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Retrospective: The Directorial Career Of Elaine May

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by Jessica Kiang
August 8, 2013 12:03 PM
2 Comments
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Mikey and Nicky Cassavetes Falk

Mikey and Nicky” (1976)
A neglected near-masterpiece of 1970s filmmaking featuring two titanic performances and a screenwriting approach that’s about as far from the rules of Three Act Structure and Incident, Climax, Resolution as you can imagine, Elaine May’s third foray into direction is “Mikey and Nicky” starring Peter Falk and John Cassavetes as the titular duo. Several light years away in tone from the screwballishness of “A New Leaf” or the bittersweet modulations of “The Heartbreak Kid,” “Mikey and Nicky” is a talky, loose-limbed gangster film, of all things, featuring guns and hitmen and chase scenes. But this is May, and it was the '70s, so the guns are seldom fired, the chase scenes are largely a curb-crawling car searching for a pedestrian and the hitman is played by Ned Beatty with all the dangerous charisma of a junior accountant. It’s a magnificent but occasionally frustrating stew of a movie, so free-form as to seem completely improvisational, and yet almost every word in the film reportedly adheres to the script May wrote. But her filmmaking style, which was to have three cameras left rolling for long periods of time as the actors worked and reworked the scenes, gives it an almost unbearably naturalistic feel that owes a great debt to, and arguably surpasses, some of Cassavetes’ own directorial work. 

Mikey and Nicky Cassavetes

Nicky (Cassavetes) is a paranoid wreck and a petty criminal who, in a fit of desperation calls his old friend Mikey (Falk) to come and meet him in the hotel room where he’s holed up. Mikey arrives to discover an ungrateful (and fundamentally obnoxious) Nicky in a fit of almost psychotic fear in the belief that there’s a contract on his life. The rest of the film unfolds episodically, with the two trading reminiscences and recriminations across the city at night in a kind of Beckettian “After Hours” scenario, with the bonds of their friendship and their deeper agendas only gradually, elliptically revealed. The stories surrounding the film’s troubled gestation are myriad: the production budget more than doubled under May’s obsessive but undisciplined approach; she missed the scheduled release date by nearly a year before Paramount stepped in; and when they did, they sued successfully for final cut, and halfheartedly released their version in December of ‘76, where it basically died on the vine. But even at the time, the critics who saw it were fulsome in their praise, with Stanley Kauffmann calling it “the best film that I know by an American woman” and naming it one of the best 10 films of the decade. Today, it’s the film of May’s that is most ripe for and deserving of reappraisal (and the Criterion Collection looks poised to put it out, it's already available in their Hulu Plus collection) as it embodies all that is great, as well as all that is retrospectively maddening, about this hallowed period of American studio filmmaking. [A-]

Ishtar Beatty Hoffmann

Ishtar” (1987)
The negative experiences that May had with “Mikey and Nicky” led to her swearing off directing for more than a decade. In that time, she turned her hand to screenwriting in earnest and wrote “Heaven Can Wait” for Warren Beatty, did an uncredited rewrite on “Tootsie” which star Dustin Hoffman believed to have saved the film, and an also-uncredited rewrite and postproduction job on Beatty’s Oscar-winning “Reds.” Essentially, Beatty felt he owed her and wanted to find a project to do with her in which he could be sure she’d be given the freedom and resources she needed. "I was going to give this gift to Elaine,” he said, “and it turned out to be the opposite." Indeed it did. It turned out to be ”Ishtar," a film that killed May’s directorial career (and possibly her ambitions in that area) stone dead, with its legendary cost overruns, on-set fallings out, clashes of ego and tales of stupefying excess (like the search for the perfect blue-eyed camel) now part of Hollywood lore—stories execs use to frighten their juniors to sleep at night. (You can read about them in more detail in this exhaustive Vanity Fair article/excerpt.) And the critics (bar Vincent Canby), hitherto kind to May’s films even when audiences stayed away, savaged the film. But if we try to cut through the thicket of rumor and innuendo and retrospective reputation that surrounds it, can it possibly be as bad as all that? 

ishtar camel

In fact the disappointment of viewing “Ishtar” nowadays is that it’s kind of okay: it’s a too-on-the-nose homage to the Crosby/HopeRoad’ movies no doubt, culturally it’s tone deaf and for certain stretches, it lags as the Beatty and Hoffman capering-around-the desert antics become tiresome, but there are some genuine laughs, especially early on. And while terrible songs are overused as a conduit to comedy, spontaneous lyrics like “there’s a wardrobe of love in my eyes… take a look around see if there’s anything in your size” always do it for us. So on the scale of things, it's not inherently the disaster it was made out to be, but by and large it is disappointment from May, whose subtle touch and way with wry characterization are only rarely in evidence here. Instead we get a blunter, broader film than anything else she was even associated with elsewhere, that relies too heavily on one-note jokes (Beatty’s the putz, whereas Hoffman’s the ladykiller! They think their songs are great when they’re really dreadful!). It means that as soon as the main exposition-heavy plot kicks in (nonsense involving Isabelle Adjani as a freedom fighter, a lost map, and the ever-reliable Charles Grodin as a CIA agent), the momentum screams to a halt and the film staggers around like, well, like a blind camel. Still, we’re working off a very high base with May, and we’d hazard that as just-OK as the film is, it’s a great deal better than a lot of what passes for studio comedy these days (yes, “Grown Ups 2,” it’s you we’re avoiding looking at). Really, “Ishtar” is a sobering lesson in how the narrative that surrounds a movie can eclipse the film itself (especially when the film is neither good enough to be wholeheartedly rehabilitated nor bad enough to become a camp classic), and the signal-to-noise ratio here is way out of whack. As May herself said, “if all of the people who hated 'Ishtar' had seen it, I’d be a rich woman today.” [C+/B-]

"Ishtar" is available on Blu-ray now.

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2 Comments

  • Piotr | August 8, 2013 1:00 PMReply

    I flash forward to a future where bloggers are writing spirited defences of Grown Ups 2: "Not nearly the affront to cinema it was made out to be upon first release... etc."

  • Christopher Bell | August 8, 2013 1:29 PM

    Oh yeah buddy how's the weather over there?

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