads with would probably argue that May’s personality and sensibility were in fact much too strong) was able to channel another artist’s personality so compellingly and convincingly.
Where Mikey & Nicky played the sweaty desperation of small-timers in over their heads for tragedy, the wildly underrated Ishtar plays it for raucous comedy. The film casts Warren Beatty and Dustin Hoffman as a pair of hilariously untalented singer-songwriters who become pawns in a conflict between leftist freedom fighters and the despot of the fictional Middle Eastern country of Ishtar.
The hurricane of bad press that greeted Ishtar focused much more on the film’s bloated budget than its creative merits. It became a poster child for Hollywood waste, a cautionary warning of the dangers of going over schedule and over budget. But time has been kind to May’s comedy. Today, the film stands as both a surprisingly trenchant satire of American foreign-policy opportunism, and as a hilarious and sweet look at friendship, though it’s weighed down by a labored and clumsy third act. The toxic reception Ishtar received might have doomed May’s career as a director, but not before she got to make four iconoclastic films that captured her prickly genius for posterity.
Considering how ferociously May fought for her own fiercely personal, idiosyncratic vision in the face of pressure from others, it’s a little ironic that she segued into a lucrative second career as a script doctor, a trade built upon altering, and hopefully improving on, the work of others. May contributed uncredited work on hits like Tootsie and Dangerous Minds, but picked up an Academy Award nomination for her work on 1978’s Heaven Can Wait, an entertaining update of Here Comes Mr. Jordan. Warren Beatty, who also co-wrote and co-directed, stars in this a classic romantic fantasy about an athlete who dies too early and is given a second chance to make things right on earth. May, who co-wrote the screenplay with a credited Beatty and uncredited Robert Towne, helped give the crowd-pleaser a heart, soul, and satirical edge, bridging the gap between the big commercial Hollywood of Spielberg, Lucas, and Streisand and the auteur-driven cinema of New Hollywood.
May picked up another Academy Award nomination, deservedly so, for her 1998 adaptation of the scandalous bestseller Primary Colors. The book version of Primary Colors engendered a whirlwind of controversy and notoriety for its anonymously written insider account of a power couple clearly modeled on Bill and Hillary Clinton, but May undercut the book’s sensationalism and delivered a powerful, morally complex exploration of the compromises inherent in aspiring to great power. It’s one of May’s characteristically profound looks at the strengths and limitations of partnerships. That Primary Colors was expertly directed by May’s old partner Mike Nichols—who also tapped her for the screenplay to the blockbuster comedy The Birdcage—adds an extra resonance to its sophisticated, nuanced take on the complexities of human relationships through the decades.
Where not to start: In part because she is so controlling, May never directed a bad movie, but she had precious little control over what other filmmakers did with her words. This is especially true in the case of a director comically ill-suited for collaboration with May: the despotic Otto Preminger, who was just as controlling and strong-willed as May, albeit to different ends.
Preminger collaborated with May on an ill-fated 1971 adaptation of the Lois Gould novel Such Good Friends, though the process was so tumultuous and painful that May had the script credited to the pseudonym “Esther Dale.” It was a wise move. Preminger’s conception of satirical comedy is as clumsy and ham-fisted as May’s is sophisticated and nuanced. It’s never an encouraging sign when a collaboration between a comic genius and a great filmmaker out of his element is the unexpected and wholly unwelcome appearance of the flaccid penis of supporting player Burgess Meredith.