On the Side: My Favorite Elaine May Films

To the average joe, people probably only remember female director/writer Elaine May as  the female partner of the late Mike Nichols in their comedy tour “An Evening with Mike Nichols and Elaine May.” At least I believe that is the title? When the two parted their own ways, they each began their directing careers respectively. Here is where the big difference comes in; almost everybody has seen Nichols films, but hardly anyone can remember a May film. This is highly unfortunate because in many ways and despite only four directed films on her resume, May is actually the superior filmmaker. Even though I was no fan of Mike Nichols films (may he rest in peace), I am not trying to bash him as a person or even as a director (though I always found them uninteresting), he was probably a great man at heart. Let us get back to Elaine May though. Her first film, A New Leaf (1971) was originally intended to be a dark romantic comedy drama running a maximum of 180 minutes long, but Paramount head Robert Evans took it away from her and edited it down to 104 minutes. Who knows If the original version still exists (lead actor Walter Matthau reportedly preferred this version), but it still works and Elaine May’s Golden Globe nominated performance is still truly hilarious. In 1972, she was hired to direct The Heartbreak Kid based on a story by Neil Simon. This film opened to both critical and commercial acclaim and Mikey & Nicky followed in 1976. As with A New Leaf, this crime drama staring John Cassavetes and Peter Falk had a troubled production history and according to reports, she was fired and then re-hired quickly. As with her first film, this one was a commercial failure despite critical acclaim. Speaking of production problems, the expensive comedy Ishtar was released in 1987 and was notorious even before it’s release due to cost overruns and mistreatment of the press. The film stared Warren Beatty and Dustin Hoffman as two bad songwriters who get a singing gig to Morocco and end up involved in political turmoil. Unlike her first three films, Ishtar was not only just a commercial bomb, but it was also a critical failure as well. The film does have it’s defenders though; Jonathan Rosenbaum has come to it’s defense ever since it’s initial release in 87. Sadly, May has not directed another film since than though she has written screenplays for her former partner Mike Nichols; The Birdcage (1996) and Primary Colors (1998). Reportedly, director Stanley Donen is preparing a new film with a script by Elaine May (or is she directing?) and all I can tell you is I hope it actually happens because May did not deserve to be treated so horrible by Hollywood. Now without further ado, I have compiled a list of my favorite films by director/writer May below.

* * * * (Out of * * * *)

1.   A New Leaf (1971)
Despite being edited from 180 minutes to 104, A New Leaf still remains a truly witty and subtly observational romantic comedy drama. Aside from being her first feature, Elaine May also co-stars as the woman that Walter Matthau’s character (a soon to be ex-millionaire) tries to marry in order to con her with hilariously disastrous results.

2.   Mikey & Nicky (1976)
As with A New Leaf, Mikey & Nicky is another film where Elaine May found herself clashing with Paramount Pictures over. Fired and then re-hired right away, the film has two versions. Either way, this is a deeply fascinating crime drama taking place over one night that deals with a hood (John Cassavetes) trying to get help from one of his fellow buddies (Peter Falk) in repaying a debt to the mob.

3.   The Heartbreak Kid (1972)
Elaine May’s biggest commercial success to date is also the only one that garnered Oscar nominations; Eddie Albert and Jeannie Berlin garnered Oscar nominations for Best Supporting Actor and Supporting Actress respectively. Based on a Neil Simon story, Charles Grodin stars as a newly married Jewish New Yorker, who while on a Miami honeymoon with his wife (Berlin), sets his eyes on an ingenue (Cybill Shepherd) and follows her all over to her hometown of Minnesota. As in all of May’s films, the result is typically hilarious.

* * * 1/2 (Out of * * * *)

1.   Ishtar (1987)
A notorious flop due not only to it’s critical and commercial failure, but also to it’s costly delays, numerous re-shoots and mismanagement of the press. Nevertheless, it still manages to be laugh out loud funny. The plot has two bad song writers (Warren Beatty and Dustin Hoffman) hired to perform a gig in Morocco, but end up getting embroiled in political turmoil with a mysterious woman (Isabelle Adjani) catching their eyes. In some ways, this plays out like May’s version of a Hope/Crosby comedy for the 1980’s. Vittorio Storaro’s cinematography is stunning as always and Paul Williams intentionally bad songs are frequently hilarious. Former Chicago Reader film critic Jonathan Rosenbaum’s defense of this film has arguably incited more people to come out and defend it as well.


4 thoughts on “On the Side: My Favorite Elaine May Films

  1. I’m old enough to remember Mike Nichols and Elaine May as a comedy team. Both comic geniuses. Thank you for writing this, John. Heartbreak Kid is one of the funniest movies ever!

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