While watching her films, it’s challenging to comprehend how cinema overlooked one of the most talented artists of recent decades for such a long time. And yet, Elaine May has only gained prominence in recent years, often overshadowed by industry peers like her professional partner Mike Nichols and ’70s bigwigs such as Francis Ford Coppola and Martin Scorsese. Timeless FFW aims to rectify this oversight and presents May in all her glory – as a director, a gray eminence of American screenwriting, an accomplished stand-up, actress, and comedian.
However, “Miss May Does Not Exist” (as boldly expressed in her bio on the cover of the comedy album Improvisations to Music):
You can look for her in vain in the credits of Tootsie, even though she vamped up the character of Bill Murray. She is not among the monographs of the most important American directors of the New Hollywood era; she rarely appears in publications devoted to female directors. The honorary Oscar, awarded to her in 2022, did not particularly resonate– notes the retrospective’s curator, Patrycja Mucha.
May, who will soon turn 92, started out in improv comedy, which sparked a small revolution alongside Mike Nichols. Together, they changed the face of stage banter, using their unconventional personalities, Jewish humor, and intelligence. However, the originality of their jests, once captivating the entertainment industry, began to wane as the repetitive nature of the humor became apparent. The paths of May and Nichols diverged just as classic Hollywood was slowly receding into oblivion. It was then that the directing careers of both talented comedians began.
May’s directorial debut was with Paramount. A New Leaf, wasn’t merely a film directed by her; it also carried her script and featured her in a leading role. In duet with Walter Matthau, she created a romantic comedy for the modern era with a backdrop tinged with a macabre plot. For May, comedy transcends mere verbal banter; it represents an entire world where everything, from nightclothes to a mustachioed rich uncle, holds the potential for humor.
The Heartbreak Kid is a gem in the director’s filmography. Boldly exploring modern Jewish identity, the film is a satire on unwavering American (i.e., white) values and the classist nature of a seemingly emancipated society. Charles Grodin masterfully plays the role of a newlywed husband who leaves his Jewish wife (Jeannie Berlin, May’s Oscar-nominated daughter for this role) in pursuit of a WASP (Cybill Shepherd, at the height of her career). This rarely-screened film is a cinematic Holy Grail, unavailable on digital media, adding the icing on the cake of this retrospective.
Mikey and Nicky departs from the comedic tone, although it’s not completely devoid of it. It presents a blend of buddy and gangster film genres where the talents of its lead actors, Peter Falk and John Cassavetes, come to full fruition. Shot on the streets of Philadelphia at night, it unfolds as a ballad of male friendship: insightful, brilliant, and cruel. However, the creative tumult on the set resulted in a hiatus for May, and she didn’t direct another film for a decade.
She returned to directing with Ishtar, a high-budget film whose leisurely, drawn-out production could not be forgiven either by producers nor by critics. After nearly four decades since its release, Ishtar – another buddy film, this time starring Warren Beatty and Dustin Hoffman as untalented musicians in the midst of colonial intrigue – is finally returning to grace. Viewed years later, it brims with ideas, comedic verve, and flashes of genius.
Timeless Film Festival Warsaw will showcase every film directed by Elaine May:
- A New Leaf (USA, 1971)
- The Heartbreak Kid (USA, 1972)
- Mikey and Nicky (USA, 1976)
- Ishtar (USA, 1987)
- Mike Nichols: American Masters (USA, 2016)
Also on the program are the unique documentary Nichols and May: Take Two (dir. Phillip Schopper, USA, 1996) about the comedic beginnings of the titular pair’s careers, and Sydney Pollack’s Tootsie (USA, 1982) – proof that May’s talent sometimes made its way into other excellent films (the filmmaker, though not listed in the credits, was heavily involved in perfecting the script).
Elaine May became the third director (after Dorothy Arzner and Ida Lupino) to be accepted into the Directors Guild of America. During the feminist revolution of the 1970s, she remained the only American female director consistently active in Hollywood. With two Academy Award nominations for her screenplays in Heaven Can Wait (dir. Warren Beatty, Buck Henry, USA 1978) and Primary Colors (dir. Mike Nichols, USA 1998), May received an honorary statuette from Bill Murray (whose role in Tootsie she solidly tweaked) in 2022. A biography of the filmmaker by Carrie Courogen is set to be published this year. Its title is, of course, Miss May Does Not Exist.
Patrycja Mucha, curator of the retrospective
The Warsaw festival is not just about film screenings but also includes events featuring musicians who will perform their own compositions, often to films that they themselves have selected. These unique cinema concerts concerts are the result of collaborations with artists such as Wim Mertens, Paweł Mykietyn, Stefan Wesołowski, Eiko Ishibashi, Ellen Arkbro, Dobrawa Czocher, Jozef Van Wissem, or the bands Małe Instrumenty and XYLOS. These artists will reinterpret legendary works like The Passion of Joan of Arc, The Fall of the House of Usher, and Buster Keaton’s short films. The Grand Theater – National Opera will host screenings of the film Amadeus with a live Orchestra and Chorus.
February 28, 2024 – Sale of passes and accreditation begins
March 6, 2024 – Announcement of the complete festival program
March 13, 2024 – Start of online sales of tickets for screenings