Elaine May is a writer and filmmaker and actor and improviser, but beyond that, she is an artist whose career-long quest for truth has driven her to create work that has taken many forms but always sought to cast aside the easy crutches of cliché and convention to express something profound and real about the human condition.
She first exploded into the public consciousness in the late 1950s, as one half of Nichols and May. She and Mike Nichols were the smartest of the smart set, selling albums hand over fist and changing comedy with their sophisticated long-form improvisation. They were less interested in setups and punch lines than in exploring the complexity, wonder, and absurdity of the world we live in.
After the duo broke up, May wrote plays and dabbled in movies, first as an actor and later as a filmmaker. After costarring in Luv (opposite Jack Lemmon and future Mikey and Nicky star Peter Falk) and Carl Reiner’s Enter Laughing (both 1967),May not only adapted the short story on which the brilliant 1971 dark comedy A New Leaf is based and directed the film but was also heartbreaking and hilarious as its female lead, Henrietta Lowell, a daffy botanist and heiress who is on a more cerebral and sublime frequency than the rest of us. She’s so irresistible that Henry Graham, a W. C. Fields–like misanthrope played by Walter Matthau, abandons his plan to murder her for her money. That, in May’s world, is a happy ending: a man maturing beyond his desire to kill a woman oblivious enough to want to spend the rest of her life with him.
A New Leaf could have been a star-making film for May as an actor. She was deservedly nominated for a Golden Globe for best actress in a comedy or musical. Yet (though she occasionally acts to this day) she chose a different path, continuing her directorial career with another discomfiting study of human nature. Lenny Cantrow (Charles Grodin), the protagonist of May’s The Heartbreak Kid (1972),isn’t out to kill anybody, but he’s murderously callous about breaking the heart of his vulnerable new wife, Lila (Jeannie Berlin, May’s daughter)—on their honeymoon, no less—in order to pursue the shiksa goddess Kelly Corcoran (Cybill Shepherd). This painfully hilarious cult classic doubles as a potent allegory for Jewish assimilation. Lenny gets the girl, but this outcome registers more as tragedy than triumph. It’s a “happy ending” that’s actually achingly sad: getting what he wants most in the world is probably the worst thing that could happen to Lenny.
As a director, May specializes in deeply nuanced portrayals of intense, complicated relationships, just as she did in her groundbreaking stage work with Nichols and May. Where other filmmakers might cut away to give audiences room to breathe, May remains close to her dramatis personae in ways that are sometimes uncomfortable for audiences and characters alike. She is adept at getting viewers to empathize with the prickly, complex antiheroes she creates with such care and craft. In The Heartbreak Kid, for example, she pits the Waspy mortification of Eddie Albert’s patriarch against Grodin’s sweaty Jewish desperation and then ratchets up the tension and unblinking awkwardness to levels both hilarious and borderline unbearable.
“May’s sharpest focus is on the grubby desperation of male schemers controlled by greed, by lust, by a need to realize their seedy, selfish goals at any cost.”
“Like Cassavetes, she is more invested in capturing the underlying emotional reality of a scene than in flashy camera movement or ostentatious visual style.”
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