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May Days

Recapping a reclusive auteur's brilliant career, from the Jewish new wave to a legendary bomb

One of the more complicated personalities in American show business, Elaine May is also a director who—film for film—has to be considered alongside her more prolific peers Mel Brooks and Woody Allen. Or maybe, given the brazen auteurism of her movies, alongside somewhat younger representatives of the (old) New Hollywood like Martin Scorsese and Brian De Palma. But really, May is sui generis: the only major Hollywood director of the much mythologized '70s who happened to be female.

All four May features will be showing this weekend (along with the reclusive filmmaker herself) at the Walter Reade. Taken as a sustained utterance, they are an ongoing and largely unprecedented comic riff on the abjectness of women and the idiocy of men. Each, however, has its own particular formal brilliance. A New Leaf (1971), which May wrote, directed, and stars in, is a devastating feminist psychodrama concealed as amiable dark comedy. Enacting her own dithering incompetence, the filmmaker plays an heiress with an unlikely fondness for Mogen David spritzers, wooed and won by Walter Matthau's penniless WASP and would-be bluebeard. (May sued her studio when they recut the movie to save her character's life.)

In her first feature, May presented herself as a female schlemiel; in her second, she cast her daughter Jeannie Berlin in an equally victimized role, as the déclassé Jewish girl whose go-getter husband (Charles Grodin) abandons her on their Miami Beach honeymoon to pursue a golden shiksa (Cybill Shepherd). The Heartbreak Kid (1972), directed from Neil Simon's elaboration on a laconic Bruce Jay Friedman story, is the culminating work of Hollywood's Jewish new wave—as well as a hilarious riposte to The Graduate, the movie that more or less initiated that wave while sending the career of May's former partner, Mike Nichols, into hyperdrive.

Feminist psychodrama as dark comedy: Matthau and May in A New Leaf
photo: Wellspring Media
Feminist psychodrama as dark comedy: Matthau and May in A New Leaf

Writing in The Saturday Review, Thomas Meehan called The Heartbreak Kid "a triumph of New York Jewish humor" and wondered if "American film comedy may be entering a new golden age as a result of the rise of the semi-surreal comedy of mishap, pain, insult, and desperation." But the times were already changing. A New Leaf and The Heartbreak Kid (a masterpiece of social pathology that, in the problematic tradition of Van Sant's Psycho and Demme's Manchurian Candidate, the Farrelly brothers are remaking) were both commercial hits. Not so Mikey and Nicky (1976).

A picaresque tale of two petty racketeers, May's purposefully raw journey to the end of the night (via downtown Philadelphia) showcased the always volatile John Cassavetes in his most manic performance ever, opposite the sanguine Peter Falk. Among other things, Mikey and Nicky is the greatest Cassavetes film Cassavetes never made—although, in its grit and gangster-buddy thematics, it also suggests the period's other great non-Cassavetes Cassavetes film, Mean Streets. To produce a seemingly spontaneous Actors Studio exercise, May shot an astounding 1.4 million feet of film (nearly three times the amount exposed for Gone With the Wind) and some began to whisper her name with that of the ultimate footage fetishist, Erich von Stroheim.

Mikey and Nicky stalled May's directorial career; the infamous Ishtar (1987) destroyed it. Running wildly overbudget, this $50 million extravaganza starred Warren Beatty and Dustin Hoffman as a pair of dim, talentless singer-songwriters. "You're old, you're white, and you got no shtick," their bottom- feeding agent tells them; Beatty is so dumb, he can't even pronounce the word "schmuck." Somehow, the guys get a gig in Morocco. Minutes after they arrive, they are mistaken for Messengers of God, and, haplessly competing for the affections of the same woman of mystery (Isabelle Adjani), become embroiled in a lethal war between Shiite revolutionaries and the CIA.

Universally reviled even before its belated release, twice panned in The Village Voice (though not by me), Ishtar is both extremely droll and—whatever its intentions—the most adroit political satire to emerge from Hollywood during the Iran-Contra stupefaction of Ronald Reagan's second term. As the guys' resulting hit single has it, "Hello Ishtar, you're more than a country, you're a state of mind."

Just what is that state of mind? Developing an act that was neither stand-up nor cabaret, Nichols and May practiced social satire in the guise of character impersonation. May's movies are similarly performance driven. Her humor, like that of Albert Brooks, derives from a sustained comic vision. (Indeed, Ishtar can be seen as a precursor to Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World.) But unlike the professionally solipsistic Brooks, May does not favor the solo act. It's not just the characters who are absurd; it's the world.

Ishtar is a movie that's all too aware of its existential pathos. The image of two clowns crawling around the Sahara in the company of a blind camel is worthy of Samuel Beckett. So too is the opening line from one of their songs: "Life is the way we audition for God."

 
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