Lost and Found: The Heartbreak Kid

Elaine May’s bleak anti-romantic comedy is overshadowed by the Farrelly brothers’ crude 2007 remake. About time this masterpiece of disillusion, self-loathing and destructive daydreaming was seen on its own account

The Heartbreak Kid (1972)

Cybill Shepherd’s beauty blinds like the sun. It’s enough to make Charles Grodin’s Lenny squint when faced with its full force, in Elaine May’s dark comedy The Heartbreak Kid (1972). They meet on the beach in Miami, on the first day of Lenny’s honeymoon with his wife, Lila (Jeannie Berlin). Shepherd’s Kelly hovers above, blonde hair backlit and giving the appearance of a halo. May creates the uneasy sense that she might be too good to be true, as likely a figment of Lenny’s imagination as a mirage.

My first encounter with May’s elusive second film was a 35mm screening at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London in 2018. Arranged by The Badlands Collective, a group of independent programmers, it was part of a complete retrospective of May’s films, of which there are just four.

A screenwriter, playwright, comedian, actress and director, May rose to prominence in the US in the late 1950s through her comedy act with Mike Nichols, which they performed live and on TV. Her directorial debut, the dark screwball comedy A New Leaf (1971), which she also wrote and starred in, should have been the start of a promising new auteur’s long career. Instead, the fraught production earned her a reputation in Hollywood as difficult to work with. Newspapers reported that her budget ballooned, that she over-shot material, that her editing choices were frequently overruled by the studio producing the pictures. When her fourth film, Ishtar (1987), starring Warren Beatty, was a critical and commercial flop, it was pronounced the nail in the coffin of her directing career. She sought refuge in the theatre, as writer and performer, and continued to write and polish film scripts. Reflecting on her career, on stage with Nichols in New York in 2006, she said: “The thing is, of course, I wasn’t a nice girl. And when they found this out, they hated me all the more.”

Before the ICA screening, the only version of The Heartbreak Kid I had seen was, unfortunately, the 2007 Farrelly brothers remake, starring Ben Stiller as Lenny: crass and mean-spirited, it’s best forgotten. May’s original, however, is a savagely funny cautionary tale about an ambitious (and entitled) young sporting goods salesman who ditches his Jewish wife in favour of a worldly Wasp princess. “I’ve gotta see you one more time. I’ve gotta prove something to myself,” he tells Kelly. Of course, it ’s not just one more time, and his lies to new wife Lila about where he’s been, as well as those to Kelly’s father Mr Corcoran (Eddie Albert) about who he really is, escalate in increasingly madcap fashion.

The problems begin en route to the honeymoon when, hours into his new marriage, Lenny realises that actually, he doesn’t much like his new wife. From her singing voice to the way she eats to the circles she tenderly traces on his chest after they sleep together for the first time, everything Lila does seems to stir feelings of disappointment and disgust. A post-coital Milky Way is another display of Lila’s immaturity and, for Lenny, an affront.

The Heartbreak Kid (1972)

These moments are played for comedy, though a contemporary viewer might not f ind them especially funny. Today Lenny’s open disdain for his wife, a woman who declares her needs, appetites, and expectations, reads first and foremost as misogyny. His ability to project the perfect woman on to Kelly is misogyny, too. This is perhaps why The Heartbreak Kid still feels so fresh; half a century later, the ‘nice guy’ trope is hardly a relic. Lenny is a salesman, remember, and the film is keenly aware that not everyone is buying his shtick.

But Grodin makes the sweaty, panicked Lenny believably and endearingly human. The film doesn’t excuse his weakness or entitlement, but it does understand his insecurity and desperation. It ’s also not afraid to mock him when things haven’t gone as well as he thinks.

In The Heartbreak Kid, May’s brilliance is in how she keeps shifting the power dynamics. Using long takes and extended set pieces, May creates space for those dynamics to warp and change, often several times over the course of a single scene. In the film’s emotional climax, a cringe-inducing showdown between Lenny and Lila over dinner, Lenny gears up to deliver his confused wife the bad news. “YOURE DYING!” she screeches. The truth, she discovers, is worse; she sobs and tries not to throw up. May cast her own daughter as the preening Lila, and Berlin dispenses with her own vanity, leaning into the physical comedy of the role. She’s not afraid to get egg on her face (literally), or to play up the body horror of sunburn, surfacing from an afternoon on the sun loungers as red as a freshly boiled lobster. She might be read as the shrill embodiment of the Jewish director’s own neuroses, about being passed over for a cool, secular blonde. Berlin’s shattered expression, when the penny finally drops, slips off the knife edge from comedy into tragedy.

The Heartbreak Kid remains the hardest of May’s films to see. While 35mm prints exist in the US and Sweden, international rights restrictions mean it is not straightforward to present these in England. The Badlands Collective was able to track down a rare ex-BBC transmission print that had not previously been catalogued in the BFI’s collection.

The film’s rights now belong to pharmaceutical company Bristol-Myers Squibb, who briefly dabbled in film production but finally dissolved their entertainment division. In 2021 it reiterated that it had no plans to sell the rights. As a result, The Heartbreak Kid has not been restored, and is not available on any streaming platforms. Vintage DVDs are available on import for a premium, and bootlegged versions of the film can be found, but officially its home release is out of print. Here’s hoping an enterprising DVD label – perhaps Criterion, which issued May’s Mikey and Nicky (1976) in the US in 2019 – can break the impasse.