Elaine May began life 88 years ago, the child of traveling players in a Yiddish theater company. She grew up acting with her parents. Later years would bring bigger venues — Broadway, Hollywood, even a pioneer Amazon Prime series — but her ethic of mishpocheh followed her through her collaborative career. Sadly, as happens in a large family, she often didn’t get the attention she was due.
She first hit the scene as the latter half of the comedy duo Nichols and May, resulting in a string of hit albums and a legendary Broadway residency. While Mike Nichols assumed a higher profile after the duo first disbanded, May was likewise formidable, though too often relegated to the background.
As the late Nora Ephron — an heir not just to her screenwriting parents but to May herself — rightly observed as Nichols received his 2010 AFI Lifetime Achievement award, “What about Elaine?”
It was Elaine, after all, who reportedly broke up the two-hander to do something different. If you like the films of Mike Nichols, you have Elaine May to thank.
Nichols directed the words of Edward Albee, Buck Henry, Neil Simon and Aaron Sorkin but May wrote screenplays for Warren Beatty (and Henry) and directed auteur John Cassavetes and Nichols himself. Throughout her long career, May made filmmaking a family affair after she was burned one too many times by decision-making strangers. Given her family background, it’s little wonder why this way of operating appealed to her.
One of the shondes of our time that can’t be broadcast enough is how much uncredited work May did for her male friends. She may not have her name on “Tootsie” or “Reds,” but she made those scripts work. And the people she was working with — “Chinatown” scribe Robert Towne and Larry Gelbart of “MAS*H” fame — were no pikers when it came to screen craft
May did get her due with two Oscar nominations for “Heaven Can Wait” (with Beatty) and the oft-forgotten “Primary Colors,” directed by Nichols and adapted from Joe Klein’s roman a clef about Bill Clinton’s 1992 presidential campaign. But her career as a director is consistently overlooked and wrongly maligned, the result of her scramble for creative control as a woman in Hollywood.
Her filmography began auspiciously with 1971’s “A New Leaf,” which she wrote, directed and starred in. The studio massacred May’s cut — scrapping 80 minutes from a 180 minute run-time and reportedly excising much of its darker themes — but the flick was nonetheless nominated for a Golden Globe for Best Comedy or Musical only to lose to “Fiddler on the Roof” (with lyrics by her ex-husband Sheldon Harnick). May, nominated for best actress, lost out to model Twiggy’s performance in “The Boy Friend.”
Still critics loved the film and its follow-up, 1972’s “The Heartbreak Kid.” Penned by Neil Simon, the comedy earned May’s daughter Jeannie Berlin and her co-star Eddie Albert supporting actor Oscar nominations. But despite these accolades, there were no nominations for May even as the film was hailed by the Village Voice as “the culminating work of Hollywood’s Jewish new wave” and — challenging Henry and Nichols — as “startling in its way as was ‘The Graduate’” by The New York Times.
Then, things unravelled. An out-of-left field crime drama “Mikey and Nicky,” featuring Cassavetes, Peter Falk, Ned Beatty (no relation to Warren) and legendary method acting teacher Sanford Meisner went over budget and Paramount fired her, only to rehire her when the studio learned that she had secreted away two reels of the film. The picture flopped when released in 1976, leading to May’s first long hiatus from directing.
I think we all know what prompted the second sabbatical. 1987’s “Ishtar,” which weaves yet another tale of studio sabotage that kept May from working behind the camera but for a PBS documentary tribute to Mike Nichols from 2016. The musical comedy starring Dustin Hoffman and Warren Beatty has since been rehabilitated, a favorite of Richard Linklater and Martin Scorsese.
But even though her time at the bullhorn was cut short by one too many frustrations, May continued to deliver for those she was close to, writing 1996’s “The Birdcage” for Nichols and acting for Woody Allen in 2000’s “Small Time Crooks” and his Amazon show “A Crisis in Six Scenes.” In such esteemed company, it’s easy to miss May for the remarkable talent she is with a wit, pathos and willingness to one up herself, moving from intimate comedies to a psychological gangster film to a musical geo-political farce.
In her late 80s, May has yet to slow down. In 2018, she returned to the John Golden Theatre, the venue for “An Evening with Nichols and May” to deliver a Tony-winning turn in Kenneth Lonergan’s “The Waverly Gallery.”
In her acceptance speech, May was modest, appealing to her philosophy of collaboration. “My family was played by everyone you’ve ever wanted to be on stage with,” May said, sharing the credit with co-stars Joan Allen, Lucas Hedges, Michael Cera and David Cromer and praising Lonergan’s script.
The following year, Dakota Johnson announced that she would star in a feature directed by May — the director’s first film in over three decades. Here’s hoping that the project proceeds with a minimum of interference. May has earned that much.
PJ Grisar is the Forward’s culture fellow. He can be reached at Grisar@Forward.com.