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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 260

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Elaine May 1932–

American director, scriptwriter, and actress.

In her films, May's subtle humor, finely honed during her early days as a comedienne, is focused on human foibles. Throughout her work, she views her characters with a combination of sympathy and black humor.

While studying as an unenrolled student at the University of Chicago, May met Mike Nichols. They formed a comedy team generally conceded to combine unique acting abilities and wit. After a concert tour, several television appearances, and a Broadway run, they separated, and May began writing plays. Most critics were unenthusiastic about her efforts.

May next worked as an actress, appearing in two films. Her first attempt at directing, A New Leaf, was taken out of her hands after shooting ended. The studio's editing made it, in her eyes, "a cliché-ridden, banal failure." Though she sued to prevent its release, it opened to warmer reviews than she expected.

May received her first real recognition when she directed The Heartbreak Kid, which was scripted by Neil Simon. Beneath the light comedy of the film, May reveals the painful struggles of a young man in search of the perfect love. Most critics praise May's ability to temper Simon's usually blatant humor with compassion for her characters. But some critics conclude that her scorn of romantic illusions surfaces in the sharp-edged wit and the ambiguous ending of the film.

Although May has enjoyed moderate success, it is generally conceded that in her films she has not yet fully developed the talent that was evident in her days with Mike Nichols.


Elaine Rothschild