Elaine May and Radha Mitchell
Small Time Crooks (2000)
“She has always been a brilliantly funny woman, who’s been evasive over the years”, Woody Allen says of May in Stig Bjorkman’s invaluable book-length interview Woody Allen on Woody Allen. Recounting how he coaxed her out of her relative invisibility throughout the ‘90s to appear in 2000’s Small Time Crooks, Allen notes that May agreed to do the film two days after being sent the script, a transaction that took place with surprising ease, especially considering that she had years before turned down an offer for a part in his early feature Take The Money and Run. A highly respected actress, writer, playwright, comedienne and, at least for a while, director, May’s career in Hollywood is one of the more tumultuous of the last 40 years, scoring initial hits with comedies like 1971’s A New Leaf (as writer, director and performer), 1972’s The Heartbreak Kid (as director) and 1978’s Heaven Can Wait (as co-writer) before hitting the career-wounding project of a lifetime as director of 1987’s notorious bomb Ishtar.
Though the film was far from her first troubled production (her original epic-length cut of A New Leaf was radically altered by the studio for release), or even her first near-ostracism from Hollywood (1976’s ambitious Cassavetes-esque drama Mikey and Nicky briefly killed her reputation went it ridiculously over budget and over schedule before tanking at the box office; only Warren Beatty’s insistence on bringing her aboard Heaven Can Wait won her back some credibility), Ishtar proved so disgraceful that May has yet to step behind the camera again in all of the years since.
The fear that May’s entire career would come to be defined by Ishtar’s failure appeared to be somewhat unfounded when 1998’s Primary Colors (helmed by former comedy partner Mike Nichols) won her an Academy Award nomination for screenwriting, but the infrequency of her activity since Ishtar nevertheless indicated that the fallout from the film had taken a toll. Given the circumstances, it would be reasonable to expect her first performance in a major film since the ‘70s might be laced with some combination of bitterness, hesitation or regret, but in Small Time Crooks, May ends up providing the comic highlight of an already very funny film.
As May Sloane, the ditzy relative of Allen and Tracey Ullman’s inadvertently successful class-challenged couple dealing with the ups and downs of sudden wealth, May plays her unflappably literal-minded dimwit with a note-perfect mixture of deadpan conviction and daffy sweetness. If it’s the former quality that makes her performance so hilarious (when told to make small talk about the weather at a swanky Manhattan soiree, she languishes party guests with forecasts straight out of a television news broadcast), it’s the latter that helps deepen both her own character and the film’s somewhat deceptively light comedy, as well. As Ullman’s desire for refinement finds her growing apart from her uncouth husband and falling into the trap of slimy social climber Hugh Grant, Allen finds himself taking friendly solace in May’s sheer inability to even fake pretension.
Finally imparting the sound, if unconventional, wisdom that “there’s more to life than turkey meatballs”, even as she feels more at home joining Allen in late night marathons of Chinese food and Cagney movies than in Ullman’s new swanky surroundings, May nevertheless becomes the bridge between the two character’s individual forms of insanity, bringing them both back down to earth even when her own head is stuck in the clouds.
Ten years on, Small Time Crooks remains the now 78-year-old Elaine May’s final cinematic turn to date in any capacity. If she is indeed now in retirement, her performance here stands as a quietly triumphant farewell to an industry and a medium with which she has had a decidedly rocky relationship. Even more so, though, it’s a belated entry into Allen’s peerless canon of great female performances, and so it feels like something closer to a gift.
Melinda and Melinda (2004)
Woody Allen’s post-millennium career has been met with much derision, but it has also seen it’s share of critical acclaim. Along with the (slight) critical bomb that was Small Time Crooks, Allen’s exercise in tragicomedy, Melinda and Melinda, was met with substandard press and a healthy dose of HBO re-runs. However, the saving grace of the film was the miraculous two-faced female lead played by Mitchell as the titular Melinda, a beautiful crossover character taking on both the qualities of a patented Allen stress-ridden train wreck and a Carole Lombard-style throwback of a heroine.
Why Allen chose to enter a relationship of the two thematic subjects he has been championing since the dawn of his career is an interesting prospect, and the fact that he brought along Mitchell to portray both of his simplistic yet complex notions is an incredible gift to the relatively unknown (at least to the public-at-large) actress. It’s almost as if Allen had trouble deciding which direction he wanted this film to go, upon initial writing of the script, and ended up seamlessly writing the two into one of his better latter day scripts. After a dedicated look inside each of Allen’s characters, Mitchell’s performance of Melinda is compelling, and can only lead one to wonder in what sequence this film was shot. Being forced to play two completely different roles within the schematics of one tightly manned ship is a testament to Mitchell’s diversity as a performer. She applied a steady approach to acting both roles, and stitched them together with a unique compositional thread of detailed internal character analysis.
Had Mitchell not delivered in spades, its hard to say whether this film would have had the same effect. After all, the shallow comedy of Will Ferrell and Steve Carrell, and the mediocre-at-best acting performance of Amanda Peet gave Mitchell very little to work with. An interesting dynamic to her role within Melinda is her approach to working with two ensemble casts. Anyone who has ever acted or spent time working with people in a dynamic, creative environment, knows the trials and tribulations of working with a large cast, and the challenge of really feeding off of one’s peers.
As Allen gets older, people pigeonhole him into the Annie Hall and Manhattan territory, but as Roger Ebert so brilliantly pointed out in his review of Melinda and Melinda “I cannot escape the suspicion that if Woody had never made a previous film, if each new one was Woody’s Sundance debut, it would get a better reception. His reputation is not a dead shark but an albatross, which with admirable economy Allen has arranged for the critics to carry around their own necks.”
While many found Melinda and Melinda—and quite a few of Allen’s later films – disposable, Mitchell’s performance is one to be duly noted as an intriguing character in one of the bigger periods of stylistic experimentation of Allen’s career.