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At 90, Elaine May remains a deceptively and defiantly Jewish artist

The Jewish quotient in the creative works of director, screenwriter and actress Elaine May, whose 90th birthday will be feted April 21, remains oddly misunderstood.

Yet May, as recent recipient of a Tony award, honorary Oscar, and National Medal for the Arts, is widely esteemed in the showbiz community. The Academy Award is a trifle ironic, given that even circa 1960, May was telling journalists how much she loathed Hollywood. Her relationship with filmmaking colleagues has repeatedly been litigious and conflictual. Rarely allowed to make films, she usually went extremely over budget with what critic Jonathan Rosenbaum has likened to the “Jewish baroque” lavishness of director Erich von Stroheim.

Her films are all powerful, disquieting and usually problematic, unlike the output of her former comedy partner Mike Nichols, who produced a series of sleek, trendily successful movies.

May’s rapport with Yiddishkeit was intensely appreciative, albeit neurotic. Part of the problem may have been that for years, she misled reporters with unreliable biographical details, such as the notion that she grew up in the Yiddish theater. Only in 2010 did May admit to Rosenbaum that this claim was exaggerated, although her parents, Jack and Ida Aaron Berlin, did perform in Yiddish plays.

Elaine May and Mike Nichols address a crowd of supporters and marchers during a rally prior to the last day of the Selma to Montgomery march.

Down in Alabama: Elaine May and Mike Nichols address a crowd of supporters and marchers during a rally prior to the last day of the Selma to Montgomery march. By Getty Images

So intensely self-involved was May that one of her marriages was to her own psychiatrist. Another was to lyricist Sheldon Harnick, whom she divorced one year before he achieved immortality with the Broadway musical “Fiddler on the Roof.” Had that brief alliance lasted a bit longer, the idea of May performing as one of Tevye’s daughters or perhaps, aided by old age makeup, as the dairyman’s wife Golde, Yente the village matchmaker, Grandma Tzeitel or Fruma-Sarah, Lazar Wolf’s dead wife, is surreal but not inconceivable, given the weirdness of showbiz casting.

As it was, May assumed her most indelible screen role, as klutzy heiress Henrietta Lowell in “A New Leaf” (1971) which she wrote and directed, to prevent the studio from getting its wish by giving Carol Channing the part. In this way, May’s deliciously comic Jewish klutz persona became an all-time highlight of onscreen physical comedy.

Only geniuses like Keaton and Chaplin were able to direct themselves in scenes with the intense permanent funniness of May as Lowell being extricated from a dress by her snooty husband Walter Matthau after she put her head through an opening intended for her arm.

In another film created that same year, Otto Preminger’s “Such Good Friends,” for which May wrote the screenplay, Jewishness is presented as a solace at life’s transitional moments. Gathered at a hospital where the protagonist’s husband is dying, Jewish friends played by Sam Levene and Doris Roberts cause the widow to reflect that her family wasn’t especially Jewish, or especially anything.

This faceless assimilation, May implies, offers no consolation. Full of bitter, uneasy jokes, “Such Good Friends” is perhaps May’s most underestimated film. Preminger photographed her screenplay respectfully, creating a far better film than his overblown epic “Exodus” of a few years before. It deserves to be esteemed instead being discounted as mere hired work, or ignored in favor of May’s troubled “Ishtar” (1987), itself tediously attacked or overpraised by critics.

May’s next film, “The Heartbreak Kid,” (1972) for which she directed a screenplay by Neil Simon, has been unfairly charged with antisemitism because it is about a schmendrick who dumps his Jewish bride in favor of the idealized blonde non-Jewish woman he meets on his honeymoon. Countering any presumed presence of antisemitism, May cast her own real-life daughter Jeannie Berlin as the rejected newlywed. Berlin delivers a charming and attractively clowning performance like a younger brunette version of Renée Taylor. Her presence adds amusing Yiddishkeit to “The Heartbreak Kid,” whereas Neil Simon reportedly preferred the decidedly non-Jewish Diane Keaton to portray the dumped partner.

And the Jewish wedding shown at the start of the film is presented with sympathy and emotion, recalling a similar ceremony depicted with documentary-style respect in John Schlesinger’s 1971 drama “Sunday Bloody Sunday.”

Simon was also reportedly peeved that May encouraged actors to improvise lines, but the result must be among the most effective, least dated Neil Simon films, perhaps partly because some of it was written by others.

In a later bit of virtuoso casting to augment Yiddishkeit, May chose the Jewish film executive Frank Yablans to play a gangster in “Mikey and Nicky,” her gritty, grueling account of friendship gone wrong. However, the studio vetoed Yablans’ appearance in such a role, likely fearing that it might be seen as typecasting.

Jonathan Rosenbaum, a decided aficionado, has alleged that Elaine May’s films are all about personal betrayal, and in truth her characters assassinate one another with the egomaniacal verve of creations by Strindberg and Ibsen.

Yet a quintessentially Jewish, often overlooked awareness of sociopolitical conditions also permeates May’s life and work. Elaine May was among entertainers, alongside Harry Belafonte, who traveled to Montgomery, Alabama, in 1965 to divert crowds who had assembled to support the historic Selma to Montgomery marches by Martin Luther King Jr.

Reporting on that occasion, Renata Adler implied how Nichols and May lightened the mood while, as always, echoing profound anxiety and distress appropriate for the occasion. Three years later, as a director, Elaine May would stage Terrence McNally’s “Next,” a comedy that savagely opposed the Vietnam War-era draft.

A manifestly unfit recruitee, played by James Coco, who also played the hapless doctor whose patient dies in “Such Good Friends,” epitomizes the absurdity of American military involvement in Southeast Asia.

Perhaps remembered too much for her early comedy duo with Mike Nichols, which she voluntarily ended in 1961 after a brief success, May always sought universality, never content with being typed as a Jewish comedian.

Even so, they were first united onstage by Paul Sills (born Silverberg), director and improvisation teacher at Chicago’s Second City comedy troupe. Himself inspired by his mother, the eminent Jewish teacher of improvisation Viola Spolin, Sills embraced the progressive notion of improv as going beyond routine acting exercises (May has recounted being flummoxed when expected to behave like a tree in an early acting class).

Instead, improvisation as interpreted by Spolin and Sills was an essential element of education and self-realization. So it has remained for May, whose formal education ended when she was 14.

In the classic Nichols-May routine “The Mother,” about a nightmare maternal guilt trip, the speakers are intentionally given a non-Jewish family name. Yet Jewish comedy fans have repeatedly mislabeled the routine online as “The Jewish Mother.” Of course, some mothers from other cultural and religious backgrounds also try on occasion to impose guilt on their offspring.

As Elaine May turns 90, covered in honors, it is tempting to see her as finally happy and fulfilled, although she recently lost her longtime companion, filmmaker Stanley Donen. In 2018, actor Michael Cera described her as being fond of swigging stout and porter, especially Mexican Cake beer, a “viscous and…strong” tipple. Ageless like the European adventurer the Comte de Saint Germain, who dazzled 18th century partygoers by claiming to be 500 years old, May continues to bewitch, bother, and bewilder an admiring public with Jewish-themed ironies.

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