Elaine May Essay - Critical Essays

May, Elaine


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

A New Leaf is hackneyed comedy about an aging playboy who, having gone through his inheritance, decides to marry a rich innocent. Miss May, who wrote the script, directed, and played the role of the rich innocent, endeavors to enliven such plot clichés with the negative shibboleths currently considered "in", and loads her film down with other liabilities. (p. 232)

As for Miss May's noises, fully exploited by Paramount's flacks, about the final cut of this picture not conforming to her intention: Well, from the interior evidence, this picture couldn't have been cut any other way. Which means Miss May shot it this way. What way? To make as much money as possible. Why her alleged protest? To draw attention to her picture, and to delude the gullible that she is still anti-Establishment—all the way to the bank. (p. 233)

Elaine Rothschild, "Film Reviews: 'A New Leaf'," in Films in Review (copyright © 1971 by the National Board of Review of Motion Pictures, Inc.), Vol. XXII, No. 4, April, 1971, pp. 232-33.

Richard Combs

[A New Leaf] has that rather plain and graceless look which combines the functional needs of stage and television comedy. Admittedly there is some dabbling with more respected models—the film opens with a visual gag of a type refined by Buster Keaton, and the storyline itself is vaguely reminiscent of Keaton's Seven Chances. But then the tragedy of Henry Graham, middle-aged bachelor and profligate of a now exhausted private income, and his efforts to find a marriageable heiress, to appropriate the fortune and then dispose of its owner, has its own classic status which Elaine May chooses not to update, or at least only for occasional and very specific comic effect….

A New Leaf keeps the current phobias of American comedy firmly out of sight, with a rigour of approach that is more than just the artificially airtight conventions of its story. The society inhabited by Henry Graham, all hyper-refined and aristocratic tedium, has a perverse dislocation from any American reality. It is blandly characterised by Henry's vaguely English but perfectly generalised activities at his club, a languid canter along a bridle-path, or the exquisite boredom of hearing about the current blight in a friend's garden….

[The cultural joke of Henry's drive through a New York ghetto, bemoaning his financial situation,] a wrenching and rearranging of social contexts—The Great Gatsby as written by P. G....

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Pauline Kael

Elaine May has the rarest kind of comic gift: the ability to create a world seen comically. Her satirist's malice isn't cutting; something in the befuddled atmosphere she creates keeps it mild—yet mild in a thoroughly demented way, mild as if impervious to sanity. It may be a trait of some witty women to be apologetic about the cruelty that is inherent in their wit; Miss May, all apologies, has a knack for defusing the pain without killing the joke. The dialogue sounds natural and unforced. The humor sneaks up on you, and it's surprisingly evenhanded and democratic; everybody in [The Heartbreak Kid] is a little cockeyed….

Elaine May's tone often verges on the poignant (and is best when it does), but there are unkillable demons in her characters, and you never know what you'll discover next. Working almost entirely through the actors, she lets those demons come to the surface in a scene before she moves on. The characters don't seem to be middle-class survivors (though they are)—they seem to be crazy people in leaking boats, like other people. She supplies a precarious element of innocence that removes them from [the pandering, hardcore humor of the screenwriter, Neil Simon]. (p. 69)

Elaine May keeps the best of Neil Simon but takes the laugh-and-accept-your-coarseness out of it. She reveals without complacency, and so the congratulatory slickness of Neil Simon is gone. Lila and Lenny and Kelly have...

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William S. Pechter

For a considerable portion of its length, The Heartbreak Kid seems merely to be another mining of [the] lode of Jewish self-hatred. On brief acquaintance, Lenny Cantrow marries Lila Kolodny, and, almost as soon as she's been sexually demystified (she'd been making Lenny wait until the honeymoon), she is revealed to him as the proto-Jewish mother in all her gross vulgarity. Loud and inescapable, virtuoso of nonstop talking and eating undeterred even by sex …, her character, whatever one may think of the creation, is a creation. And anything the actress … fails to suggest of the character's insistently smothering presence, the film fills in by its sense of her encroachment on its space, from the narrow squeeze down the aisle at the opening wedding through her crowding in the car on the honeymoon trip to the hotel room where, laid up by a sunburn, she waits to pounce on Lenny each time he enters. Yet even as one admires the deftness with which all this is done, one is repelled by its cruelty;… [the] character seems drawn for no other purpose than to humiliate her, and, unappealing as the character may be, the film's treatment of her seems less appealing still….

[For] a while, it looks like the film, after spending its first half humiliating Lila, will spend its second humiliating Lenny, a CCNY shmuck vainly aspiring to conquer [Kelly,] an all-American campus queen.

Up until the point in the film at which Lila is dumped, The Heartbreak Kid seemed … neither particularly distinguished nor particularly likable; what one sees in it soon after,...

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Mitchell S. Cohen

That The Heartbreak Kid manages to synthesize May's improvisational satire, Simon's situation comedy, and [the bitterly black humor of Bruce Jay Friedman's "A Change of Plan," from which The Heartbreak Kid was adapted], and emerge as an occasionally brilliant, if indecisive, American comedy is an achievement very much out of the ordinary. Furthermore, Elaine May's second directorial effort is carried off with such a casual comfort and buoyant pace that the contrasting threads are only rarely visible…. [The] one consistent quality found in The Heartbreak Kid is the ability to take us by surprise—which is above all what makes this movie one of the few really enjoyable comedies by a young American director in recent years. (p. 60)

At the core of The Heartbreak Kid is a serious moral dilemma. This dilemma hinges on whether Lenny is correct in cruelly dumping Lila in order to pursue his dream girl. Neil Simon's traditional response to complex human relationships is to pass them off with a gag line, and it is to Elaine May's eternal credit that she did not allow The Heartbreak Kid to deteriorate into Barefoot in the Park. By lingering on the characters for a brief moment after the scene's punctuation with a joke, she enables us to see that the humor coincides with confusion and sadness. Framing the film with almost identical weddings, down to the music …, also reinforces the lack of resolution...

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Eric Braun

Elaine May has a considerable reputation for wit and perception and I viewed the beginning of The Heartbreak Kid—… with an expectant smile, which froze on my lips at the first wedding breakfast. I just cannot find anything inherently funny in Jewish weddings—still less in honeymoon nights in which the idiosyncrasies of either partner are held up to ridicule. By the time the stupid bride was writhing in the throes of sunstroke, which the groom was seizing as a Godsent opportunity to date another girl, my lips were tight indeed; not even Almira Sessions nor the late Edna May Oliver ever registered disapproval as wholeheartedly as I. The whole approach to the subject of the non-hero's emotional life—or...

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Marjorie Rosen

[Judging by A New Leaf and The Heartbreak Kid, Elaine May] is like an Uncle Tom whose feminine sensibilities are demonstrably nil. May enjoys broad caricatures, especially of her women characters, and there's something self-serving and snide about them. Their menacing "satire" recalls The Women, but Clare Boothe Luce's play, for better or worse, was written forty years ago; May works in the present. In A New Leaf, she directs herself as the classic drippy spinster, a weirdo rich botanist named Henrietta transformed into awkward loveliness by a money-hungry dilettante. The Heartbreak Kid is even more discomforting, exhuming fifties' stereotypes: the sloppy lower-class bride …, the...

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Molly Haskell

Lenny, the hero of The Heartbreak Kid,… seems more the progeny of [Bruce Jay] Friedman, who wrote the story on which the film is based, than of Neil Simon, who wrote the screenplay, or Elaine May, who directed. But May has softened the edges, making Lenny more enchanting than he has any right to be, and brought into dramatic, if not completely resolved, focus, the surrounding characters….

Elaine May's second feature is a funny and sometimes sidesplitting film whose whole never approaches the success of its best moments in which the two levels of romantic fantasy and satire are reconciled. It falls prey to the kind of tonal inconsistencies, or rather irresolutions, that one might expect...

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Joan Mellen

[In The Heartbreak Kid] Elaine May presents us with two versions of "woman": the Jewish, gum-chewing Lila at home amidst the vulgarities of Miami Beach, and the Wasp Kelly, whose surface patina of blonde invulnerability and athletic grace bespeaks utter emotional emptiness. The hero, Lenny, is no better than either the woman he abandons nor the one he pursues to the wilds of the Mid-West. But his callow opportunism can in no way mitigate May's unfortunate offering of crudely stereotyped women, recognizable ethnic types presented at their worst for the sake of a few cheap laughs…. (p. 41)

[Lila is] an adolescent whose gratifications remain oral and a Jewish girl to whom a mouth stuffed with...

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Stuart M. Kaminsky

[May's] films—A New Leaf and The Heartbreak Kid—deal with dependent weak characters…. [Her] characters, male and female, are equal and both weak in some major, emotional way. They meet out of mutual need …, fall in love and support each other's weaknesses…. The films are less generic satires than rather traditional romances or man vs. women comedies of courtship.

The protagonists are both openly neurotic victims who, like the protagonists of Woody Allen's films, triumph, achieve what they want, a love relationship earned through pain. Secondary characters in May's films are generally pragmatists …, people who use other people. However, May sees this social pragmatism as a...

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Stanley Kauffmann

[Mikey and Nicky is an] odd, biting, grinning, sideways-scuttling rodent of a picture….

[The plot] sounds like the schema of a "character" crime picture, a so-called film noir, particularly since most of it is shadowy. (Virtually all of it takes place at night.) It is those things, but it is several things more. The first additional thing is, incredibly, that it's comic. Actual laughs are scattered, but the overall view of the two men is through a prism of comic detail. The script is by Elaine May, who also directed. Her previous scripts A New Leaf and The Heartbreak Kid, both adapted from other people's stories, were ungainly and ill-focused. Mikey and Nicky is...

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Molly Haskell

Mikey and Nicky are so enclosed in their own mediocrity [in Mikey and Nicky] that their night-long binge of recrimination and reconciliation is … more obscuring than enlightening. And when the light does come, in a violent denouement—sunlight, the illumination of the sibling rivalry—it is too late and too bright and too neat.

Elaine May hasn't come any closer to mastering the basics of filmmaking or developing a feeling for the medium, and awkwardnesses that were incorporated into the daffiness of A New Leaf or partially covered by the professionalism of Heartbreak Kid here stand exposed, and there is no humor to redeem them. (pp. 36-7)

I think I wouldn't...

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John Simon

[Elaine May, a gifted comic artist,] has chosen to make something impossible: a film about two horrid fellows alternately abusing and greasily cajoling each other (and equally repulsive either way) when not getting into fights with other men or, for a little variety, maltreating the hapless women in their lives. Awful as this premise is, there is worse to come. One of these two old buddies may have a contract out on his life; the other is trying either to save or to finger him. Our sympathies are manipulated in such a way that we must keep switching allegiances: Now we are dragged into feeling pity for an utter louse, now we are forced to recoil at the creepiness of a dedicated friend.

The idea seems...

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Michael Tarantino

Mikey and Nicky is a film about male camaraderie in spite of itself…. [It] is concerned with the fragile base upon which such relationships are built, rather than establishing the phenomenon itself. Thus, the emotional ties that have been formed through childhood and adolescence are taken for granted in order to concentrate on the differences which ultimately lead to betrayal: in this case, Mikey's sense of rational decorum as pitted against Nicky's predictable unpredictability.

May has managed the perfect blend, utilizing the improvisatory techniques of her actors in order to re-inforce the film's narrative thrust. As disjointed as it may seem, each stray piece of business belongs....

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