Joan Mellen

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 609

[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)

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[Lila is] an adolescent whose gratifications remain oral and a Jewish girl to whom a mouth stuffed with food is bliss. We know how soon she will triple her chins, already well on their way. Elaine May even has Lila a sloppy, disgusting eater who smears egg salad all over her face, spits, wipes with her hand and talks with her mouth full. Lacking all confidence or sense of herself, she must constantly be told that their lovemaking is wonderful. We are led by May to sympathize with the steady disillusionment of the young husband who moans, "it's difficult to give out bulletins in the heat of passion." Lila is so gross that her body and its carriage are used by May to revolt us all. It is a conception born of a considerable self-hatred—of women, Jews, and, at some level, her own daughter [, who plays Lila].

Thus we are meant to accept Lenny's flirtation with the blonde, gay and joyful Kelly…. If Lila can't swim, Kelly can. Lila turns beet red from the sun and must spend her days in the hotel room smeared with noxema, packing her jowls with chocolate. Kelly's skin has turned a golden brown. Lila is over-eager, anxious, self-deprecating, gushing and loud. Kelly, the American heroine, knows how to play it cool and how to make a man want her. She has style even if it is that of a cheer-leading Lolita.

Kelly is viciously, almost innocently amoral. When she learns that Lenny is married, this poses no obstacle: "What else is new?" She can manipulate both Lenny and her father with ease. Rich, spoiled and lacking nothing, she finds all men desirable as creatures to tease and bend to her bemused will. None can deny her. (pp. 42, 44)

[What] is striking about the film is the absence of any women capable of grace or substance. Lila's mother is an older version of herself grown heavy. Kelly's mother, more attractive as befitting her superior social station, and, May unconsciously suggests, her Anglo-Saxon appeal, is blonde, brittle, but stupid. She is forever in the shadow of her husband to whom she defers in all decisions. The younger women are simply their mothers twenty years earlier. Neither shows any sign of transcending the bleak vulgarity of her conditioning.

In fact, the two wives of Lenny are equally obnoxious. Lila's crudity is more obvious, but Kelly's is more sinister. It is the vulgarity of an utter incapacity to feel or make emotional commitments. The film leaves an emptiness that defies the rave reviews. All the human beings portrayed lack redeeming grace…. May, no less than Lila and Kelly, is a product of bourgeois society; she sees its excesses, but not its structure. She can register what it has done to women, but can neither desire nor imagine any means of change, nor the vision of an alternative. (p. 44)

Joan Mellen, "Bourgeois Woman: A Disturbance in Mirrors," in her Women and Their Sexuality in the New Film (copyright 1973, reprinted by permission of the publisher, Horizon Press, New York), Horizon, 1973, pp. 15-54.∗

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