Why Elaine May Is A National Treasure
When “The Waverly Gallery” makes its official Broadway debut on October 25, Elaine May will appear as Gladys, the Alzheimer’s-afflicted grandmother in Kenneth Lonergan’s 1999 comic drama that brings multiple meanings to the term “memory play.” Fans of the comedian/actress/writer/director, who has been American comedy’s insurgent genius as well as its Jewish mother, have greeted her casting with an enthusiasm verging on the maniacal.
At 86, an age when most showbiz vets are taking final bows, May, who rarely consents to be interviewed, is everywhere, collecting laughs, kudos and standing Os. As the screenwriter who adapted “Heaven Can Wait,” “The Birdcage” and “Primary Colors,” and the script doctor who saved “Reds” and “Tootsie,” May won a 2016 career achievement award from the Writers Guild of America.
As the writer/director of the offbeat movie comedies “A New Leaf,” “Mikey & Nicky” and “The Heartbreak Kid,” she is rediscovered daily in art houses across the country as a defining American auteur. And while “Ishtar,” her 1987 film, was panned widely on release (it effectively ended her directorial career), in recent years it has achieved cult status as a sly and unusually prescient look at America’s role in Middle East politics.
On top of these creative talents, May is a Method-trained, stealthily funny actress in such films as “A New Leaf,” “Enter Laughing,” “California Suite” and “Small Time Crooks.” In 2013, President Obama presented her with a National Medal of Arts.
It is fitting that the improv pioneer who made audiences roar with laughter at the circular logic of the characters in her 1960 Broadway debut, “An Evening With Mike Nichols and Elaine May,” is returning to the same venue, the John Golden Theater, in “Waverly Gallery.”
Even if you don’t recognize her name, your funny bone has been tickled by May, who has no equal as America’s most influential comedian. Her beneficiaries include everyone from Lily Tomlin to Tina Fey. “I don’t think it’s possible to overstate her influence on funny women,” said Mark Harris, the film maven writing a biography of Mike Nichols.
She has had an enormous impact on funny men, as well, most prominently Nichols and Woody Allen. Harris said, “The intelligence and precision and versatility she brought to Nichols & May influenced everyone who saw it, and I think that influence has been passed down the generations, to the point where there are comedians and comic writer/performers who probably don’t even know that she is in their DNA.”
“In her early sketch work with Mike Nichols, she ushered in a Jewish sensibility,” said Jason Zinoman, a comedy columnist at The New York Times. “The phone bit where May calls her son – ‘Arthur, this is your mother. Do you remember me?’ — is the Rosetta Stone for the Jewish mother joke.”
Sixty years ago, American comedy was loud and raucous, dominated by Bob Hope jokes about Dwight Eisenhower on the golf course, and by slapstick like Jerry Lewis spritzing seltzer at Dean Martin. Then, Nichols and May, who were students at the University of Chicago in the late 1940s (Susan Sontag was a classmate), quietly introduced improv sketches based on human behavior. The pair had experimented at Chicago’s Compass Theater, forerunner of Second City, and to many American Jews their comedy had a recognizably Yiddish inflection right down to the hand gestures.
May, born Elaine Berlin in Philadelphia, was the daughter of a Yiddish theater director and studied for a time with Moscow Theater legend Maria Ouspenskaya. Nichols, born Mikhail Igor Peschkowsky in Germany, immigrated to America on the same steamship that carried Henry Kissinger. Both comedians lost their fathers at a tender age. Together the outliers Nichols and May redirected the mighty Mississippi of American comedy.
Mothers and sons talking past each other on the phone. Teenagers on a date, chain smoking, necking and trying to impress each other. Co-workers at a water cooler, schmoozing, flirting and trying to impress each other. They played acutely self-conscious people caught in the moment. Whatever this was, it wasn’t a spoof or a sendup or standup. It was something new.
“The Marx Brothers, Mel Brooks, Sid Caesar and Woody Allen were always winking at the audience,” observed Nell Scovell, a writer for “Late Night With David Letterman” and “The Simpsons” and the author of “Just the Funny Parts.” “Nichols, May and, later, Albert Brooks are always inside the character. You weren’t laughing with them. You weren’t laughing at them. You were laughing at the foolishness of humanity —and perhaps even laughing at yourself.”
There were times in the middle of a sketch when Nichols went cold onstage, the late director once recalled in an interview with me: “Elaine had this great piece of advice: ‘When in doubt, seduce.’” Working together, these physicists of the human comedy found that almost all human encounters could be sorted into one of three categories: seduction, negotiation and fight.
During their hugely successful run on Broadway, before the LP of “An Evening With Mike Nichols and Elaine May” won a Grammy in 1962, May wanted to move on. Nichols was crushed, viewing it as akin to a professional divorce. He didn’t know that in the future they would collaborate on “The Birdcage” (the nonmusical film remake of “La Cage Aux Folles”) and on “Primary Colors.”
Before her Chicago and New York adventures, May, who dropped out of Hollywood High at 14 and wed at 16, had a daughter, Jeannie Berlin. By 1962 Jeannie was 13. While May divulges little about her personal life, it is possible that the demands of a nightly show drained her of mommy energy. With her second marriage, to her psychiatrist, David Rubenfine, she took on Rubenfine’s three daughters, as well. Equally possible: Improv was a challenge, not so doing the same routines every night. To spark her creativity, May needed to work without a net.
Nichols, who liked the spotlight, would flourish in mainstream pop culture, directing Broadway plays (“Barefoot in the Park,” “The Odd Couple”) and then Hollywood films (“Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” “The Graduate”). May liked her outlier status. Not for nothing is this elusive, reclusive woman known as “the J.D. Salinger of comedy.” For much of the 1960s, Nichols bounced from success to success as May bobbed along in the eddies, from failure to failure.
She wrote plays. One, “A Matter of Position,” starred Nichols as a guy like Nichols, one who really wanted to be liked. May was critical of his performance, and he didn’t like working without her; the 1962 play closed in Philadelphia after 17 performances. The former partners felt betrayed and stopped communicating. May moved to Hollywood and worked on screenplays, mostly unproduced. Cast in the 1967 movies “Enter Laughing” and “Luv,” she displayed an uncanny ability to look like an Ava Gardner glamourpuss or a Thelma Ritter hag, depending on how her character felt. She also got a tutorial in how movies got made.
That came in handy in 1971, when, with the black comedy “A New Leaf,” she became the first woman since Ida Lupino to direct a studio film. May also wrote and co-starred — opposite Walter Matthau’s Henry — as Henrietta, a wealthy botanist and heiress who dreams of discovering a new species of fern. A playboy who has burned through the family inheritance, Henry dreams of marrying a wealthy woman, then killing her for her fortune. May had a cockeyed way of implying that men were just turkeys in peacock plumage. Perversely romantic and wryly funny, May’s directorial debut was a critical success, if not a financial one.
The same reaction attended “The Heartbreak Kid” (1972), her sophomore film effort. This is the one about the newly wed Jewish salesman (Charles Grodin) who on his Florida honeymoon ditches his bride (Jeannie Berlin, May’s real-life daughter) in order to pursue a shiksa goddess played by Cybill Shepherd. Even though May agreed to the demand of screenwriter Neil Simon that she wouldn’t change a line of dialogue without his permission, she encouraged her cast to “explore the subtext,” her euphemism for “improvise.” This rueful comedy about desire for the Other is as trenchant as Philip Roth.
Few recognized it at the time, but in her movies as a director May made kasha of male vanity in ways few others dared. Jonathan Rosenbaum, the film critic most eloquent about her work, notes that all four films she directed are variations on the theme of betrayal. The first two involve the disloyalty of a marital partner, and the second two the treachery of a friend.
“Mikey & Nicky” (1976) was May’s passion project. It is most definitely not a comedy. She had worked on the story about two low-level gangsters, best friends, since her Chicago days. May cast Peter Falk as Mikey, the less damaged of the two, and John Cassavetes as Nicky, the improvident one who owes money to the mob. When first I saw it, I thought it was the anti-“Godfather.” More than 40 years on, it plays as a chilling portrait of the kind of man who proves how tough he is by roughing up women.
May shot 1.4 million feet of film, three times more than the running time of “Gone With the Wind.” She went over budget, and stole the film’s last two reels in order to maintain control of the final cut. But that’s another story. So why did another studio greenlight “Ishtar?” Because in the 11 years between “Mikey & Nicky” and her fourth directorial effort she made fortunes for Columbia and Paramount as a script doctor. Warren Beatty credits her for improving “Heaven Can Wait,” his 1978 hit film, and for sharpening the script of his Oscar-winning “Reds.” “Elaine is the one who made the movie work,” Dustin Hoffman said of “Tootsie,” noting that she gave it structure, created the Bill Murray character, wrote Hoffman’s confessional monologue and deepened the female parts. Nichols called it “Elaine’s most spectacular save.” Because May declines credit on rewrites, it is unlikely that we will ever get a complete accounting of how many (and which) movies she saved.
Beatty and Hoffman’s thank-you to May was signing on for “Ishtar” as a supremely talentless musical duo that gets a gig in a fictional Middle Eastern nation. Thirty-one years ago, audiences greeted it with near-universal contempt. Now it enjoys a reputation as a misunderstood masterpiece. Me, I liked it in 1987 because of May’s gimlet-eyed look at male vanity and self-deceit. I like it even better in 2018, because I appreciate how May seized the perfect metaphor for United States policy in the Middle East. Namely, two doofuses on a blind camel wandering the buzzard-strafed desert, one allied with the CIA, the other with Arab revolutionaries. Surely it is easier for a blind camel to go through the eye of a needle than for America to help achieve peace in the Middle East.
Since “Ishtar,” May gave Hollywood what it wanted: scripts for successful Mike Nichols comedies. The two she wrote for Nichols in the 1990s were “The Birdcage” and “Primary Colors.” The first is a stealth political comedy contrasting the family values of a gay couple and their son with those of a hypocritical Republican senator, his wife and their daughter. The second is an unapologetic political tragicomedy about the chasm between the ideals and the actions of a Bill Clinton-like Southern Democrat running for president.
While I plan to be the first in line to see May in “Waverly Gallery,” I can’t help but think what she could do with a screenplay about a blustering American president preparing for a summit with a cagy, former KGB Russian president.
Carrie Rickey is the film critic emerita of the Philadelphia Inquirer.