Elaine May, at the age of 87, is still working without a net over unpredictable, hostile territory.
After sixty-five years in show business, she continues to break through glass ceilings of chauvinism, ageism and corporate political prejudice. Barriers insuperable to others, but not to the relentlessly determined May. Remember, in 1971, she was only the third woman in Hollywood history to land a significant directorial deal.
Her most recent achievement: she just won her first major acting award, a Best Leading Actress Tony, for her performance as an Alzheimer-riddled grandmother in Kenneth Lonergan’s comedy/drama, The Waverly Gallery.
May is now the second oldest performer to win an acting Tony — behind only Cicely Tyson, who was 88 when she won the award for her 2013 work in The Trip to Bountiful.
When May stepped onstage at Radio City Music Hall earlier this summer to claim her trophy, grace and a deadly wit were in evidence. She singled out her offstage death in the play as a major contributor: “My death is described onstage by (cast member) Lucas Hedges so brilliantly. He does it so heartbreakingly that, watching from the wings, I thought, I’m going to win this guy’s Tony.”
One of the ironies of May’s performance is that it took place in the Golden Theater: the same theater she made her successful Broadway debut in fifty plus years ago. That production, An Evening with Mike Nichols and Elaine May, ran over 300 performances — it was recorded and won a Grammy.
Lots of water under the bridge between Evening and Waverly, and lots of it troubled water.
May comes by her stagecraft naturally: she was the daughter of a mini-impresario of the Yiddish Theater. She started appearing in productions at the age of three.
A scrappy childhood and a divorce behind her, she wound up in 1950 at the University of Chicago, where she met Mike Nichols and the two joined the fledgling improv group, the Compass Players (later to become Second City).
The talents of Nichols and May soon propelled them into their own act, a blend of sophisticated, subtle humor that entertained, as one critic put it, “both the snob and the mob.”
Author Janet Coleman described May at that time: “She was not an ingénue. In her improvisations, she rarely chose female roles. She played challenging…worldly women. The doctor, the psychiatrist…the wicked witch.”
Suddenly, the Nichols/May career blasted into the stratosphere: a Broadway show, beer commercials, primetime television, coveted Jack Paar guest shots…and just as suddenly, in 1961, an acrimonious breakup.
Was it an act gone south, or were the two more than that? When asked if she and Nichols were lovers or not, May said: “I’ll answer that. We were lovers or not.”
After their surprising split (which lasted two years: a lifelong friendship ensued), Nichols was able to translate his skills into directing for the theater and movies (he was the first filmmaker to ever receive a million dollar salary for one project); it took May awhile to regain her professional footing.
Spurred by her acting and writing talents, as well as a sheer fearlessness, May spent the next forty years carving out a career in films that can be best described as inspired/controversial.
Her first feature was A New Leaf in 1971, which she wrote, directed and co-starred with Walter Matthau — a black comedy that was critically successful (May was nominated for a Golden Globe for her performance), but sizzling contretemps erupted with the studio over editing issues.
Paramount took the film away from her, re-cut it and released it over her objections. Those objections resulted in an unsuccessful lawsuit, a harbinger of future court battles.
The Heartbreak Kid, May’s second work as a director, followed in 1972. It was reviewed positively and received handsomely at the box office. The New Yorker’s Pauline Kael was particularly impressed: “Elaine May is a satirist whose malice isn’t cutting; something in the woozy atmosphere keeps it mild…she has a knack for defusing the pain without killing the joke.”
Her third film, Mikey and Nicky, was the defining moment in May’s directorial endeavors. A nuanced portrayal of complicated relationships that conclude with a bitter sellout, Mikey wasn’t the comedy the studio expected. The final edit again became a source of antagonism.
In an effort to preserve her vision, May took the matter to court — eventually, she did the final cutting, but the film was poorly supported by the studio, and died on release.
It should be noted that disputed trust, betrayal and humiliation are May’s themes, even in comedy. Mikey was an exploration of these concerns without much humor.
Today, generations of young filmgoers see Mikey as a minor masterwork, a grisly, frenetic gem.
Fifteen years would pass before May was given another opportunity to direct. Warren Beatty — for whom she had done major script-doctoring on Reds and Heaven Can Wait – teamed up with Dustin Hoffman and May on Ishtar, a problem-laden project that tanked commercially, but garnered some critical praise. Recent appraisals have been kinder.
Ishtar appeared to finish May’s filmmaking, but then Mike Nichols passed away on November 19, 2014, and she was once more pressed into duty. May directed a 2016 PBS American Master film on Nichols’ life, a fitting, loving finale.
Writing has continued to be the bedrock of May’s professional life: she’s worked on films like Tootsie and Primary Colors, and she has authored a handful of plays which, in the main, have been well received. She’s occasionally appeared in films, notably an award winning turn in Small Time Crooks.
Oscar nominations and other honors have been accorded her in abundance: two — a Writers Guild lifetime achievement and a National Medal of the Arts presented by President Obama — stand out as very special.
May summed up her Hollywood experiences this way: “They thought I was a nice girl. I wasn’t a nice girl, and when they found that out, they hated me all the more. You’re just as rotten as any guy — you’ll fight just as hard to get your way.”
That’s Elaine May — still on the tightwire, still battling for her principles. A lot to admire and respect.