Rewriting the Book on Elaine May for Her 90th Birthday

Today is the 90th birthday of Elaine May (b. 1932). Having already done a post on her old comedy team with Mike Nichols, and one on Nichols himself (I’ll probably do at least one more), we thought it would be incumbent upon us to do one that focuses entirely on May herself.

She was, after all, as Nichols often admitted, the more brilliant of the two. The old narrative was that she was the star of the team but after the break-up Nichols found his way and May didn’t, her erratic and eccentric nature getting in the way of her creating her own comparable body of work. But this only holds through the limiting prism of auteur theory. Nichols focused on being a director, helming two dozen Broadway shows and 19 Hollywood movies. Whereas, May only directed four movies, half of which were problematic bombs, and she was “over” after the disaster of Ishtar. But I think we get a much truer and more complete picture if we use a measure more like the one Karina Longworth used to evaluate Polly Platt. Cinema is a collaborative art, and Elaine May is a complex genius. Rather than specializing, she opted to do whatever interested her, which meant that she has jumped around among jobs as a stage and screen actor, screenwriter, playwright, and director of stage and screen, with some of the stage work being off-Broadway as well as Broadway. It’s harder to pin down an artist who works that way, but on this blog we try to present the whole picture. Considered holistically, May has fulfilled her promise, just not in the usual, expected way of becoming a screen comedy auteur in the manner of her old partner, or like, say, Woody Allen, or a straight-up writer like Neil Simon, but someone whose legacy is more diffuse, such as Carl Reiner.

Off- and Off-Off Broadway were just coming into their own at the time of the team’s break-up and this was to play as big a role in May’s career as the Big Street. Immediately after breaking with Nichols in 1962, her play 3 x 3 was presented at the Theatre Row venue that became Playwrights Horizons. She then acted in The Office (1966), the one Broadway outing of off-off Playwright Maria Irene Fornes, directed by Jerome Robbins, assisted by Sheldon Harnick (briefly May’s second husband), with a cast that also featured Jack Weston, Tony Lo Bianco and Doris Roberts (the latter two were soon reunited in the horror classic The Honeymoon Killers, which was released in 1970). Then, May has a hilarious turn in Carl Reiner’s film Enter Laughing (costarring Ren Santoni, also born today), followed by a big role in Clive Donner’s screen adaptation of Murray Schisgal’s stage hit Luv, and a cameo in Nichols’ The Graduate, all in 1967. Next she directed her one-act play Adaptation starring James Coco, which was presented on a bill with a Terrence McNally play, in 1969.

Only then was May given the opportunity to direct her first film, the black comedy A New Leaf, in 1971, in which she co-starred with Walter Matthau. That year and the next may represent the apex and most promising time of her career. In addition to A New Leaf, she wrote the screenplay for the Otto Preminger film Such Good Friends (under the pen name Esther Dale), and then directed The Heartbreak Kid (1972), co-starring her daughter Jeannie Berlin (a perfect stand-in for herself) and Charles Grodin (whose birthday it also is today). I consider this the best film (qua film) ever made of a Neil Simon script. Unlike most Neil Simon pictures, it’s not a hacky, by-the-numbers adaptation, but a real movie, which is probably why such a thing never happened again. Simon liked his to be the important name attached to his projects, even though he didn’t direct.

It’s only with her next project that May ran into trouble. In 1973 she began shooting Mikey and Nicky, an improvised crime thriller in the style of John Cassavetes, co-starring Cassavetes and Peter Falk, who at that time was not only the star of Columbo, but was a frequent collaborator of Cassavetes and had just appeared in Nichols’ original Broadway production of Simon’s The Prisoner of Second Avenue. The amazing cast also includes William Hickey (memorable as the drunk in the bar in Mel Brooks’ The Producers), Ned Beatty, M. Emmet Walsh, Joyce Van Patten, and the actual Sanford Meisner. She shot the film as a European director might have done, as though the only thing that mattered in the world is art. And so it went way over budget as she shot and shot and shot improvised scenes with her cast in her native Philadelphia. It wasn’t released until the end of 1976. And it did very poorly at the box office. I was completely unaware of it for years, though I had seen both of her previous two films on television. As someone who dislikes Cassavetes movies, I had a lot of trouble getting through Mikey and Nicky on my first attempt to watch it. Unlike her own genius improvisations with Mike Nichols, the two co-stars of this film kibbitz in the Cassavetes style. That is to say, they ramble and repeat themselves endlessly and seemingly pointlessly. I gave up the first time, but gave it a second shot, and then was amply rewarded. It’s actually a brilliant film. It has a plot and an arc and is kind of devastating by the end of it. Instead of watching it with my Cassavetes prejudices, on the second go-round I watched it as an Elaine May movie, which is what it actually is. I screened it in the immediate wake of rewatching her first two films and lots and Nichols and May sketches on old television shows. A lot of the improvised dialogue is still irritating but the segments are recognizable as May’s own comedy bits with her own signature sensibility, things like a guy at the diner who perversely refuses to sell half-and-half, a bus driver who won’t let passengers out the front door, and a hood with an ulcer. And the plot is kind of absurdist. The two men are low-level gangsters and old friends. Cassavetes is on the lam from the mob; Falk is trying to help him, but Cassavetes keeps changing his escape plan. The dark twist at the end is kind of like the original ending intended for A New Leaf (darker than what finally made it to the screen), which itself reminds me of Chaplin’s Monsieur Verdoux, not to mention Scorsese’s Mean Streets. The ending of the film packs a powerful wallop, but the movie does expect you to endure a lot to get there. It deserves better than it got from critics and audiences, but to be fair, it is first and last an art house movie at best, and it came out at a time when New Hollywood was transitioning from the impressionistic character studies that characterized the early ’70s, into the blockbuster phase of Jaws and Star Wars.

Mikey and Nicky was a set-back but not the catastrophic end of her career it is normally painted to be. From here May developed an ongoing series of collaborations with Warren Beatty that initially proved extremely fruitful, and worked on other important films as well, in her capacity as screenwriter. In 1978 she co-wrote Beatty’s charming Heaven Can Wait (which Buck Henry co-directed) and had a role in the screen adaptation of Neil Simon’s California Suite. She co-wrote Reds (1981), Sydney Pollock’s Tootsie (1982) and Jim Henson’s Labyrinth (1986). And then she had the juice to direct again, and this project proved her last chance to do so. Ishtar (1987) sounds promising: a Hope and Crosby style “Road Movie” co-starring Beatty and Dustin Hoffman (of The Graduate and Tootsie), with songs by Paul Williams. The movie famously went way over-budget and was a critical and box office disaster. Now, there are lots of movies about which all of that is true but which I really love anyway and can see lots of virtue in. But Ishtar is not one of them. I’ve never been able to get through the whole movie. I find it painful and cringe-inducing, and pretty unwatchable. The fault may not to be May’s though, at least not entirely. Neither of these men are comedians. Occasionally, they’ve struck the right notes in comical parts (Hoffman in Nichols’ The Graduate, for example, and Beatty in McCabe and Mrs Miller or Shampoo), but here they seem uncomfortable and simply wrong, a vibe very much reminiscent of Nichols’ disastrous The Fortune (1975), which had paired Beatty with Jack Nicholson.

But again, unlike the course of the usual narrative tells us, she was not “finished”. Most notably, she reunited briefly with Mike Nichols as a comedy team on Broadway in 1992, and co-wrote his movies The Birdcage (1996) and Primary Colors (1998). She also began working with Woody Allen, which had been frankly long overdue. They both contributed one-act plays to an Off-Broadway production called Death Defying Acts (1995) and Broadway’s Relatively Speaking (2011), and she was hilarious in his movie Small Time Crooks (2000) and his TV series Crisis in Six Scenes (2016). And lots and lots of New York theatre over the last couple dozen years. Power Plays (1998) with Alan Arkin, and Taller Than a Dwarf (2000) with Arkin and an all-star cast, followed by After the Night and The Music (2005). She made a big splash as an actress (on Broadway for the first time in decades) in Kenneth Lonergan’s The Waverly Gallery (2018), and played RBG on The Good Fight (2021), a piece of casting genius. Jeannie Berlin had also been terrific in Lonergan’s brilliant film Margaret (2011), a not unrelated tidbit.

This is obviously far from all of Elaine May’s credits. So you see, as always: context and perspective. The age of 90 agrees with Elaine May very well, and the sum total of her career is an impressive body of work. This post thus reinforces a major subtheme of this blog, which is that Theater Counts.