Elaine May: laughing matters

Elaine May’s extraordinary career over seven decades as director, screenwriter and stand-up comic remains criminally undervalued, a body of work in which she has taken great delight in skewering male vanity and puncturing the inflated egos of millionaires and politicians. From our October 2018 issue.

Updated: 18 April 2024

By Carrie Rickey

Sight and Sound
Elaine May

She revolutionised stand-up comedy and was among the first comedians of the sound era to bring her unique skills to writing and directing movies, such as A New Leaf (1971) and The Heartbreak Kid (1972). Her script-doctoring saved Warren Beatty’s Reds (1981) and Sydney Pollack’s Tootsie (1982). Her screenplays for Heaven Can Wait (1978) and Primary Colors (1998) earned Oscar nominations.

And yet Elaine May, who at 86 is set to return to Broadway this autumn in Kenneth Lonergan’s The Waverly Gallery, remains criminally unsung for someone of her talents and influence. No doubt Ishtar (1987), her unaccountably reviled and remarkably prescient allegory of blundering Americans in the Middle East, put an end to her directorial career. Still, like the woman herself, it was startlingly original.

Dazzled, dazed and maybe intimidated by May, Richard Burton was the voice of conventional wisdom about this unconventional figure. He remembered their single encounter in his diary: “Elaine was formidable… one of the most intelligent, beautiful and witty women I had ever met. I hoped I would never see her again.” Happily, his is not the last word on the subject. Working alongside Mike Nichols, May was present at the creation of improvisational comedy. Conception and gestation took place at Chicago’s Compass Theater, the forerunner of Second City – during the early 1950s. Nichols and May were occasional students at the University of Chicago; Susan Sontag was a classmate. While all three would go on to write and direct films, Nichols and May toiled for a time as the particle physicists of improv, dedicated to stripping sketches down to their atomic level. In their earliest experiments they made an important discovery. All human encounters – and thus, the human comedy itself – could be divided into three categories: seductions, negotiations or fights.

In the 1950s, when American comedy consisted of Bob Hope one-liners and Jerry Lewis pratfalls, Nichols and May improvised stunningly funny vignettes of mothers and sons on the phone, co-workers at the water cooler and teenagers on a date. They didn’t spoof celebrities. They didn’t send up politicians. They didn’t do stand-up jokes. Their sketches weren’t rehearsed and polished, they seemed to be mined in the moment. Here was the comedy of discomfort, at once ticklish and anxious.

On Broadway with their wildly successful and influential An Evening with Mike Nichols and Elaine May in 1960, these two students of Stanislavski-inspired acting – she had studied with Moscow Art Theatre acolyte Maria Ouspenskaya and he with Actors Studio guru Lee Strasberg – popularised their new form. Electrified by their truth of character and wit, a young gagwriter named Woody Allen approached the duo’s agent Jack Rollins, volunteering to write for them. He was told that they didn’t write, they generated their own material. From Lily Tomlin to Tina Fey, from Albert Brooks to Chris Rock, Nichols and May influenced generations of comedians.

A New Leaf (1971)

The trend the duo instigated in American comedy paralleled that in popular music. Where once a songwriter like Cole Porter wrote for many different voices, singer-songwriters like Joan Baez and Bob Dylan started writing for themselves. Woody Allen and Joan Rivers began their careers turning out jokes for established comics, but were soon creating material about and for themselves. Nichols and May, Allen and Brooks burrowed into themselves, encouraging listeners to laugh less at puns and punch-lines or contrived situations, and more in recognition of their own foibles.

So what does this have to do with the films that May – and Nichols – made, separately and together? In uneasy scenarios that hinted at dark subtexts, the pair introduced serious comedy to the movies, comedy with almost painful silences and characters who were shockingly unsympathetic.

The gregarious Nichols would go on to direct 20-odd films, two of which were written by – and Lord knows how many more doctored by – May. His movies, especially Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966) and The Graduate (1967), redefined the Hollywood mainstream. As he worked in so many different genres and tones, it’s hard to make a case for him as an auteur.

May, by contrast, the elusive J.D. Salinger of comedy, was happy in the eddies writing and directing four films that have surprising consistency. In A New Leaf, The Heartbreak Kid, Mikey and Nicky (1976) and Ishtar, the viewer experiences something rare: a woman’s gimlet-eyed view of the varieties of male vanity and narcissism. Her movies are a series of seductions, negotiations and fights. Notable in May’s films, and in many of the screenplays she wrote for other people, is the introduction of a fourth kind of human encounter: betrayal. With her directorial debut, the black comedy A New Leaf, which May also wrote and starred in, she became the first woman since Ida Lupino (The Trouble with Angels in 1966) to direct a studio film. The central character is Henry, played by a surprisingly dapper Walter Matthau, a narcissistic playboy (is there any other kind?) who has burned through the family inheritance and is horrified by the prospect of working for a living.

A New Leaf (1971)

Henry dresses like Cary Grant, has the morals of Jack the Ripper and believes the best solution to his financial plight is to wed an heiress and promptly dispose of her. Although his butler chastises Henry for trying to preserve a way of life that was dead before he was born, the paupered heir finds a mark in Henrietta (Elaine May), a fantastically wealthy university professor and botanist who, in the way that the hero of Preston Sturges’s screwball classic The Lady Eve (1941) is more comfortable with snakes than people, has eyes only for ferns. On their honeymoon, he pores over ‘A Beginner’s Guide to Toxicology’ and she haplessly struggles to slip into a Grecian dress. Like almost everything May touched, it boasts nuanced performances, is drolly funny and is in a class of its own.

May’s theme in this, as with many of her future films, is that men are turkeys in peacock plumage. And that they would, without hesitation, betray those closest to them. Given the guilelessness of Henrietta and the cynicism of Henry, the taste of this is distinctively sweet and sour. May’s initial cut, which reportedly took 10 months to assemble, was said to be three hours long. She hid the reels but they were seized by Paramount and edited down. The resulting film was wryly funny and perversely romantic, reversing the Genesis story by beginning in cynical times and ending in an unspoiled Eden; inexplicably, May tried to disavow this critical success.

The post-production drama surrounding A New Leaf was a preview of May’s subsequent truculent relationships with studio authority. If you’re Orson Welles or Preston Sturges, such belligerence burnishes your reputation. If you’re Elaine May, it tarnishes it. Safe to say, though, that neither Welles nor Sturges so consistently overran budget, shot so much coverage, or hid negatives from the studio as May did.

The Heartbreak Kid (1972)

The Heartbreak Kid likewise examined betrayal within marriage, her second film in a row about a groom on his honeymoon who wants to unburden himself of his bride. This time, Charles Grodin stars as Lenny Cantrow, a callow newlywed who abandons his radiantly ordinary brunette bride Lila Kolodny, (played by May’s daughter Jeannie Berlin), in order to court blonde beauty Cybill Shepherd. Of the many consonances between May’s The Heartbreak Kid and Nichols’s The Graduate, the most obvious is that both are about young men who effectively trade in their first sexual partner for a latermodel Wasp princess.

Because May makes Lenny’s Jewishness explicit – in a way Nichols had not done with Benjamin Braddock – it’s easy to see in her satire of the romantic comedy how his libido is tangled up in Jewish self-hate and sexual fantasies of the unattainable blonde. This rueful comedy about desire of the Other is as trenchant as Philip Roth.

Those who doubt that movies are different when a woman is behind the camera might be surprised at the extent to which May’s men, from Henry and Lenny to the title characters in Mikey and Nicky, to the Ishtar friends Chuck and Lyle, are man babies who want what they want (sex, money, fame) and want it now. On the other hand, her women – especially Henrietta the botanist and Shirra the guerrilla in Ishtar – have inner lives and goals. For these women, men are at best a pleasant diversion or at worst a waste of time. Where May’s first two directorial efforts involve treachery within a marriage, her second two revolve around betrayal within a friendship. Mikey and Nicky (note the similarity between the names of her lead characters and the given name and surname of her one-time partner) was a passion project. Those who knew her in the Chicago days remember her taking notes for a play about two low-level mob retainers, childhood friends, who turn on each other.

Mikey and Nicky (1976)

The drama stars John Cassavetes as frantic Nicky, a bookie who’s embezzled money from a mob boss and correctly suspects he’s the target of a hit man. Peter Falk co-stars as Mikey, the calmer one, accustomed to cleaning up Nicky’s messes. Set over a dark night of the soul in the flophouses and dive bars of May’s birthplace Philadelphia, this nocturne (as opposed to noir) is the outlier of the director’s career. There are moments of bleak humour, but on the whole the film’s tone is a requiem for toxic masculinity, with one female character pushing back at the misogynistic protagonists.

Its desperation makes it feel very much like a Cassavetes movie, the best one he never made. During production, the budget ballooned from $1.8 million to $4.3 million and May shot 1.4 million feet of film, three times the length of Gone with the Wind (1939). But for May’s battles with the studio about overages, and holding two reels hostage, the film might have received its due. Alas, in late 1976 the film was dumped, unceremoniously, in just a few cinemas in a cut rife with continuity errors. May and an associate bought back the print and the director’s cut is now in circulation. It would be 11 years until her final feature film, Ishtar.

In the intervening years she was brought in to cowrite, rewrite or doctor films, making fortunes for the studio bosses she had so exasperated. During this middle period of her Hollywood career, May increasingly dealt with the subjects of politics and sexual politics. Beatty credits her for improving his hit film Heaven Can Wait (in which Julie Christie was a political protester) and for honing the script of his Oscar-winning Reds (1980), about early 20th-century American socialists John Reed and Louise Bryant. Said Dustin Hoffman of Tootsie (1982), a gentle gender-bender in which a failed actor achieves success in drag as an actress, “Elaine is the one who made the movie work,” noting that she gave it structure, created the Bill Murray character, wrote Hoffman’s confessional monologue and deepened the female parts.

Ishtar (1987)

Beatty and Hoffman thanked May by signing on to Ishtar (named for the Babylonian goddess of love and war), a film that would, unjustly, derail the careers of all three. The actors play Chuck and Lyle, supremely untalented singer-songwriters, unsuitable for domestic consumption and so devoid of self-awareness that their agent reckons they might be useful to the CIA abroad. From this premise May constructs a three-tier farce about showbiz wannabes, clueless men and even more clueless Americans.

Thirty years ago audiences greeted Ishtar with near-universal contempt. Today, revisionists say it’s a misunderstood masterpiece. It was funny then. It is even funnier now if you regard it as an allegory of American policy in the Middle East. Here they are, Chuck and Lyle, two dunces on a blind camel wandering the desert as buzzards circle overhead, one allied with the CIA, the other with Arab revolutionaries. It’s a narrative that makes one think that surely it is easier for a blind camel to go through the eye of a needle than for Americans to help achieve peace in the Middle East. While May would make a 2016 television documentary about her late comic partner Mike Nichols, Ishtar effectively ended her career as a feature filmmaker. In the 1990s, though, she earned fresh acclaim as a political satirist. Her adaptation of La Cage aux folles for Nichols’s The Birdcage (1996) resulted in a raucous and giddily funny film contrasting liberal and reactionary family values. Robin Williams and Nathan Lane are gay entertainers whose son is engaged to the daughter of a hypocritical conservative Republican senator (Gene Hackman) and his wife (Dianne Wiest). May’s adaptation of Joe Klein’s Primary Colors, also for Nichols, is an unapologetic political tragicomedy about the chasm between the ideals and the actions of a Bill Clinton-like Southern Democrat (John Travolta) running for president. Emma Thompson plays the Hillary-like wife he betrays.

If as a director, May remains something of a cult figure, the two-time Oscar nominated screenwriter is a provocative social satirist to rank alongside Sturges, forever eager to puncture the inflated egos of millionaires, mobsters and politicians and the institutions they hide behind.

The new issue of Sight and Sound

Hamaguchi Ryūsuke: insights on and from the Japanese auteur Plus: Mica Levi on their innovative score for The Zone of Interest – Víctor Erice interviewed about his masterful return to feature filmmaking, Close Your Eyes – a festival report from a politically charged Berlinale

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Originally published: 20 April 2023

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