Elaine May
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Literary Arts

Elaine May

Past Event: Tuesday, September 23, 1997

Like her early improvisational comedy sketches, Elaine May’s career continues to take fresh twists and adventurous turns.

A comedian, actor, and writer and director for both stage and screen, May got her start as an undergraduate at the University of Chicago, where she teamed up with Mike Nichols in the late ’50s. From performances in college and cabaret clubs, Nichols and May went on to become one of the most successful comedy duos of the day, appearing on all the major TV entertainment shows and on Broadway for a year-long, sold-out engagement in 1960. Conceived improvisationally, then reshaped for audiences, their skits incorporated material that nibbled on the edges of propriety and dipped into the dark corners that were skirted over in the ’50s—like extramarital affairs and racial prejudice. Smart, sophisticated, and unconventional, they could run with anything—a parody of William Faulkner, romantic rapture in a dentist’s office, Jewish guilt, quiz show scandals, and rocket scientist Wernher von Braun.

After splitting with Nichols in the early ’60s, May put her multiple acting, writing, and directing talents to use. Among her early memorable projects was a one-act play, Adaptation (Drama Desk Award, 1969), which she wrote and directed in an off- Broadway, double bill with Terrance McNally’s Next. “I don’t see how anybody can be discouraged about anything now that Elaine May is back at work in the theatre,” wrote The New Yorker.

May was one of the first women to pioneer an inroad into Hollywood’s bastion of male directors. Her first credited film was A New Leaf (1971), co-starring Walter Matthau as a high-living, impoverished playboy who woos a bumbling, career-focused, millionaire botanist, played by May. Writer and director, May was praised for pulling traditional gender roles inside out. (Unhappy with the studio’s editing, she sued unsuccessfully to have her name removed from the credits.) A year later, May directed The Heartbreak Kid (1972), which she co-wrote with Neil Simon. Included in the cast was her daughter Jeannie Berlin, who earned a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination.

Success again came to May with Heaven Can Wait (1978), a remake of the 1941 film Here Comes Mr. Jordan. May and Warren Beatty co-wrote the script, which received an Academy Award nomination for Best Screenplay. She also directed and scripted Ishtar (1987), starring Warren Beatty and Dustin Hoffman. In uncredited rewrites, May left her distinctive mark on Reds (1981) and Tootsie (1982). For such work, she has earned a reputation as “one of the legendary script doctors in the business.” Critics also applaud the cohesiveness of her scripts, the natural flow of her dialogue, and her keen insight into the foibles of human behavior and the problems of contemporary society—topped by a vision both generous and optimistic.

With The Birdcage (1996), a remake of the stage play La Cage aux Folles, May (screenwriter) and Mike Nichols (director/producer) joined forces for their first film together. In a stroke of brilliance, they transposed the setting from the French Riviera in the ’70s to Miami’s South Beach and Washington, D.C., to create a hilarious comedy centered on the buzzword of the 90s—family values.

Excerpt from the Foreward, written by Mike Nichols for The Birdcage shooting script (1997)
The very first time I met Elaine, I was in a play directed by my friend Paul Sills, Miss Julie. It was awful. And a very strange thing, which is that Sydney J. Harris, the big Chicago critic, came to the University of Chicago where we were doing it and gave it this great review, which had the horrible result that we had to play it for months and months. And when Harris’s review first came out, I was walking down the street and I ran into Paul, who was with this interesting looking girl, Elaine, whom I had never met. And I said, “Paul, have you seen this? and I showed him the review, and Elaine looked over his shoulder and said ‘Hah!'” She knew how lousy Miss Julie was, she had seen it. In fact, I remembered her seeing it because she sat in the front row and looked so skeptical and amused that I could barely get through it.And then the next time I saw her was at the IC station, which is the railroad that you take to go back to the South Side of Chicago where the university is. She was sitting on the bench and I said, “May I sit down?” and she said, in an accent, “If you wish,” and we did the whole long spy improvisation. And then we were friends. We did it later on one of the records. But we improvised it in the actual railroad station the first time, before we knew each other.

Selected Work
Down to Earth (2001)
Small Time Crooks (2000)
In the Spirit (1990)
Primary Colors (1998)
The Birdcage (1996)
Ishtar (1987)
Heaven Can Wait (1978)
Mikey and Nicky (1976)
Such Good Friends (1971)
A New Leaf (1971)

Film Comment: Elaine May in conversation with Mike Nichols
Official web site for The Birdcage