The extraordinary films and career of Elaine May (b. 1932) defy easy classification. One of the only woman filmmakers active in postwar Hollywood since Ida Lupino – and, like Lupino, also an accomplished actress – May had to fight at almost every step against an increasingly obstructionist studio establishment in order to direct the four remarkable features that have cemented her reputation as a willful iconoclast, unyielding perfectionist and brilliantly original artist. While May’s first two films – A New Leaf and The Heartbreak Kid – together won her acclaim as a director of comedies, both effectively challenged traditional audiences and expectations for American film comedy with their distinctly unflattering portraits of incurably self-absorbed characters willing to sacrifice anything or anyone – even their newly-wedded spouses – to live out their selfish and quixotic dreams of success. Updating the Thirties screwball comedy of remarriage for the Seventies age of the anti-hero, the films strike an unusual balance between the abrasive and the affectionate by rendering their rakish lout protagonists as strangely vulnerable and sympathetic, cracked emblems of human vanity and foible. May’s next films were brave risks that each took unexpected, often controversial, turns away from her earlier work – first the dark and caustic deconstruction of the gangster film, Mikey and Nicky, and then the gleefully trenchant satire of American foreign policy and cockeyed optimism, Ishtar, whose infamous box office failure seems to have forced an effective and woefully premature end to May’s filmmaking career to date.
Born into a family of stage actors, May first found fame in partnership with her University of Chicago classmate Mike Nichols when they formed the wildly successful and influential comedy team Nichols and May. The toast of radio, television and eventually Broadway during their seven years together, Nichols and May helped shape the course of contemporary stand-up comedy with hilarious improvisatory skits that playfully captured the absurdity of life in an increasingly bureaucratized, professionalized and sanitized society. A highly gifted and prolific writer, May quickly distinguished herself as a writer and director of such impressive plays as Death Defying Acts (1995) and Not Enough Rope (1962) that matched her mordant wit with dark satire. The resolute independence of vision and voice embodied by May’s comedic and theatrical work immediately defined her subsequent career as a filmmaker and placed her in inevitable and frequent conflict with the hierarchical creative process favored by Hollywood. Channeling the lightening quick comedy of her stand-up work and the elegantly taut structures of her plays, May’s films cut deep against the grain of the mainstream cinema by wielding sharp-edged humor and unusual caricature to offer a biting yet richly ambiguous critique of masculinity, social mores and politics. Although May’s adamant refusal to compromise may have fixed an inevitable expiration date on her filmmaking career, her four films continue to enrich the American cinema immeasurably by remaining always at the cutting edge, ahead of their time and still ahead of ours.
The Harvard Film Archive is proud to welcome Elaine May for a celebration of her films.
Special thanks: Stanley Donen, Julian Schlossberg, Chantal Ribeiro, Jennifer Schaller.
Directed by Elaine May, Appearing in Person
With John Cassavetes, Peter Falk, Carol Grace
US 1976, 35mm, color, 119 min.
May made a brave departure from comedy with this unexpectedly dark and ultimately devastating study of two petty hoodlums and former childhood friends caught in the spiral of guilt and self-destructive behavior that unwinds in the course of a rambling, insomniac night spent fleeing from a contract killer. Regular collaborators John Cassavetes and Peter Falk spark with raw desperation as two men who view one other as a distorting mirror reflection of themselves, each struggling with the burden of mid-age and unwanted friendship. Complimenting and subtly commenting on May’s unflinching portrait of male narcissistic self-loathing are the rich female characters who watch in stunned disbelief from the margins of the film, led by the legendary Carol Grace, the inspiration for Capote’s Holly Golightly. Mikey and Nicky is regularly cited today as one of the unheralded masterpieces of 1970s American cinema.
Directed by Elaine May, Appearing in Person
With Warren Beatty, Dustin Hoffman, Isabelle Adjani
US 1987, 35mm, color, 107 min.
May drew inspiration once more from the screwball comedy for her most ambitious and misunderstood film, a bold reinvention of the Crosby and Hope road movie formula that combines an affectionate skewering of the American songbook – and songwriter – with a quite prophetic political satire of U.S. interventionist folly in the Middle East. As the talentless lyricists, Dustin Hoffman and Warren Beatty take obvious delight in playing deliberately against type, with Beatty as a sad sack frustrated by his inability to charm women and Hoffman as the street smart New Yorker who seems, at first, to have everything under control. May’s keen eye for male hubris and self-delusion is the source of the hilarious and often painfully awkward moments that are a signature of her unique brand of comedy. Partially sabotaged by the studio, which spread hyperbolic false rumors of profligate budgets, and then predictably savaged by film critics upon its release, Ishtar was never given a fair chance.
Directed by Elaine May.
With Walter Matthau, Elaine May, Jack Weston
US 1971, 35mm, color, 102 min.
May’s first film is a hilarious fantasy about an aging and endlessly pampered Manhattan aristocrat shocked to discover that he has burned through his inheritance. Improbable marriage is once again the stage for a comedy of manners as the supercilious misanthrope, played with a mannered grace by Walter Matthau, fixes on the unlikely scheme of finding a wealthy bride before he is evicted from his luxurious apartments. May herself delivers a pitch-perfect performance as the dotty botanist heiress whose love of flora and winsome naïveté leave her oblivious to Matthau’s designs. Although the studio forced May to remove a murder scene that was deemed too shocking, the intent of the excised crime still lingers in A New Leaf, casting a darker satiric shadow upon her wonderful, and at times quite affectionate, evocation of sequestered and eccentric lives.
Directed by Elaine May.
With Charles Grodin, Cybill Shepherd, Jeannie Berlin
US 1972, 35mm, color, 106 min.
The perennial favorite of May’s films tells the wincingly funny story of an oddly determined young sporting goods salesman who suddenly realizes, in the midst of his Miami honeymoon, that his long anticipated marriage to a Jewish American princess was a disastrous mistake. Charles Grodin brings a disconcerting boyish whimsy to the strangely chipper newlywed convinced that redemption lies in (re)marriage to a blond Midwestern college undergraduate who he encounters on the beach and with whom he fell instantly and deliriously in love. A dark and wonderfully satiric romance, The Heartbreak Kid observes the consequences and ceremonies of love with wry dispassion. Echoing her pioneering stand-up work, May uses comedy to unsettle notions of propriety and the social norm, here by refusing to villainize the callous young groom and suggesting that his capricious betrayals are perhaps a “natural” expression of familial and social pressure and a desire secretly harbored by many.