Almost Auteurs: Elaine May

They should be among the biggest names in the film business. Their individual efforts represent some of the best – and in one notorious case, the perceived absolute worst – that the art form has to offer. Their lack of continued success is as perplexing as their inability to recreate their initial critical and/or commercial triumph. Call them one hit wonders or famously forgotten, but in truth, they are ‘almost’ auteurs; motion picture artists who have very nearly left their mark on the cinematic landscape.

For those unfamiliar with the frequently tossed around term, an auteur is typically a director – or as stated, in those rare occasions, a producer (like Val Lewton) or writer (Charlie Kaufman, for example) – whose own unique creative vision manifests itself in every project he or she develops. Championed during the influential French New Wave period of the ’50s, it was a label given to that rare creative type who could synchronize the images in their head with the resulting visuals on screen. While the term is haphazardly tossed around today, it remains a symbol of someone’s special ability to translate the language of film.

One name that definitely belongs on this legacy-defining list is Elaine May. Over the course of two decades, and a scant four films, she has been responsible for great critical and commercial success (1972’s The Heartbreak Kid), as well as one of the biggest implied disasters of all time (1987’s Ishtar). She is championed for helming one of the great lost comedies of the ’70s (her brilliant A New Leaf) as well as attempting the near impossible – an improvised crime ‘dramedy’ ala John Cassavetes (1976’s Mickey and Nicky). Almost every experience she had in making a movie became problematic, from overlong shoots and ballooning budgets, to a scrupulous perfectionism in the editing room that has sometime kept her films from being released for months, even years.

For the most part, it appears May got into filmmaking by default. As one half of one of the celebrated ’50s/’60s comedy team (her partner is the inimitable Mike Nichols), she was viewed, quite rightly, as a genius both in wit and improvisational invention. Together with Nichols, she became the toast of the town, thanks in part to an immortal Broadway run of the pair’s adlibbed act. By the time the duo called it quits in 1961, they were viewed as the founders of a new, more intellectualized and interpersonal American humor. Their breakup was less than amicable, with Nichols taking his gifts to the field of directing. May, who came from a theatrical background, returned to the stage. She wrote and produced several shows, and even won a Drama Desk Award as Most Promising Playwright for her one act effort Adaptation. She also returned to her roots in improvisational comedy, forming The Third Ear in New York.

But it was Nichols’ work behind the camera that more or less forced May’s hand. Seems the studios determined that, if the man behind this impressive pairing could create Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? , The Graduate, and Catch-22, the female half of the dynamic should be good for a slyly acerbic comic masterwork or two, as well. May was eventually approached, and after much consideration, she started penning a script that would go on to be her cinematic debut: 1971’s A New Leaf. A delicious dark comedy about a dispossessed New York trust fund playboy (the wonderful Walter Matthau) who must find a suitable – and wealthy – woman to marry, less he lose everything, May cast herself in the role of botanist / nebbish Henrietta Lowell. It was a highly unglamorous, a sharp slap in the face of her typical sophisticate façade.

Her first cut was nearly three hours long. It contained a sordid subplot involving Matthau’s Henry Graham and the murder of a bedeviling blackmailer. Indeed, May’s original version had Graham being more cutthroat in his pursuit of Henrietta’s wealth. For her, it was a perfect metaphor for how men treat women who are, literally and figuratively, their better. While her dark ideas definitely fell within the boundaries of the narrative, Paramount (which produced the film) was floored by this approach. Paramount wanted light and frothy, not some manner of Anti-Establishment Arsenic and Old Lace.

Besides, May had gone wildly over budget, the $1 million limit skyrocketed well beyond, to $4 million. The studio wrestled control of the film away from May, and trimmed the final version to a manageable 102 minutes. May was furious. She filed a lawsuit to remove her name from the project, even asking for an injunction to have the release delayed. She lost, and to this day, A New Leaf remains the only one of her films not available on DVD.

Even with all the fallout from the A New Leaf litigation, Paramount had enough faith in May to have her work the latest script from Broadway big shot Neil Simon. Again, she appeared to be following in her former partner’s footsteps. After Nichols’ proven track record with the writer’s work on stage (he won four Tony’s taking on Simon’s sensational ’60s/’70s streak of Barefoot in the Park, The Odd Couple, Plaza Suite and The Prisoner of Second Avenue), it was thought that May would also make a good collaborator. This time, everyone got it right. Bringing on her daughter as co-star (Jeannie Berlin would go on to win an Oscar nomination) and focusing more on the characters than the comedy, May delivered The Heartbreak Kid, what many consider to be her crowning creative achievement.

It was definitely a topical title. Charles Grodin plays a good Jewish boy named Lenny who, while on his honeymoon, falls head over heels for the blond (and very gentile) Kelly Corcoran. Played by model turned actress Cybill Shepherd in her second film after The Last Picture Show, May decided to explore both the poignancy of such a personal dilemma, as well as the inherent ethnic elements. She turned Berlin into an archetypal monster, and gave everyone else the kind of controlled cynicism that she and Nichols had been famous for. As a result, Kid became a hit, winning accolades and an appreciation that still resonates to this day. Even if some of the material appears dated, it remains a great American comedy. It’s even been compared favorably to Nichols own counterculture classic, The Graduate.

Sadly, that would be the last we’d see of May’s mainstream success. Given a kind of creative carte blanche for her next film, she struck upon a typically unique take on a tired and stuffy genre. Inspired by the work of fellow filmmaker John Cassavetes, May got the idea to make a humor hybrid – a crime story completely improvised from beginning to end. Following the fate of two longtime mob buddies who have suddenly hit hard times (both personally and professionally), she even brought on the infamous indie icon himself, along with pal Peter Faulk, to essay the title characters. Though some of the dialogue was scripted, May followed her muse. The result was over one million feet of exposed film, and another A New Leaf-like post-production mess.

May missed two release dates for Mickey and Nicky, spending almost 18 months trying to edit the film “into shape”. Crewmembers recalled instances where the seemingly deranged director would demand take after take, waiting for the one that flawlessly represented what she wanted. Trying to compile such a string of perfected performances proved impossible, and Paramount (which, perhaps, should have learned its lesson by now) sued to take the film away from her. May relented, the studio created its own cut, and gave the impending disaster a cursory, contractually mandated release. Naturally, May was furious, and she refused to work in motion pictures again — that is, until an old pal begged her to help him out. It was a call she would soon regret taking.

Warren Beatty was riding high on a recent string of successes (Shampoo, Heaven Can Wait, and Reds, for which he won a directing Oscar). He desperately wanted to work with pal Dustin Hoffman (hot off his own streak of Kramer vs. Kramer and Tootsie) and he needed someone who understood his way of working. Enter May, who had helped craft Beatty’s remake of Here Comes Mr. Jordan (the aforementioned Heaven) into a recognized hit and potential award winner (May even earned an Academy nod for Best Adapted Screenplay). The two old school superstars saw a certifiable blockbuster in their future as they began work on what would later become one of the most legendary motion picture maelstroms of the post-modern age…Ishtar.

Story-wise, things start off well enough. Beatty plays Lyle Rodgers, a mild mannered milk man who fancies himself a songwriter. One night, he witnesses the undeniable horror of hopeless lounge singer Chuck Clarke (Hoffman). The two bond instantly, and imagine themselves the next great musical duo. Calling themselves Rodgers and Clarke, and penning a collection of the worst tunes every attempted, they manage to find an agent who will represent them. Nothing seems to go right until they land an overseas booking. Indeed, they arrive in Ishtar just as the CIA, the government, and a group of rebels (featuring French actress Isabelle Adjani) begin a deadly game of cat and mouse. Instead of playing to the local populace, the pair become unwitting participants in all manner of political intrigue and international espionage.

Perhaps, in the right hands, this material could work. But nothing about May’s previous films prepared her for the incredible challenges to follow. It is perhaps why Ishtar remains such a tripwire title, even 20 years after it was resoundingly condemned as one of the worst films ever made. Frankly, such rejections are only partially correct. Because the first half of the film is so hilarious, expertly capturing the persistent flop sweat of Rodgers and Clarke’s incredibly bad musical material (written by Paul Williams with help from May and Hoffman), it creates a defining dilemma for the remainder of the movie. The adventure elements needed to be as brave and brash as the opening. Instead, May meandered around the sandy locales, letting unfunny adlibbing and lackluster plotting more or less destroy her vision

Even before its release, Ishtar was poised for self-destruction. Some even believe that the studio itself (Columbia), desperate to cut its loses, began all the badmouthing. Columbia grumbled over the stars’ monumental pay ($5 million each, which was enormous in 1987) and constantly clamored over the ever expanding budget (which finally ended up at around $40 million). Reports from the set hinted at problems between actors and director, with Beatty complaining about May’s impossible perfectionisim (obviously, it takes one to know one, and then gripe about one). May once again secluded herself in the editing room, trying to make heads or tails of her mountain of exposed celluloid. Another lawsuit was threatened before the film was finally released. The reviews were so overwhelming bad that May walked away from the movie game permanently. She has yet to step back behind the camera.

The passage of time has only deepened her resolve. During the whole Ishtar debacle, May was able to reassemble and re-release her ‘cut’ of Mickey and Nicky to generally good notices (it is this version which currently exists on DVD — quite a coup for the troubled talent) and while Leaf remains MIA, The Heartbreak Kid continues its climb into the public consciousness. The Farrelly Brothers, infamous for their gross out comedies like There’s Something About Mary, are currently helming a remake. Even her bemoaned bomb has found a new fanbase of appreciative viewers. Like Ed Wood’s reign as “The Worst Director of All Time” it seems that access to other, less acceptable films, has forced even the most ardent critic to give the maligned movie a second chance.

All of which contributes to May’s runner up status when it comes to acknowledged auteurs. May is indeed a gifted filmmaker, one whose reach even stretches across gender barriers. Many believe it was her ability to break through the glorified glass ceiling of Tinsel Town’s stance against women behind the camera that remains more important than any contribution she made in front of it.

As she continues on into the autumn years of her life, working as a script doctor (she has had a hand in everything from Wolf and Dangerous Minds to Labyrinth), screenwriter (The Birdcage and Primary Colors) and occasional actress (In the Spirit, Small Time Crooks), May is missed as a filmmaking force. Though she barely made a dent in the undeniable motion picture myth of her longtime collaborator and partner, Mr. Nichols, she equally deserves a title that perfectly illustrates her hit and miss artistic approach. That’s why she’s a perfect Almost Auteur. She fills out the term’s most significant facet: her untapped promise remains as recognizable as her eventual output.