From improv to Ishtar: the many lives of comedy genius Elaine May
Hollywood

From improv to Ishtar: the many lives of comedy genius Elaine May

The very idea ought to be mind-boggling. Elaine May, now 86, is currently starring as a woman in the grip of Alzheimer’s in The Waverly Gallery, the Pulitzer-nominated play by Kenneth Lonergan. But the mere thought of her being on a Broadway stage virtually every day for the next few months will astonish anyone acquainted with the extraordinary life and career of this reclusive actor, writer and director.

May’s improvisational sketches with the late Mike Nichols made stars of them both in the 1950s and 1960s, revealing them to be the architects of a biting, sophisticated new species of comedy. Edmund Wilson called May “something of a genius”. Robert Towne, screenwriter of Chinatown, said: “She’s always been ahead of the rest of us. You could even say that there are times when the zeitgeist follows her.” And Richard Burton wrote in his diary: “Elaine was too formidable … one of the most intelligent, beautiful and witty women I had ever met. I hoped I would never see her again.”

Her aversion to the limelight has been lifelong. She has directed four sharp-clawed films – A New Leaf, The Heartbreak Kid, Mikey and Nicky, and the unfairly maligned Ishtar – and battled vehemently with Hollywood studios for control on most of them. Though she has occasionally taken screenplay credits (including Warren Beatty’s Heaven Can Wait and Nichols’s Primary Colors, both of which brought her Oscar nominations), her film work is more often carried out in the shadows. She was once the industry’s most sought-after script doctor, secretly helping to ensure such movies as Tootsie, Reds and Labyrinth were in the rudest of health.

She has rarely given interviews. “I’d appreciate it,” she once told a reporter who was writing about her, “if you didn’t mention my name in your article.” She sent up her own guardedness in a trailer for the 1990 comedy In the Spirit, in which she said: “I was in the movie and I’m willing to talk about it, but I don’t want to be identified.” As far back as her Nichols and May days, she was keeping a low profile. The sleevenotes on the duo’s album Improvisations to Music contained the message: “Miss May does not exist.”

Broadway audiences can attest otherwise. On the very stage at the John Golden theatre where she and Nichols performed their 10-month, sell-out run of An Evening with Mike Nichols and Elaine May in the early 1960s, she is now giving a devastating study in disintegration. She plays Gladys, an elderly Greenwich Village gallery owner who is succumbing to Alzheimer’s as her family (including Lucas Hedges as her grandson and Joan Allen as her daughter) looks on helplessly and sometimes impatiently.

The concentrated energy within her tiny, bird-like body is palpable, her line readings so deceptively light and throwaway that it can take a moment to realise she has just said something funny, stinging or sad. That delayed effect is part of her style: “The nice thing is to make an audience laugh and laugh and laugh and shudder later,” she once said.

“It’s extraordinary to see Elaine back on the stage where she performed with Mike,” says the actor Nathan Lane, who worked with May on Nichols’s 1996 comedy The Birdcage. “And for someone her age to take on a huge role like this demands a lot of stamina. I would think it’s also a particularly difficult role to learn because of all the hesitations. It’s a real challenge but I thought she was very funny and very moving.”

Lane still remembers his first meeting with May. “I told her, ‘It’s a great honour to meet you.’ I was holding the script and she pointed to it and said in this desperate, faux-exasperated sort of way: ‘I did the best I could.’ She’s one of the brightest, wittiest people I’ve ever encountered. The records she made with Mike were groundbreaking, so fresh and original.”

When May met Nichols in Chicago in the mid-1950s, she was a divorced Method acting student with a young daughter (the actor Jeannie Berlin, born when May was 18). Their first significant encounter was on a crowded bench, where Nichols pretended to be a spy. “May I seet down?” he asked, to which May replied: “If you veesh.” Without forethought or fanfare, their career in improvisation was under way. They joined the Compass Players, Chicago’s influential improv group, and became famous overnight after performing on the NBC show Omnibus a sketch about two awkward teenagers on a date.

“They invented improvisational comedy,” says Sam Wasson, author of the book Improv Nation. “And what’s striking is that you don’t often see improv performed by real actors because they’re usually two separate disciplines. With Mike and Elaine, however, both elements are operating at full power.”

There was also a radical quality to May. “Female comics of that era had a ditsiness to them, whereas Elaine was playing real women who defied cliche.” These included a dispassionate, obtuse telephone operator (“Is that k as in knife? P as in pneumonia?”) and a passive-aggressive parent (“This is your mother. Do you remember me?”).

“A lot of the humour we now attribute to Woody Allen, that comedy of neurosis and anxiety, really originated with them,” says Wasson. It’s telling that Allen, who later directed May in Small Time Crooks and the recent Amazon series Crisis in Six Scenes, offered to write for the couple in the late 1950s, not realising that they came up with their own material on the fly.

By the end of their Broadway run in 1961, they were the toast of the town, but for May the champagne had lost its fizz. They went their separate ways soon after. “Elaine is fundamentally an improviser which means she cannot stay in one place with one idea for too long,” Wasson points out. “She was diving for pearls while Mike was waiting on the shore to polish them.”

After they split, Nichols became a major director, first in theatre and then with movies such as The Graduate. May wrote plays and occasionally acted, then made her film directing debut in 1971 with A New Leaf, starring Walter Matthau as an impoverished playboy searching for a wealthy woman to marry and murder; her performance as his bride-cum-victim was Chaplinesque in its pathos and slapstick skill. Her 1972 follow-up, The Heartbreak Kid, was even darker: a sour, subversive romcom in which Charles Grodin falls for Cybill Shepherd while on his honeymoon.

“Elaine is one of my absolute favourite directors,” Shepherd says now. “I knew she was this brilliant comedian who had broken all the rules. But this was only my second film and I’d never taken acting lessons, so when she said, ‘Let’s improvise’ I said: ‘What’s that?’ It was so much fun, though, and such a great way to explore possibilities in a character. Having Elaine as my first improv coach was such a blessing. She didn’t try to dominate but she was always very specific about what she wanted.”

Even after their professional rupture, Nichols and May would always be inextricably linked. The Graduate ends, after all, with the desperate pursuit of a woman called Elaine, while the title of May’s warped buddy movie was Mikey and Nicky. There were occasional stage reunions including a 1980 revival of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? in New Haven, Connecticut, where they played George and Martha. Swoosie Kurtz, cast as Honey in that production, remembers May with fondness. “We had a lot of laughs in the dressing room. Mike would pop his head in occasionally but he would never call her Elaine. It would always be Arleen or Eileen or Irene. There was this sense of unspoken understanding between these people who had been soulmates for so long.”

Kurtz was especially struck by May’s interpretation of the role. “Elaine was the first sexy Martha – really sexy, not in that sort of overweight, drunken, sloppy way we’ve sometimes seen in the character. First of all she looked sensational, with this knife-like slender body. It was very contemporary. I had never seen that kind of in-control sexuality in Martha before.”

Theatre has always provided May’s foundation and, in between directing movies and polishing scripts, there has usually been something of hers to see on or off Broadway: her contribution to Relatively Speaking, a trio of one-act plays in 2011 that also included work by Woody Allen and Ethan Coen, for example, or Adult Entertainment, her comedy set in the porn industry and directed by her long-time partner, Stanley Donen (Singin’ in the Rain).

Even hidden from view, her presence is strongly felt. “Anyone in American comedy attempting to show life as it really is, whether they know it or not, is a descendant of Mike and Elaine,” says Wasson. “But she is so singular that you can’t point to any one person and see her influence. It’s like looking for Mozart’s influence on classical music. It’s everywhere.”

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December 6, 2018

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