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.

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Isabelle Huppert Goes Cuckoo Bananas, But Not as Cuckoo Bananas as Usual, in the Flawed-But-Fun ‘Greta’

Let’s be honest. The main appeal of Greta is to see our girl Isabelle Huppert do what she does best: snap. Despite the film’s numerous issues, the ticket price is in fact well-worth the opportunity to bask in the unbridled power of one of the greatest working actresses viciously flipping a restaurant table over in response to getting ghosted (i.e. snap). And that’s just the beginning, baby!

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Criterion Reviews: ‘Mikey and Nicky’

The inaugural Criterion Channel pick for the first week of February was writer/director Elaine May’s 1976 Mikey and Nicky, a character-driven “Guys Bein’ Dudes” gangster drama. Taking place over the span of a single night, the film opens in classic 70s style with a shifty-eyed Nicky (auteur dreamboat John Cassavetes) alone in a hotel room, clinging to a gun and lighting a cigarette. He’s a small-time bookie who’s just stolen money from the mob, and he’s waiting for his childhood friend, Mikey (Peter Falk), to save him from a panic-induced ulcer attack.

When Mikey arrives, he holds Nicky while he sobs, then lies him down flat on his back to force-feed him an antacid. “Nick, I know you for 30 years. You call me up on that phone, you say ‘Come right away,’ in that voice, I bring Gelusil,” he says calmly before chewing one himself in solidarity. It’s a brilliant hook that establishes the best friends’ characterizations perfectly: Mikey is steady and paternal while Nicky is neurotic and vulnerable. And you just know their story is gonna end with a gut-shot.

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Criterion Reviews: ‘Tom Jones’

This week’s Criterion Channel selection is Tony Richardson’s Tom Jones, a 1963 adventure-comedy set in 1700s England and executed in the style of early 1900s swashbuckler films. Whew! Born out of wedlock, the titular character (Albert Finney) grows into a charming young man and falls in love with the upper-class Sophie Western (Susannah York), whom he cannot marry because he is not of royal descent. Yup, it’s the standard formula for a period piece romance!

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A Short Film Watchlist for FilmStruck Mourners

Like the rest of the Internet, we here at Much Ado About Cinema are mourning the tragic loss of streaming service FilmStruck. Yesterday morning, Warner Bros. gave the beloved site a terminal diagnosis, with the plug officially being pulled on November 29. This means we only have about a month to cram as many Criterions into our cinephilic eyeballs as possible.

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“I Bite at the Hand That Feeds Me:” A Watchlist for Vengeful Women

Since November 2016, there has been this swirling pit of rage that permanently resides in the center of my heart, nestled just below the aortic arch. Sometimes it is quiet, like the beach at low tide in the middle of the night, gently ebbing and licking the sand. On days like today, when a sexual abuser is appointed to the highest level of justice, it is an electric maelstrom. More inflamed and unyielding than the Great Red Spot on Jupiter. Stay out of my way; I’m out for blood.

But many other women have written more eloquently about this topic than I could ever hope to, so I will let cinema speak for me. Here are seven films of varying genres (most written or directed by women) that deftly provoke rage against our broken system while simultaneously inspiring that passion for a better world for women and survivors, many of whom overlap. 

1. Shut Up and Sing (2006) dir. Barbara Kopple and Cecilia Peck
Image result for shut up and sing dixie chicks“Just so you know, we’re on the good side with y’all. We do not want this war, this violence, and we’re ashamed that the President of the United States is from Texas.”

After Dixie Chicks lead singer Natalie Maines made this offhand statement at a 2003 concert in London, the vehement backlash from the American country music community nearly ended the trio’s career. Kopple and Peck’s intimate documentary chronicles the aftermath of the incident, including the conception of their 2006 comeback song, “Not Ready To Make Nice.” Their country ballad demonstrated their daring refusal to apologize, denounced the death threats these women received for critiquing their government, and found success as a three-time Grammy award-winning bop!

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‘Madeline’s Madeline’ Expertly Blurs the Line Between Performance Art and Reality

Madeline’s Madeline is unafraid to delve into the volatile psyche of a teenage artist. Art is so often used as a tool to sort through perplexing emotions, so it makes sense that struggling teens tend to lose themselves in this low-cost form of therapy. This semi-experimental fever dream poses the question: At what point in the creative process does art as personal self-expression begin to do more harm than good?

Madeline (newcomer Helena Howard) is a 16-year-old actress in a physical theater troupe, fresh out of a brief stay in a psychiatric ward. Her teacher Evangeline (Molly Parker) is at once forceful and understanding, as if Fletcher from Whiplash actually had a heart. On the flip side is Madeline’s mother Regina (Miranda July), an unstable but ultimately loving helicopter parent whose moods, like Madeline’s, violently change at the blink of an eye. From a more neutral perspective, Regina’s actions may come across as a frustrated, terrified mom doing her best to make sure her daughter stays healthy. But the eyes of a teenage girl, especially one with mental illness, see the world through a distorted lens. I know this because I once was one.

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