Which words or phrases do you most overuse?
“You’re kidding” and “Oh, fuck” and “Oh, fuck, you’re kidding.”
—Elaine May, interviewed in Vanity Fair, March 2009
While she’s not exactly unknown, just based on anecdotal experience Elaine May generally seems to be the kind of filmmaker that one discovers—her films are frequently found hidden in plain sight. A lot of people I know come to her through her association with high profile collaborators: Mike Nichols, Peter Falk, John Cassavetes, Woody Allen. My journey towards May was slightly different, yet it was also through her collaborative work with another cinematic icon: Isabelle Adjani. Adjani has been my favourite actor since the moment I saw her in La Reine Margot (Patrice Chéreau, 1994), from which point I worked my way back through her diverse, lengthy filmography. This is how I discovered Elaine May, when she and Adjani joined forces on the critically maligned 1987 comedy Ishtar. While it famously resulted in what was effectively the end of May’s directorial career, it was not a happy ending in terms of Adjani’s ambitions for a Hollywood, either—a superstar in France, the latter’s efforts to break into mainstream American cinema also evaporated with the Ishtar fiasco.1
Like Adjani, however, there is certainly no lack of praise for May’s work—The New Yorker’s Richard Brody having once described her as no less than “the greatest American woman director and simply one of the great modern filmmakers.” As screenwriter, actor, comic and director, May made only four films—A New Leaf (1971), The Heartbreak Kid (1972), Mikey and Nicky (1976) and Ishtar (1987)—but, as Vincent Canby at The New York Times noted of her debut feature at the time, all of May’s work is “touched by a fine and knowing madness.” Yet until recent years, even watching May’s directorial work has itself been a challenge. When A New Leaf was finally released on Blu-ray in 2013, The Village Voice’s Calum Marsh observed that The Heartbreak Kid had been so hard to find that rare, out-of-print DVDs were being sold on Amazon for anywhere between $100 to $1998 a pop. The obscurity of May’s work does, admittedly, fit a longer trajectory of desired anonymity on her own part: Ryan Gilbey provides a laundry list of examples, including her requesting an interviewer not mention her name in a feature article, her bio reading “Miss May does not exist” on her and Nichols’ 1959 Improvisations to Music album and—perhaps best of all—Life magazine publishing a “Where is she now?” article about May in 1967.
Nichols is of course May’s most significant professional collaborator, and her story is impossible to tell without him. They met when they were students at the University of Chicago, and became involved in a performance group called The Compass who, in the mid-1950s, were focused on improvisational sketch comedy. Forming a comedy duo in 1957, they became familiar faces on stage and television, their success on Broadway in particular launching a lucrative career that also included the release of successful comedy records. When their partnership ended in 1962, both had their eyes trained on Hollywood. Nichols would would go onto win a Best Director Oscar for The Graduate (1967) and a BAFTA for Best Film the year before for Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, while May would again collaborate with Nichols on some of his most successful films of the 1990s: The Birdcage (1996), Primary Colors (1998) and Wolf (1994), although she was uncredited on the latter. May built a strong reputation as a screenwriter without Nichols, too, earning an Oscar Nomination for 1978’s Heaven Can Wait (with co-writer Warren Beatty), and receiving a Laurel Award for Screenwriting Achievement from the Writer’s Guild of America in January of this year. As an actor, she appeared not only in A New Leaf, but in films including Carl Reiner’s Enter Laughing (1967), Clive Donner’s Luv (1967) and Woody Allen’s Small Time Crooks (2000)—for which she was awarded Best Supporting Actress from the National Society of Film Critics.
But it was as a director that May arguably did her best work and—according to many, at least—her worst. Ishtar has, in recent years, been granted a long-overdue re-assessment, as many film critics and curators (Miriam Bale in particular) have gone to extraordinary lengths to allow the film the serious critical reconsideration it deserves. At the time of its original release, however, Ishtar was unquestioningly in vogue as the-film-you-love-to-hate, and it destroyed May’s directorial career. In retrospect, it’s difficult to describe the scale with which Ishtar-bashing was so heartily embraced. That Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert christened it 1987’s worst film and it won May a “Worst Director” at that year’s Golden Raspberry Awards begin to illustrate the intensity and scale of the critical derision it faced.
Which is a shame. Ishtar might not be May’s masterpiece, but it is warm, funny and fundamentally joyful. For Richard Brody, it is an “ingenious micro-spectacle”, “a grand-scale riot of a scenario realized with a precise and intimate mechanism.” A number of critics shrewdly drew parallels between Dustin Hoffman and Warren Beatty’s bumbling, failed musicians who somehow fall on the wrong side of a CIA plot in the imaginary eponymous Middle Eastern country with the classic road movie comedies made famous by Bing Crosby and Bob Hope. Now that the hate-buzz has long died down, for the Ishtar defenders among us (whom I suspect are more numerous than you might imagine) it is nothing less than a vindication to have highly regarded critics coming out in the film’s defence. What is fascinating about the most succinct of these arguments is how much they agree: aside from its notorious production history, the problem with Ishtar wasn’t that it was necessarily a ‘bad’ film, but that it cast Beatty and Hoffman—the former in particular—in roles so dramatically against type. Audiences and critics alike were not comfortable with Beatty as anything less than his signature smooth ladies’ man. As Richard Brody rightly noted, “critics reacted badly to May’s reconfiguration of its stars… as somewhat ridiculous characters (exemplary members of May’s gallery of the vain and the self-deluding), as if the deglamorization of icons were a sort of crime against cinema.” For Julian Myers, the heart of what audiences and critics found so uncomfortable about Ishtar went even further: “This is the existential dilemma of the film: Why should you go on if you are totally mediocre? Well, at least we can be mediocre together.” Who knows, maybe film critics are just professionally inclined to be a little sensitive about mediocrity.
It would be disingenuous to claim that Ishtar’s problems were limited to debates around plot and characterisation, however. As the New York Times’ Janet Maslin observed in her review of the film at the time, “it’s impossible to discuss Ishtar… without noting the extravagant rumormongering that has surrounded its making.” May’s perfectionism reached almost mythic levels of pedantry, with elaborate stories circulating about her involvement in the casting of camels and the correct sculpting of sand dunes. These director-out-of-control anecdotes are not limited to Ishtar, but perhaps the film’s large budget and high-calibre cast brought them the most attention. This construction of May—as a director with an unruly filmmaking methodology—forms the core of the Mikey and Nicky Wikipedia page in particular: she shot 1.4 million feet of film (three times as much more than was used for Gone with the Wind). May would leave numerous cameras running for hours on end, even when stars Peter Falk and John Cassavetes had left the set—her reasoning for this, in her own words, was that “they might come back.”
This spirit of improvisation is not difficult to trace back to May’s earlier work as a performer with Nichols. In some respects, the overt theatricality of A New Leaf in particular renders it very much part of the stage traditions upon which May’s career was initially founded. At the same time, within her improvisational approach to filming—incomprehensible to studio executives in the era of celluloid, but perhaps not totally absurd in a world now dominated by digital filmmaking—May’s direction contains something profoundly contemporary in both tone and shape. Reviewing The Heartbreak Kid in January 1973, Time magazine prophetically looked back on May’s earlier career with an insight that would apply just as much to considerations of her work after the Ishtar dust had settled:
Elaine May, both as a film maker… and a performer, is someone from whom we have come to expect a kind of carefree inconsistency. By now it is part of her appeal. She veers effectively, if not exactly smoothly, through wild changes of mood and attitude, from very human comedy to sharp satire to a sort of urchin wistfulness. Her reactions to her characters are so complex and abrupt that the audience is always kept lagging a little behind and slightly off balance. It is an odd sensation, but pleasant.
The production circuses of Mikey and Nicky and Ishtar were not new to May, and in fact threatened to derail her directorial career before it had even begun. After an epic 10 months of editing, her debut film A New Leaf was submitted to Paramount (then headed by the iconic Robert Evans) at a whopping three hours. May was so outraged when the task of further reducing the film’s length was taken out of her hands that she took legal action in an attempt to have her name removed from the film’s credits. Dismissing the 102-minute cut as “cliché-ridden [and] banal”, May argued in court that the film would be a disaster if released in its edited version. Paramount retaliated, accusing May of failing “to perform her duties as a director in a timely, workmanlike and professional manner, resulting in substantially increased production costs.” New York Supreme Court Justice Irving H. Saypol decided to watch the edited version himself, and he liked it: the shorter version of A New Leaf was released and, against May’s better judgement, it is this cut that even today enthrals audiences around the world.
By all accounts that director’s cut is now long gone, but the original script involves a blackmail plot and a substantially increased body count. While May’s vision of the film was thwarted in a manner far beyond the romanticised notion of authorial control, it is admittedly difficult to imagine how this extra material could build on what feels almost close to perfect. A New Leaf follows mean-spirited bachelor Henry Graham (Walter Matthau) as he discovers he has dwindled away his entire fortune, forcing him to either accept a life of looming poverty or to marry a wealthy woman. Given a time limit by his uncle, desperation leads him to nervous, clumsy botanist Henrietta Lowell—played by May herself. Plotting to murder her soon after their wedding, Henry—against his own will—begins to develop a protective affection for Henrietta as they unify against a number of external threats, from larcenous domestic staff to recalcitrant Grecian-style nightgowns. It’s sharp as a tack and funny as hell. As Kate Stables wrote in Sight & Sound in February 2016, A New Leaf “sharply skewers the narcissism of a male hero bent on severing himself from a new bride. But May’s portrayal of appealing, soft-voiced helplessness, set against Matthau’s deadpan slow burn, is what humanises the film until its eventual change of tone feels credible rather than contrived.”
Matthau was already in his early 50s when he appeared in A New Leaf, but in many ways his performance feels more youthful than the roles he was achieving success with at the time. In many ways, Henry is riffing on both Matthau’s stingy millionaire from Gene Kelly’s Hello Dolly! (1969) and the deceitful playboy with a penchant for elaborate romantic schemes in Gene Saks’ Cactus Flower (1969). And there is something inescapably sad about Henry: May hones in on his hollowness without fetishising it, capturing perhaps nowhere better that which Roger Ebert pinpointed as the secret of Matthau’s most famous roles: “In comedy he never tried to be funny, and in tragedy he never tried to be sad. He was just this big…shambling, sardonic guy whose dialogue had the ease and persuasion of overheard truth.”
A New Leaf very much belongs to Elaine May, however—not only as a director and writer, but as its star. In the wrong hands, her Henrietta could easily collapse into a kind of toothless, overly-cute geek girl parody, or—on the other extreme—a frumpy, fumbling monstrous feminine. May’s ability to hit the exact middle ground with Henrietta is extraordinary: watching the film 45 years after its first release, Henrietta’s embarrassment is contagious—we cringe as we laugh, we blush for her as much as we laugh at her. We shamefully understand on an intuitive level why Henry considers her disposable, yet—like him—we can’t help but fall in love with her, too. For better or for worse, A New Leaf is Elaine May’s greatest work as actor, writer and director (lawsuits aside).
The year after the fiasco surrounding A New Leaf, May released The Heartbreak Kid. If she felt that she lost her bearings with her debut film, the success of her second no doubt restored her faith in the potential of cinema as an outlet for her numerous talents. Oscar nominated (including one for actor Jeannie Berlin, May’s daughter), it was also remade, with Ben Stiller, by the Farrelly brothers in 2007. Again, however, May struggled with production issues: with a $1.8 million budget, the film’s release was delayed after its costs blew out to well over double. Based on a script by Neil Simon, the film follows Lenny Cantrow (Charles Grodin), who marries the simple Lila Kolodny (Jeannie Berlin) in a small Jewish family wedding ceremony—only to find his patience with her beginning to fray mere days into their Miami honeymoon. With Lila quarantined to their hotel room after getting badly sunburned, Lenny turns his romantic attentions to the cold but attractive Kelly Corcoran (Cybill Shepherd). He successfully courts her —despite her father’s protestations—after brutally leaving the just-married Lila. Although tonally quite different from A New Leaf, both films are in darkly comic ways scathing attacks on the hypocrisy and cruelty of marriage as an institution—they are films that seek to humiliate and reveal the impotence of these selfish, arrogant men.
Much has been made by critics of the parallels between The Heartbreak Kid and Nichols’ The Graduate. As author Saul Austerlitz notes, the points of comparison are hard to miss: “The mismatched Jewish-WASP romance, the confused antihero, the generational bloodshed.”2 But Austerlitz also observes the influence of another key May collaborator on The Heartbreak Kid, identifying that “something of the coarse, oafish intensity of Cassavetes’s Husbands and Faces is carried over into this unlikeliest of scenarios.” Calum Marsh also detected further similarities between May and Cassavetes, in terms of the shared “vitality and raw energy” of their comic styles. And the similarities don’t stop there: as noted in Time’s review of The Heartbreak Kid in 1972, May also fundamentally “shares with John Cassavetes a consuming affection for people, foibles and all.”
May’s career would intersect most explicitly with Cassavetes in the drama Mikey and Nicky (1976), in which he would act for her alongside Peter Falk. Based around the interpersonal dynamic of its eponymous characters—as Cassavetes’ Nicky faces imminent death at the hands of mobsters he has double crossed— it’s the most sombre of her films, yet its focus on potentially dysfunctional male relationships foreshadows Ishtar. While they’re very different films, both are marked by profoundly moving moments of gentle, physical intimacy where men in crisis simply hug it out. It is difficult to watch Mikey and Nicky and not try to imagine May’s directorial career in a parallel universe, one where the festival of eye-rolling surrounding Ishtar never happened. The final scene of Mikey and Nicky, in particular, is like nothing May ever achieved elsewhere in her brief but fascinating career as director, going down as one of the great final scenes of any American film from the 1970s. Its intensity is also astonishingly modern: recalling The Sopranos in its tone, form and execution more than The Godfather, Mikey and Nicky alone earns May the right to a place in critical discussions well beyond the domain of comedy.
As her collaborations with figures like Cassavetes and Nichols indicate, May by no means sought the all-women filmmaking networks that were on the rise in New York City during the ascent of Second Wave feminism. Her films resist any easy pigeonholing into discourse around quote-unquote “feminist filmmaking traditions”, less because of ideology as such but simply generational dynamics. As contemporary art curator Jill Dawsey observed, “May is the perhaps the wrong generation for feminism: she comes of age in the ’50s.” But there is Feminism (a historical movement) and feminism—a way of being in the world, of working in the world, of seeing the world from a position gendered emphatically feminine. And it is this that Dawsey champions in the case of Elaine May:
What is amazing is that she was on such equal footing with Nichols—and they both deserve credit for that. It’s this moment before second wave feminism, when one might imagine that femininity, with all its tics, might simply be dropped, or turned into comedy.
It is difficult not to see the downward spiral of May’s reputation as director being the result of some kind of inherent, widespread bias against women filmmakers. Her reputation was tainted by unrelenting, jokey accusations of her being a woman out of control, unable to contain herself, resistant to an industrial logic long deemed the terrain of men and the masculine.
Watching her four films today, Saul Austerlitz echoes that inevitable sense of mourning we experience at the realisation that there are no more Elaine May-directed films to come: “One wonders if May might have worked more had she been a young male wunderkind and not a middle-aged woman.”3 This speculation takes us nowhere particularly optimistic: almost 30 years since the Ishtar debacle, one need only give the most cursory glance to statistics concerning the plight of women directors in Hollywood to discover that conditions are still far from ideal. Elaine May’s directing career may have been short, but it was diverse, passionate, experimental and captivating. If there were failures, they were not hers. As Julian Myers noted in 2009, “It seems like the studio system betrayed her at almost every turn.”
Elaine May’s A New Leaf screened this year at the Melbourne International Film Festival as part of their ‘Gaining Ground’ sidebar, which focuses on “trailblazing female directors working in New York in the 70s and 80s.”