As Elaine May Turns 89, It’s Time to Give the Filmmaking Giant the Credit She Deserves

Elaine May in The Waverly Gallery
Courtesy of Brigitte Lacombe

Nevertheless, she persisted.

Elaine May, who turns 89 on Wednesday, has enjoyed a late career resurgence, earning a Tony Award for her work in Kenneth Lonergan’s play “The Waverly Gallery” and directing an acclaimed documentary on her friend and frequent collaborator Mike Nichols for American Masters. Even “Ishtar,” her much derided 1987 flop, clawed its way into the black by the early aughts, as emails from the Sony hack revealed.

And yet, it’s impossible not to feel as though movie lovers and comedy fans have been robbed of decades of great work because the entertainment industry never quite knew what to make of May. Her struggles to remain true to her unbending artistic compass in a bottom-line-driven industry derailed her directing ambitions. May’s resume is slender, consisting of just four features, but what’s there is choice. There are three masterworks, “Mikey and Nicky,” “The Heartbreak Kid” and “A New Leaf,” and one unfairly maligned misstep in “Ishtar” that has its moments (a sublime bit with a blind camel ranks with the best of the Marx Brothers).

In a 2019 piece for Variety, Lonergan lamented Hollywood’s treatment of May, suggesting that the studio suits’ eagerness to cut ties with the exacting filmmaker had a lot to do with sexism.

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“I’m not sure how well known it is that Elaine was the only woman film director working in the studio system in the 1970s,” he wrote. “And as a woman director notoriously pilloried for not working that system with the crafty skill of, say, a Mike Nichols or a Francis Ford Coppola, it’s impossible to say what other creative avenues she would have opened up had she been afforded the second, third and fourth chances afforded to innovative and difficult male directors when they disrupt the arbitrary norms of the moviemaking machine. As somebody who has gotten in a little movie trouble myself, it’s easy to wonder how many second chances I would have gotten had I been a young woman genius in the 1970s, instead of a notoriously modest middle-aged man in the 2000s.”

Lonergan is probably right, and it’s easy to forget just how barrier-breaking May was when she first moved from improvisational comedy to film directing. After all, she was only the third woman in history to be admitted to the Directors Guild of America. But her style, her insistence at getting to the heart of a scene no matter how many takes it took, rankled executives. There is a story, perhaps apocryphal, that May left three cameras rolling during shooting on “Mikey and Nicky” in the hopes of capturing some spontaneous interplay between her Method-y leading men Peter Falk and John Cassavetes. Asked why the camera was still running when the two actors had left the set, May was said to have replied “Yes, but they might come back.”

During shooting on “A New Leaf,” a 1971 dark comedy in which May’s daffy botanist marries Walter Matthau’s murderous playboy, the director clashed with the studio and went over budget. May wanted to release an 180-minute cut, one that contained two murders as well as storylines investigating misogyny. Paramount chief Robert Evans had none of it — he took over the film and sliced it down to 102 minutes, jettisoning subplots in the process. And he was unashamed in his power grab. In a Feb. 9, 1971, interview with Variety‘s Army Archerd, Evans said “he’d be happy to show both versions — her cut and the studio’s — to anyone.” May sued, but Paramount prevailed, and was rewarded with a film that made $5 million, but cost $4 million to make. Still, reviewers loved “A New Leaf” and May narrowly avoided “movie jail.”

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Her next film, 1972’s “The Heartbreak Kid,” was a modest hit and another critical favorite, applauded for its deadbeat humor and incisive look at a newlywed (Charles Grodin) who jilts his wife (May’s daughter Jeannie Berlin) in favor of a Shiksa goddess from the midwest (Cybill Shepherd). It scored two Oscar nominations, for Berlin and Eddie Albert’s supporting turns, and seemed to announce May as a satirist on par with her old comedy teammate Mike Nichols.

But then disaster struck with “Mikey and Nicky,” a gangster picture that served as a gritty corrective to the more romanticized “The Godfather,” portraying the tortured relationship between two smalltime hoods (Falk and Cassavetes, never better) as they embark on a dark night of the soul. Cassavetes’ Nicky is hiding out after stealing money from his mob boss, while Falk’s Mikey is his longtime friend who is also setting him up to take a hit.

It’s an unsentimental look at the mafia, one that presaged “The Sopranos” and “Goodfellas” in its mixture of dark humor and urban decay. It also doesn’t shortchange its female characters, something that other films of the 1970s were wont to do. There is a devastating sequence about half way through the picture where Nicky bursts into the apartment of his sometime girlfriend Carol (a note-perfect Carol Grace), has sex with her over her protestations while Mikey hovers in the kitchen. Both men then erupt when she refuses to sleep with Mikey, berating and slapping the poor woman. As Nathan Rabin writes in his superb essay for Criterion on the film, “If you’re a woman in this milieu, you are hated and abused for putting out too easily but punished for not putting out at all.” It’s also the kind of scene, one that unspools in long shots, that’s almost unbearable to behold, a reminder of the moral rot at the core of these difficult men.

Alas, “Mikey and Nicky” represents a sad turning point in May’s career. She once again engaged in a brutal standoff with Paramount Pictures over cost overruns and a protracted post-production. It was a legal battle so fierce that, at one point, May hid reels of the film in her husband’s friend’s garage in Connecticut. She sued the studio for an $8 million breach of contract when they refused to put up the money to finish the movie, later settling out of court. But May’s idiosyncratic working methods soon dominated the coverage of the film. In an October 22, 1975 story on the suit, Variety asked May’s attorney Bertram Fields about the rumors that she had shot of a million feet of film. “She did shoot a lot of film because she’s a very talented and careful filmmaker,” he said. “The result is a good picture and it’s a disgrace that Paramount is now trying to stop its release.”

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When “Mikey and Nicky” eventually hit theaters the following year the knives were out. The New York Times’ Vincent Canby dismissed the film as “…nearly two hours of being locked in a telephone booth with a couple of method actors who won’t stop talking, though they have nothing of interest to say, and who won’t stop jiggling around, though they plainly aren’t going anywhere.” New York Magazine’s John Simon was even harsher, writing, “One becomes acutely aware of Miss May’s endless, irresolute editing, of her unhealthy inability to be finished with something, to let go.” It’s hard to not feel Paramount executives’ frustrations with May’s mercurial genius seeping through that prose.

What followed was a decade in the wilderness for May as a director, though a fruitful and lucrative period for her as a screenwriter and script doctor. She earned an Oscar nod co-writing Warren Beatty’s “Heaven Can Wait” and did uncredited rewrites on his “Reds,” as well as on “Tootsie.” Her crystalline wit still sparkled and was much in demand. It was Beatty and “Tootsie’s” Dustin Hoffman who gave May one more, ill-fated chance to call the shots.

The trio united on “Ishtar,” the story of two untalented songwriters who get caught up in espionage and Cold War adventuring. Intended to be a fun ode to the Bing Crosby and Bob Hope “Road” pictures, the film instead became a whipping boy for the excesses of the Hollywood star system, then in its zenith. May didn’t help matters by shooting take after take after take, pushing the movie’s budget to the then stratospheric $40 million, something the press seized on. Even before the film opened in May of 1987, the trades and glossy magazines were abuzz with stories of overspending, focusing on the herculean efforts that May went through to secure the aforementioned blind camel, as well as to reshape the sand dunes that appeared in her meticulously composed shots. It didn’t help matters that Hoffman, Beatty and May were all reportedly feuding nearly 100 days later, when cameras finally stopped rolling.

The critical drubbing was ferocious. “Were they really just putting everyone on to see how far they could stretch the studio system and hold one group of exex hostage to the threats of taking the project elsewhere?” Variety sneered in its review. Critics from the Chicago Sun-Times to The Washington Post were similarly cutting, and their vitriol meant that May’s directing career was effectively over.

Decades later, the pile-on seems undeserved. “Ishtar” isn’t perfect. The decision to cast against type, with Hoffman playing a lady’s man and Beatty taking on the role of a bumbler, may have worked on paper, but doesn’t pay off on celluloid. However, there are still plenty of funny bits and the two actors are certainly game — a scene in the desert involving vultures is a highpoint in both men’s comedy careers.

Reading the coverage of May across the decades, it’s impossible not to feel that there is sexism at play. Was she neurotic? Sure, anxiety is the beating heart of her stage persona. Was she exacting, demanding, and a perfectionist? Hell yes, and that’s why she’s such a singular talent. But those qualities are treated as virtues in other, male auteurs. In an interview with Variety last fall, David Fincher was pressed on his propensity to drive his cast and crews to the breaking point. “I know that I’m no picnic,” he acknowledged. And the same is true of Beatty or Francis Ford Coppola or Stanley Kubrick, the latter of whom labored for so long on “Eyes Wide Shut” that Harvey Keitel and Jennifer Jason Leigh’s roles had to be recast when they left for other projects. But May wasn’t afforded the same opportunities to pursue her art, to stumble occasionally in her quest for excellence.

In the past decade, there’s been pressure on Hollywood to widen its aperture and provide more opportunities for women, people of color, and members of the LGBTQ community. May helped set the stage for that conversation, but sadly she won’t be able to fully benefit from the change in attitude. Instead, her career struggles are a reminder of what’s lost when important voices are elbowed out of the frame.