Female Director Spotlight: Elaine May, Renegade Improv Comedienne

A natural performer from the start, director Elaine May allegedly began her career in 1935 at the tender age of three, performing in her father’s Yiddish theater company (although she conceded in 2010 that this origin story isn’t “strictly accurate”). At age 16, she married a toy inventor, with whom she had a daughter, then divorced him a few years later. After holding a series of odd jobs, including as a private detective and a roofing salesman, she decided she’d like to enroll in college—the problem was, she lacked the high school diploma that California colleges required by law. With just $7 in her pocket, she hitchhiked to Chicago, where this rule didn’t exist, to pursue an education.

Here, she met future legendary director Mike Nichols through mutual friends. The pair bubbled with comedic chemistry, and in 1955, they joined the off-campus improv group, The Compass Players. Two years later, Nichols was asked to leave the team for being “too talented,” and May quit with him. Soon, they developed their own act, forming stand-up comedy duo, “Nichols and May.” Their undeniable talent eventually landed them their own Broadway show, and “An Evening With Mike Nichols and Elaine May” became a bonafide hit, performing for full house shows and even winning a Grammy for Best Comedy Performance. Sadly, Nichols and May disbanded in 1964, citing difficulties with keeping their act consistently fresh. Over the next several years, Nichols would go on to begin a wildly successful film directing career with Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, and May would try her hand at playwriting. She also acted in various screen roles, including an uncredited cameo in Nichols’ The Graduate, until she gained the experience to direct her first feature.

A New Leaf debuted in 1971, with May directing, writing, and starring alongside Walter Matthau. Her crisp, eloquent script, based on a Jack Ritchie story called “The Green Heart,” centers on Henry (Matthau), a materialistic trust fund snob who runs out of money and plots to marry a rich woman rather than find work. Enter, rather clumsily, Henrietta (May), a wallflower botanist with a green thumb and a heart of gold. Never dipping into predictability, the pair’s unconventional romance gender-swaps the trope of the female gold digger exploiting a wealthy man, and remains a critically-acclaimed cult classic.

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Elaine May as Henrietta in “A New Leaf”

Behind the scenes, however, May suffered disputes with Paramount over the run time. Shorn down to 102 minutes, the 180-minute director’s cut has never been made publicly available.

Nevertheless, May’s second feature, The Heartbreak Kid, came hot off the heels of A New Leaf just one year later. Written by Neil Simon, the classic rom-com about a man who falls in lust on his honeymoon enjoyed a less troubled production and more box office success. Her daughter, Jeannie Berlin, even nabbed a Best Supporting Actress Academy Award nomination for her role as the protagonist’s neurotic newlywed. 

And then came Mikey and Nicky. A far cry from her last two comedies, this slimy crime drama was May’s first fully original work. “She wanted to make an honest, gritty depiction of the mob life that she grew up with and knew,” said Julian Schlossberg, a distributor for the film. Character-driven and immersive, May interrogates the fraying friendship between the titular small-time gangsters (Peter Falk and auteur dreamboat John Cassavetes) after a hit is put out on the latter for embezzling money. Though the material was much darker, May’s penchant for improvisation and skill at being an “actor’s director” remained. She allowed Falk and Cassavetes, two close friends and frequent collaborators in real life, the freedom to explore their acting instincts, with absolutely breathtaking results. So much is communicated between the two men simply via knowing glances and shooting stares—the raw panic in Nicky’s eyes when Mikey briefly leaves to fetch him an ulcer remedy is unforgettable. To achieve this level of masterclass performance, May felt she had to constantly keep the camera rolling. She filmed reel after reel of footage, culminating in a record-breaking 1.4 million feet, only recently bested by Damien Chazelle’s First Man.

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John Cassavetes as Nicky in “Mikey and Nicky”

But physical film is expensive, and May soon found herself millions of dollars over budget. Still burned by Paramount’s meddling with A New Leaf, May “stole the print from the studio, hid it in her garage like a punk-fucking-rocker, and stared the studio down to put out the version she wanted,” said Patton Oswalt at the 2016 Writers Guild of America awards ceremony, where May accepted a lifetime achievement award. When Mikey and Nicky was eventually released in 1976, three years after filming completed, it was bizarrely edited and riddled with continuity errors. The final, May-approved version would not be screened publicly until a MoMA event in 1986, a full decade later.

During that decade, May completely stopped directing. Blacklisted from the industry and branded as “difficult” after the perceived failure of Mikey and Nicky, she threw herself into writing. In 1978, she co-wrote Heaven Can Wait, a remake of the eponymous 1943 screwball comedy, along with director and star Warren Beatty, which was a critical and financial success. May’s next two screenwriting projects would be even bigger mega-hits, but she herself would not share in the glory—despite co-writing both Tootsie in 1982 and Labyrinth in 1986, May received no official credit.

It was also around this time that May would write and direct her last feature film (as of yet), the infamous Ishtar. Following a pair of incompetent singers (Beatty and Dustin Hoffman) as they make their way to a gig in Morocco, its status as one of the worst movies of all time has since been re-evaluated. Film bro gods Quentin Tarantino, Edgar Wright, and Martin Scorsese have all gone on record praising the film, and a documentary, Waiting for Ishtar: A Love Letter to the Most Misunderstood Movie of All Time was even released in 2017.

“If all of the people who hate Ishtar had seen it, I would be a rich woman today.” – Elaine May, 2006. 

Nevertheless, May’s directing career was officially demolished, and she laid low for the next several years. She eventually reunited with Nichols to write The Birdcage in 1996, a groundbreaking comedy about a gay couple (Robin Williams and Nathan Lane) who pretend to be straight to please their son’s conservative in-laws, and political dramedy Primary Colors in 1998. Since then, she hasn’t worked at all in cinema, apart from some acting roles in probable pedophile Woody Allen’s Small Time Crooks in 2000 and Crisis in Six Scenes in 2016. Onstage, however, she recently starred in the Kenneth Lonergan-written Broadway play, The Waverly Gallery, with indie darlings Lucas Hedges and Michael Cera. 

Over her impressive 50-year+ career, Elaine May consistently did exactly what she wanted to do, regardless of whether or not the men in power approved. As discussed in our Criterion review of Mikey and Nicky, “difficult” male directors seem to be relatively unaffected by their behavior; instead they tend to be lovingly labeled as “eccentric.” David O. Russell can be recorded publicly screaming misogynistic expletives at Lily Tomlin on-set in 2004, and still be nominated for five Oscars. Hiding film reels and shooting 260 extra hours of John Cassavetes improvising is A. badass, and B. nowhere near that level of abusive unprofessionalism, so why were these actions so much more devastating to May’s directing career? Oh, right, systemic sexism in the film industry! The reason we need this Female Director Spotlight in the first place!

Mikey and Nicky is currently streaming on Kanopy, and The Birdcage is currently streaming on Netflix.

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