Retrospective: The Directorial Career Of Elaine May

What is the statute of limitations on a notorious flop? Elaine May’s “Ishtarfinally gets a North American Blu-ray release this week (the rest of the world has had the DVD since 2004), a release that was itself delayed by two and a half years from its originally mooted date of January 2011—an ironic echo of the protracted and painful post-production process the film went through back in 1986/87. But then, nothing about the production and release of "Ishtar" was simple, just as there is nothing particularly straightforward about its brilliant, elusive and often "difficult" writer/director.

The directorial portion of Elaine May’s career represents a relatively small slice of her output overall—just four films, of which just one, “The Heartbreak Kid” (the only one she didn’t also write) was a box-office hit. And another was one of the biggest flops of all time, so much so that it became a byword for Hollywood turkey, and the punchline to many an industry joke (although recent matrices that adjust for inflation put the losses of "Ishtar" well outside the all-time top ten, and the way of the world suggests it's ripe for a re-evaulation of its merits). In fact, before all this, May was one half of pioneering improvisational comedy duo Nichols and May with Mike Nichols, who himself went on to a much more successful and long-lived directorial career. The comedy duo phase ended when, according to Nichols, “Elaine got tired of it,” and both walked away from those careers at the height of their success with scarcely a glance back.

Elaine May with Mike Nichols
Elaine May with Mike Nichols

May is a playwright to this day and an occasional actress (her most recent credit, in "Small Time Crooks," is a wonderful turn that we mentioned briefly in our feature on Woody Allen's female roles). She has also been a screenwriter of some reputation—Oscar-nominated for “Heaven Can Wait” (directed by Warren Beatty) and “Primary Colors” (directed by Nichols), as well as turning in widely acknowledged but uncredited rewrites on “Reds,” “Tootsie,” “Labyrinth” and “Dangerous Minds.” In a Vanity Fair piece from earlier this year, the first substantial press interview the famously publicity-shy May has given since 1967, she implied that, far from it being a source of rancor, that’s kind of how she likes it: “You can make a deal if you’re going to do the original writing. But if you’re going to do the original re-writing, you can’t. No matter how much you write, what you write, you’re still a hired gun, and you have no control... The only time I really ever took credit was when I worked with Mike... because I knew him, and I thought probably he won’t fuck it up.”

The idea of the director of “Ishtar” being worried about having her name attached to something that someone else "fucks up" may seem kind of paradoxical, but it’s oddly in line with what we can conclude about May’s style of filmmaking—as imperfect as the results may seem, May’s attitude was jealously perfectionist. Almost all of her films had issues with creative control: May wanted more of it, the studio and the producers frequently wanted to give her less, and cost overruns and missed release dates were usually the result. But to give May her due, there’s no sense in which she owns her successes more than her failures—she may have subsequently voiced suspicions that producers on "Ishtar" had a personal beef with Beatty that contributed to their sabotaging its release, but her response to the derision and ignominy that greeted the film was as honest as it was final: she never directed another film.

In fact May’s creativity, her considerable strength of will and her personal charisma are quasi-legendary in showbiz circles. (Richard Burton, who gave Nichols his career-making break when he asked him to direct the film version of “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf,” said of May “Elaine was too formidable, one of the most intelligent, beautiful, and witty women I had ever met. I hoped I would never see her again.”) And that’s what makes her such an interesting subject of study. In a Hollywood even more male-dominated than today, May blazed her own short, highly erratic trail as a director and left four films: The Compromised Debut; The Bittersweet Hit; The Neglected Classic; and The Notorious Flop. Let’s take a look.

A New Leaf

A New Leaf” (1971)
Never one to shy away from a challenge, May made things doubly hard on herself by electing to also star in her directorial debut, 1971’s “A New Leaf.” Co-starring Walter Matthau (and honestly who else could navigate the character of a wastrel playboy with murderous intent with such gruff hangdog charm?), the film is an odd mix of social satire and romantic comedy all shot through with the very blackest of humor. We can’t remember another instance, bar maybe F. W. Murnau’s silent classic “Sunrise,” where have we been asked to accept the lead character’s redemption and his growth as a human being from the way he doesn’t kill his wife. But here that’s roughly what happens: when stinking rich, widely disliked Henry Graham (Matthau) discovers he’s run through his fortune, he resolves, egged on by his gentleman’s gentleman, to marry money, secretly also deciding that once the deed is done he’ll off his missus and therefore won’t be bothered by her “always being there and touching things.” In a town apparently teeming with rich heiresses with no familial attachments, Henry settles on Henrietta (May) a ditzy, clumsy botanist whose very existence is an affront to all Henry’s refined tastes and snobbery. 

A New Leaf Matthau

But if his marginal thawing in the face of her unrelenting sweetness and adoration feels now like a rather empty climax for a film that seems to be heading elsewhere, perhaps that’s because that’s not how the film was written. In fact, contrary to the “he’s fallen in love in spite of himself” implication here, the script May wrote had Henry commit two murders before basically "sentencing" himself to a lifetime’s marriage to Henrietta as punishment. That version, when May cut it together and finally allowed the studio to see it, ran 180 minutes long, the story goes, and was promptly commandeered by Paramount’s Robert Evans and recut into the 108 minute edit we have today. May was livid, reportedly hating this cut of the film, sued Paramount unsuccessfully to suppress it and tried to have her name removed. However, in the first of many, many ironies of May’s film career, the recut film won her a WGA nomination and was widely praised by critics (both Roger Ebert and Vincent Canby choosing the word “cockeyed” to describe its charms) and though it did little business at the box office, it has established itself as something of a cult favorite now. Even Matthau voiced his preference for the shorter story over the original. We're probably a little cooler on it than those others, finding the murky misogyny of some of the scenes a little hard to take now, but May herself is great fun in the role, making even getting into a sports car or carrying a fern into an opportunity for some cherishable physical comedy, and the batty darkness of the film's premise is a texture we don't find often nowadays. So even if the film feels rushed, especially toward the last portion and Henry’s (almost literal) last-minute change of heart, it’s still powered along by its offbeat rhythms enough to make it a dark, and occasionally very funny, diversion. [B-]

The Heartbreak Kid Grodin Shepard

The Heartbreak Kid” (1972)
Hard to believe that such a short filmography can have an outlier, but May’s “The Heartbreak Kid” is just that—the only film she directed which she didn’t write (it’s Neil Simon’s screenplay), and by far, her most out-and-out successful, both financially and with critics: in fact, it’s made the AFI’s list of the 100 Greatest American Comedies at #91, sandwiched between classics “Ball of Fire” and “Woman of the Year.” “The Heartbreak Kid” is a masterpiece of that kind of understated, character-based comedy-of-awkwardness that elicits groans of recognition and occasional winces, as opposed to guffaws. It’s a tone that also pervades May’s ex-partner Mike Nichols’ own comedy classic (#9 on the AFI list, if you’re keeping score) “The Graduate” and the similarities between the two films are striking. Both deal with nebbish, self-absorbed and not terribly likeable characters with a degree of intellectual snobbery, as they vacillate and prevaricate in their romantic lives and future career plans; neither film is afraid to temper any teaspoonful of sweet with a sackful of bitter. Lenny (a superb, pitch-perfect Charles Grodin) marries Lila (Jeannie Berlin, May’s daughter, cast in some sort of act of vicarious masochism it can only be guessed) in a Jewish ceremony and they promptly head to Miami Beach for their honeymoon. But even on the way there, Lenny starts to notice things that irritate him about Lila that their whirlwind courtship hadn’t shown him, compounded when Lila gets terribly sunburned their first day at the beach and is confined to their room while Lenny is first distracted and then smitten by sultry daddy’s girl Kelly (Cybill Shepherd). 

The Heartbreak Kid Berlin

The humor initially derives largely from Lenny’s increasingly ludicrous excuses to his new wife for constantly going out, but where the real genius of May’s subtle direction can be felt is in how natural all of it seems, yet how affectingly it develops. Lila, for example, could have been a one-note harridan millstone round Lenny’s neck, but during the scene in which he finally breaks up with her in the lobster restaurant, it is she who unexpectedly breaks your heart (Berlin was nominated for a Best Supporting Actress Oscar). Because as much as the situation is a comedic one, the film is really a character study, and if you need proof of the difference a sensitive director and the freeing environment of '70s filmmaking can make, look no farther than the 2007 Ben Stiller remake where all subtleties and ambiguities are hammered out in favor of broader moments and a more twisty plot. In fact, just compare the endings: where the 2007 film has an extended convoluted series of “oh no, she’s married! Oh no, now I’m married!” contrivances, May’s far more assured take simply ends with Grodin on a sofa. The moment is held for a long time, almost too long, until it starts to make sense again. It’s a shot that shows the genius and uniqueness of May’s approach in miniature: hold on a shot of a guy by himself on a sofa at his own wedding and you get comedy; hold a little longer, and suddenly, it’s tragic irony. [A-]