Goings On

Elaine May, “Criminally Underappreciated Moviemaker”

On Film / The Daily — Jan 25, 2019
Elaine May directing A New Leaf (1971)

On Sunday, Elaine May will give one last performance as Gladys Green, the octogenarian at the center of Kenneth Lonergan’s family drama The Waverly Gallery. It’s been a terrific three-month run, with May winning raves for her turn as a grandmother battling the onset of old age and memory loss. In the New York Times, Ben Brantley finds that she’s “just the star to nail the rhythms, the comedy and the pathos of a woman who’s talking as fast as she can to keep her place in an increasingly unfamiliar world.”

The run has also marked May’s return to the Golden Theatre on Broadway, where the improvisational comedy team of Nichols and May staged a show that became a bestselling album in 1960. Nichols, of course, is Mike Nichols, who’d go on to direct Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? in 1966 and Dustin Hoffman in The Graduate the following year. May’s “film trajectory proved far more fraught than his, and was filled with stops and starts,” writes the NYT’s Manohla Dargis. “A terrific director of actors whose comedy can lacerate, she remains a criminally underappreciated moviemaker.” Film Forum is currently offering New Yorkers the opportunity to catch up with or revisit the comedies she’s written and/or directed each Tuesday through February 12, and the Glasgow Film Festival, opening on February 20, will present a full retrospective as well.

In her directorial debut, A New Leaf (1971), “one of cinema’s great comedies,” as Keith Uhlich argued at Slant in 2004, May stars as a rich, clumsy, almost nutty professor who’s seen by a bankrupt playboy (Walter Matthau) as an easy target. May quickly followed up with The Heartbreak Kid (1972), written by Neil Simon, in which Charles Grodin plays a salesman who dumps his new bride (played by May’s daughter, Jeannie Berlin) for another woman (Cybill Shepherd). It’s an “often queasily funny comedy that slides into devastating, savage terrain,” finds Dargis. “As she did in A New Leaf, May effortlessly skewers male vanity . . . in a story about a man who treats women like commodities.”

In 1997, Jonathan Rosenbaum observed that both films are “striking in the way they set up an uneasy audience identification with a self-absorbed hero bent on ditching his unsuspecting newlywed wife, rubbing our noses in everything about her that he finds disgusting and abhorrent while creating a surprising amount of empathy and compassion for her as well. It’s a volatile emotional mixture, and if either movie had been directed by a man, charges of misogyny would have seemed almost obligatory. Furthermore, the fact that May cast herself and her daughter as the victimized spouses only added to the effrontery . . . Combining a passionate will to power as a writer-director with a ferocious autocritique is perhaps the single thematic preoccupation May shares with both Welles and Lewis, and it marks her as an equally dangerous filmmaker.”

Dangerous at the time, certainly, but in the Notebook, Matt Carlin suggests that May’s films “fit well with the current generation of do-it-yourself filmmakers fixated on human behavior over polish and artifice—from Andrew Bujalski to the brothers Duplass and Safdie.” May’s third film, Mikey and Nicky (1976), stars John Cassavetes as Nicky, a low-level gangster who hides out one night in hotel room, suspecting that there’s a contract out on him. He calls up his old friend Mikey (Peter Falk), and the two joke and squabble the night away as they wait for the hammer they’re sure will fall. As Nathan Rabin points out in the essay that accompanies our release, the production was shot through with “all manner of ill will and out-and-out warfare” between May and the studio, and the film was released to little fanfare three years after production began. At RogerEbert.com, Peter Sobczynski calls Mikey and Nicky “a work so brash and consistently surprising that newcomers will wonder what the hell people could have been thinking four decades ago when they passed it over . . . It is, in fact, a dark and penetrating drama about friendship, loyalty, self-preservation, and the kind of empty machismo that would one day be referred to as ‘toxic masculinity.’”

More than a decade passed before May directed again. Ishtar (1987) is almost as famous as Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate (1980) as a “troubled” production that ran way over its budget and schedule and was thus prematurely declared by the trades and then the papers as a massive misfire. But like Heaven’s Gate, Ishtar, starring Warren Beatty and Dustin Hoffman as hilariously awful singer-songwriters who get caught up in a plot to overthrow an emir in North Africa, has seen wavelets of critical reassessment and revived appreciation. “I didn’t catch up with this film maudit until 2013, seeing it at BAM with a friend (and coeval) who, far wiser than I, had long been a fan,” writes 4Columns film editor Melissa Anderson. “That screening remains one of the most memorable of my life, an event that provided the rare opportunity to discover a wildly unpredictable movie more than a quarter century removed from its initial ignominy.” New Yorkers and Glaswegians, don’t let this one slip by.

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