September 29, 2022
Trending Tags

The Tragically Short Directing Career of Eliane May, Ranked

Read Time:14 Minute, 57 Second


Elaine May is one of the most influential comedians and screenwriters of all time. Few humorists have been able to cut so deeply into the egoism and mainstream values of their time with such a straight face, eyelashes batting innocently as the self-serious faces in the crowd turn beat-red (a shade soon matched by the rest of the audience, who are laughing so hard they can’t breathe). Her groundbreaking improvisational act with fellow future director Mike Nichols introduced the world to the pair’s outsider skewering of social conventions. Rather than developing straight-forward bits with clearly defined punchlines, Nichols and May inhabited characters and allowed their thought patterns, repressed desires, and short-mindedness to speak for themselves, leaving the actual joke/point implied.



When the pair disbanded, both gravitated to theater and then to film – and while Nichols made an enormous and widely celebrated splash in Hollywood, the more aloof May had an equally large (if frequently anonymous) influence on the major films of the time. In addition to her credited work on classics like Heaven Can Wait (1978), The Birdcage (1996), and Primary Colors(1998), May contributed major uncredited rewrites for Tootsie (1982), Labyrinth (1986), Reds (1981), and many more. Where most screenwriters would kill for a writer’s credit for doing far less, May was perfectly happy to remain anonymous (in the ironic third person bios the two wrote for their improv show, Mike Nichols presented a long list of accolades he had not achieved, while May simply wrote that she did not exist).

May’s comedic sensibilities have had a major influence on Lily Tomlin, John Mulaney, Steve Martin, Woody Allen, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, and countless others – but her greatest achievements are the four films she directed at a time when the number of women helming movies in Hollywood was far too close to zero. May developed a unique aesthetic characterized by claustrophobic compositions, uncomfortably long scenes, and a camera tuned to the nuances of performance. May’s films are more interested in dropping into the psychological complexities of a moment than moving the plot along, and she demands that her audience stays with the characters and their follies, reckoning with their selfishness, deception, insecurities, and short-comings – traits that are as universal as her protagonists are particular.

All of May’s films are wickedly funny (even Mikey and Nicky, the only non-comedy in the bunch), but they are funny in a way that hurts. She mocks the most sacred of Hollywood’s mythologies, revealing the sickness in the rom-com, the proud stupidity in the star-is-born success story, the infantile destruction in the gangster epic. These mainstream narratives are attractive because they are romantic tools of manipulation, covering the cruelty and violence we do to one another. She was particularly attuned to the entitlement and destruction of the male ego in a patriarchal society – but treated it with derision rather than as a powerful force. “She treated everything funny that men take seriously,” an ex-boyfriend famously stated. If there’s a rebellious streak in her aesthetics, it carries over into her craft: May was as stubborn and exacting a director as any of the great auteurs of the New Hollywood era. Before it was a hit, the crew of A New Leaf (her directorial debut) thought they were on a sinking ship with a mad captain. May stole the film prints for Mikey and Nicky, so the studio wouldn’t recut the film (as had happened to her debut). Where other (male) directors came to be lauded for their meticulousness, May was frequently ostracized, and eventually put in what is now known as “movie jail” after her last film flopped: she never directed another narrative feature. Like that, one of the greatest talents in Hollywood history was locked out of the castle.

Since her last film, May has worked extensively as a playwright, screenwriter, and actor. She was recently awarded an honorary Oscar. That her filmography is so slight continues to be a frustrating tragedy for film lovers – but, small as it is, it contains some of the richest gems Hollywood has to offer.

4 Ishtar (1987)

The popularly held conviction that Ishtar is one of the worst movies of all time is laughable at best (at worst, it’s a symptom of the industry’s misogyny, egoism, and baseless hyperbole). It may be May’s worst film, but given the soaring quality of her work, that’s not saying much at all. In an interview with former partner Mike Nichols, May quipped, “if all the people who hate Ishtar had seen it, I’d be a rich woman today.” An out-of-control tide of word of mouth clouded what was in reality an effective grand satirical comedy. Nichols described the negative attitude towards the film as resulting from a major studio “committing suicide”: because of conflicts between executives and artists, Columbia allegedly leaked negative press to sabotage the film. Before it became clear that the release was being derailed by in-house egoism, May entertained a brief moment of self-importance: she suspected the culprit was the CIA.

May casts Warren Beatty and Dustin Hoffman against type (a nebbish and ladykiller, respectively) as two incredibly untalented singer-songwriters convinced they are destined for stardom. The film begins in New York as the two struggle for success despite utter mediocrity, concluding that it takes a lot of guts to be so totally unaccomplished at their age. They are so terrible that the only venue a marketer can find for them is in a dive bar in Morocco, where major political unrest is pouring over from the (fictional) nation of Ishtar. Their partnership is tested as soon as they arrive in the Middle East, when each comes under the influence of an opposing side: the CIA (who back a corrupt Shah) and a peoples’ rebellion movement. These two brainless schnooks high on the promise of American ambition, have become vital players in the international fate of the Middle East.

The film is loosely structured after the Crosby and Hope “Road to …” movies. The anti-authoritarian May reasoned that all former movie star president Ronald Reagan knew about the Middle East had been gleaned from Road to Morocco (1942). From this jumping-off point, she weaves a tale that takes aim at American mediocrity and its over presence in international conflicts. The film certainly drops in quality once the pair leave New York (the first third of Ishtar is some of the funniest work May has ever done), with the action movie spectacle May is satirizing and hijacking too much of the screen time; but overall the film works, as broad comedy, showbiz satire, and vitriolic take-down of the global effects of supposed American Exceptionalism. There are many comedies that have been critically acclaimed which are leagues beneath the quality of Ishtar; a quality that has since been recognized by major figures like Peter Bogdanovich and Martin Scorsese. It’s a shame that May’s directorial career ended with her weakest film, but Ishtar is still a scathing and successful work defined by the sensibility of one of Hollywood’s greatest and least appreciated geniuses.

Related: Here Are Some of the Best Dark Comedies Ever Made

MOVIEWEB VIDEO OF THE DAY

3 A New Leaf (1971)

Elaine May’s directorial debut is a comedic masterpiece – but it’s hard to say whether it can be considered her comedic masterpiece. May has publicly disowned the film, the only existing cut of which has excised over an hour of material in favor of a studio-approved edit. Her original ambition was to make the first romantic comedy where the main character gets away with murder. The film was taken away from her by the studio and recut, excising the subplots. When May sued, the studio’s cut of the film was screened for the court, who concluded that any director should be proud of the masterful film. Though May’s distance from the film is understandable, and the final product is no doubt a neutered version of her original vision, A New Leaf is still a film that only Elaine May could have made, an acerbic love story over a moral abyss that takes aim at old wealth, codependency, and misogyny.

Walter Matthau stars alongside May as Henry, a sociopathic playboy with no desire in the world beyond spending and living a high-class life. When he runs out of money, he decides his only option is finding a rich woman to marry and murder. May stars as sweet and bumbling botanist Henrietta, whose wealth means very little to her. Their courtship is brief, and Henry quickly takes control of Henrietta’s estate — only to find it in disarray. The silver-spoon fed man-child has to finally grow up and become autonomous to get their affairs in shape, while Henry’s “love” gives Henrietta the confidence to make advancements in her career. In a strange way, the two become a perfect pair. The problem is whether Henry will realize he loves her before he kills her.

The biggest difference between the final film and May’s intended vision is the threat that Henry poses. In the released film, we never know if Henry has it in him to kill. His final choice to spare Henrietta comes as confirmation that he has some kind of heart, even if he is a fundamentally monstrous man. In May’s vision, we know that Henry is a killer, and the stakes are therefore much higher. His choice becomes simultaneously less heartwarming (the man is a killer, and his love goes no deeper than convenience and what he shows for his expensive objects) and more affirming in a super messed up way (we know that he doesn’t spare Henrietta because he can’t kill; it’s because of their relationship).

Even with alterations, May’s fundamental points still shine through, and what remains of the film introduced the world to her sensibility: there are bits that go on for so long that they are funny, stop being funny, and became even funnier; she forces characters into the same frame in inventive and subtextually rich manners (in one scene a financially desperate Henry is framed behind the head of his lecherous uncle in a manner that makes him look like he’s being devoured; in another, Henry reads a book on toxicology to plan Henrietta’s death, while Henrietta hangs off a cliff in the background, giving him the perfect chance to commit a murder we learn he never will); and she contrasts moments of sentiment with the horrendous reality of humanity’s capability for cruelty.

2 Mikey and Nicky (1976)

Elaine May’s mob flick is one of the most unusual gangster movies ever – and one of the best. Where Coppola’s The Godfather (1972) put forward a mafia bound by a slowly decaying honor, while Scorsese’s Goodfellas (1990) portrayed a mob decidedly less honorable but equally enticing, May follows her instinct for deflating romantic masculine archetypes to examine low-level hoodlums motivated by hopeless ambition and insecurity. The film follows two small-time gangsters and childhood friends, the level-headed but resentful Mikey (Peter Falk) and the loose canon Nicky (John Cassavetes). Nicky is convinced that a hit has been put out on him and calls Mikey to get him out of town. Mikey helps him along — but it becomes clear that he has been hired to keep Nicky in one place, so the hit can be carried out. Over the course of one night the two embark on a grungy odyssey through memory, resentment, and frayed love.

May carries over her usual stylistic flourishes, but mutes them somewhat to employ a technically flawed and hyper-personal style reminiscent of Cassavetes’ directorial efforts. Cassavetes is another chronicler of the fragile male ego, a subject he cut into with Husbands (1970) – but where the actor/director’s pointed commentary is laced with a certain respect for his characters’ desires, May pulls no punches and makes no excuses for her characters. Yet the film is also her most compassionate: free of the barbed approach she takes to comedy, the director reveals a humanist spirit that is empathetic without ever becoming apologetic. No one captures the sharp edges of close relationships better than May, but where her other films render this subject hilariously, Mikey and Nicky allows the auteur to explore this kind of relationship in dramatic, realistic terms, though just as bitingly, and frequently just as funnily – but be forewarned: a comedy this is not.

Mikey and Nicky is a masterful film, defined by a unique balance of tenderness and barbarity, care and cruelty. It portrays very bad men with so much good inside them, good that is not enough to save them or stop the destructive power of their egos. It is proof that, given the opportunity, May could have become a dramatic filmmaker of enormous heft. Unfortunately, Mikey and Nicky remains an anomaly in her filmography, a film that has the Elaine May touch while speaking to a road never taken.

RELATED: These Are Some of the Best Mafia and Gangster Movies Ever Made

1 The Heartbreak Kid (1972)

Human cruelty is one of the most popular topics in comedies. Few films designed to make you laugh don’t include some form of selfishness, manipulation, or an utter lack of compassion. We find these things comical because they illustrate our own shortcomings, and they represent an unapologetic manifestation of the antisocial impulses we attempt to curb in our day-to-day lives (this, in a nutshell, is the appeal of the work of Larry David, a comedian who has taken May’s cruel cringe humor to remarkably hilarious – if not quite as deep – places). Even so, that cruelty is rarely given the weight it would hold in real life. Either the comical blunders of our protagonist are presented as clearly non-serious, or some karmic turn-around will eventually punish them. This is not the case for the cinema of Elaine May, particularly with The Heartbreak Kid. As funny as the complications and destruction of its protagonist (Charles Grodin at his grimiest as the ambitious schlemiel Lenny) are, they are never bereft of genuine hurt – which gives them real power. Lenny isn’t punished or revealed for the jerk he really is. In fact, he gets exactly what he wants – which turns out to be its own kind of punishment.

The Heartbreak Kid follows Lenny and Lila, a newlywed couple from New York who honeymoon in Miami Beach. As soon as they arrive, Lila gets terribly sunburned and Lenny falls for Kelly, a witty college girl who represents everything he decides he wants. Lenny takes Lila’s bed rest as an opportunity to court the charming shiksa, and does his best to get everything he wants with as few consequences as possible. From any other director, the Neil Simon-penned screenplay could have been a very effective farce with a few scathing satirical points. Under May’s direction, the story becomes a tale of American restlessness and ambition as painful as it is funny. The opening credits read “Neil Simon’s The Heartbreak Kid,” but it is May’s film, through and through.

And what a film it is. The picture contains May’s greatest visual compositions, from the surreal warmth of Miami Beach to the auster cold of Minnesota. Her usual long-takes and microscopic fixation on behavior become even more uncomfortable when focussed on a man as smarmy as Lenny. One of the film’s best scenes is covered in one four-shot, in which Lenny has dinner with Kelly and her parents. Lenny is in the foreground right of frame, Kelly’s father mirroring him in the left of frame; Kelly’s mother is in the background left of frame, Kelly mirroring her in the right of frame. As Lenny pitches himself and his plan to marry Kelly, despite being on his honeymoon, four different scenes occur before us: there is Lenny, the implacable salesman who is never deterred by opposition (or basic rationality); there is Kelly’s father, the unmovable object to Lenny’s unstoppable force, who starts off angry and ends up outraged; there is Kelly’s mother, who is charmed by Lenny’s romanticism until he reveals the extent of his circumstance; and there is Kelly, embarrassed until she sees the rise Lenny gets out of her father, at which point she backs the newlywed all the way.

Few comedies without dramatic ambitions (i.e., a non “dramedy”) reach the levels of characterization and thematic complexity of The Heartbreak Kid. If the premise sounds like something out of a pre-code American comedy, May positions it perfectly in the modern era’s zeitgeist and malaise. In addition to summing up her usual thematic obsessions, the comedy is May’s most Jewish film, littered with subtext regarding the cost of assimilation, the loss of culture, and the pull of the gentile American ideal. Though Lenny is a miserable individual, it’s clear that Kelly’s rich conservative father takes issue with him for the class discrepancy and possibly his Jewish background. This kind of immediate prejudice and dismissal could even be the origin of the chip on Lenny’s shoulder – or it could be some inexplicable void in his heart.

The film begins with a lovingly (and somewhat derisively) detailed Jewish wedding and ends with a rote Christian wedding. Lenny is ultimately left to himself, singing songs he used to share with Lila. He probably couldn’t have been happy with her; but Kelly wasn’t the solution, either. There is no sealing the hole in Lenny’s heart, and there is no explaining it. May doesn’t tell us how Lenny can be fixed; she simply examines the destruction he manifests, and reminds us that destruction is buried in us all, in the values and narratives we hold sacred. It is depressing, profound, and hilarious – and it is a masterpiece only Elaine May could have pulled off.



Source link

Happy
Happy
0 %
Sad
Sad
0 %
Excited
Excited
0 %
Sleepy
Sleepy
0 %
Angry
Angry
0 %
Surprise
Surprise
0 %
Previous post Small business owners showcase products at expo celebrating Juneteenth
Next post South Coast Business and Technology Awards celebrate local innovators