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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Chicago Feminist Film Festival: ‘Crystal Swan’ Tells A Darkly Comic Version of the American Dream

We all know about the American Dream. We see it in movies, we read about it history books, we talk about it all the time. In achieving this proverbial dream, we have achieved the pinnacle of success and freedom, whatever that means. In her directorial debut, Darya Zhuk paints a different picture of chasing the American Dream in the newly sovereign nation of Belarus, one that is funny, tragic, and confused.

In Belarus in the 1990s, Velya (Alina Nasibullina) is an aspiring DJ who wants nothing more than to move to Chicago, home of house music. She and her strung-out boyfriend party all night, and she survives by living at home and stealing from her mom. But, Belarus’ bureaucracy makes it virtually impossible for an unemployed woman living with her mom to leave the country. In an attempt to trick the system, she buys a letter of employment from a factory, but this backfires as she writes down the wrong phone number, which means the embassy can’t call to verify her “employment.” So, she heads to the phone number’s address in the factory town of Crystal City to ensure she gets her visa. This leads to a clash of the classes in the name of reaching that American Dream.

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