Her bio on the back cover of the famous comedy album Improvisations to Music published with Mike Nichols in 1958, is an invitation to speculate: ‘Miss May does not exist’. Yet you can hear her clearly, for example when she confesses her bizarrely enthusiastic emotions after reading Thus Spoke Zarathustra. Mike Nichols empathizes loudly.
You can also hear her – with her mouth filled with a (delicious) pastrami sandwich – as she talks about her movie career in the Naked Lunch podcast in 2022. You can see her in A New Leaf (USA, 1971) as she makes a lot of noise during a stiff, bourgeois party, spilling tea, breaking porcelain. The theatre elite must also see her, since she received a Tony award for a role in Kenneth Lonergan’s The Waverly Gallery performed on Broadway – she was 85 at the time.
And yet, in a sense, she does not exist. You won’t find her in the credits of Tootsie (dir. Sydney Pollack, USA 1982) – although she rewrote the character played by Bill Murray quite noticeably – nor Reds (dir. Warren Beatty, USA 1981), nor Labyrinth (dir. Jim Henson (USA/UK 1986). Her name isn’t pronounced in the same breath as the names of other New Hollywood directors; she is rarely mentioned in publications dedicated to female directors, despite two Oscar nominations – for Heaven Can Wait (dir. Warren Beatty, Buck Henry, USA 1978) and Primary Colors (dir. Mike Nichols, USA 1998). There wasn’t much talk about the honorary Oscar she received in 2022.
Let me rephrase it then: Elaine May exists, no doubt about that – but always on her own terms.
When In Doubt: Seduce
This director, screenwriter, actor and – let us not be afraid of the word – great stand-upper rarely agreed to artistic compromise. Her comedy duo with Mike Nichols (yes, the same Mike Nichols who directed The Graduate and Working Girl) lasted until she was fed up with the demands of fame. As soon as a hint of routine entered their skits – which becomes inevitable when one capitalizes on the subversive potential of a joke – May and Nichols went their separate ways. The improv-loving artist was not keen on cabaret-like repetition – and so May & Nichols went down in comedy’s history after only three comedy albums and one season on Broadway. What made the duo popular, was a unique mix of intelligence, improvisation, and credibility. May & Nichols funnily elaborated situations we all are (were or will be) part of: phone calls, funeral home visits, teenage hormonal hurricanes. Specific Jewish sense of humour, which finally broke free from Jewish bodies and courage when facing the unpredicted were an added value. May liked to say: ‘When in doubt: seduce’, which came naturally to her. Bright and talkative, she had no problem attracting all the attention. Actor Richard Burton once said about her:
Elaine is one of the most intelligent, beautiful, and funny women I have ever met. I hope never to see her again.
Well, he wasn’t the only one: her feistiness and talent were accompanied by the constant need of doing everything her way. No matter the consequences.
The Trouble with Elaine
After she made her first feature film A New Leaf, she sued Paramount, because the studio made cuts which she considered disgraceful and shortened the three-hour long material to just under 90 minutes. The crisis was averted: a judge watched the movie and deemed it good. May swallowed this verdict and went back to work. She made The Heartbreak Kid (USA 1972) quickly – it went smoothly, because the film wasn’t based on her script and the author Neil Simon was in awe of Elaine’s work. And even though the movie about a newlywed shmuck whose Jewish complex pushes him towards Cybill Shepherd – who’s flawless and white as silk linen – has a distinct author’s stamp, May was already scribbling a script about two gangsters who’ve known each other since childhood, and booked Peter Falk and John Cassavetes for the leading roles. So, she went back to Paramount hoping for more autonomy; again, she had to fight for every inch of tape she recorded. Improvisation requires patience, yet producers from fading film studios didn’t really care. The editing of Mikey and Nicky took one year and although today the film is considered a masterpiece, in 1976, as to spite the director it was released quietly, with no promotion, almost foreshadowing its failure. Power struggles exhausted May so much, she gave directing up for 10 years. But it only went downhill from there.
Ishtar or Shooting a Shitshow
It was supposed to be so great: a road movie destined for success, with characters like those Bing Crosby and Bob Hope played in old Hollywood films. As a thank you for collaborating with Warren Beatty – full directorial power in the hands of May. Desert landscapes, Moroccan wind. And yet sand irritated the skin, camels were not blue-eyed, and the cost of production skyrocketed. Beatty started to fight with May, Dustin Hoffman mediated. And then bad publicity surrounded the production: even before the postponed premiere EVERYBODY knew that Ishtar (USA 1987) would fail.
And it did: a bunch of Razzie nominations, mandatory presence on the lists of worst movies in history and of the biggest financial flops of all time might deceive the public, yet an observant cinephile will notice a sophisticated sense of humour, daring attempts to break free from typecasting (Beatty as a loser? Come on!) and a narrative charge that should be praised rather than condemned. Martin Scorsese is someone who knows that – Ishtar is one of his favourite movies.
Legendary quarrels and problems on set along with the later jostling in the editing room (Beatty, Hoffman and May all had the rights to prepare their own cut, which they considered the best version of the movie) finally led to May leaving the director’s chair forever. She would never make a feature film again.
Elaine May’s movies are like jewels ripped out of Hollywood’s throat: filled with sad comedy, acting experiments, different genre ‘flavours’, and most of all: profound reflection on human relationships – romantic relations, friendships, family ties. Watching them is astounding to anyone who loves cinema: how is it possible that Elaine May doesn’t exist? Paraphrasing her skit Bach to Bach from Improvisations to Music: ‘After the screening a whole world opened for me. Do you know what I mean?’).
(And then every cinephile shouts, impersonating Mike Nichols: I know EXACTLY what you mean).
translated by: Natalia Mętrak-Ruda