Marjorie Rosen

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 409

[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 shrewd loudmouthed groom …, who is marrying about half a notch down, and the Sunshine WASP…. Groom meets WASP on his honeymoon while he is being sufficiently soured by lower-class virgin's love-making (What did she do that was so bad?), by the sight of egg salad running out of her mouth, and finally by her blistering sun poisoning. After a piercing scene in which he tells her that not only the honeymoon but the marriage is over, he runs off to win the WASP. And we are supposed to feel, How funny! How sad! It's a tricky movie, because a lot of it is funny, the scenes are quick, and it's all treated casually. But May stands aside and chuckles at her misfit women…. The bride in The Heartbreak Kid gets special buffoon treatment, which reflects on the director's idea of characterization rather than the character herself. So what is essentially a grotesque story anyway becomes weighted, for the sake of comedy, against the girl. Everyone else is smooth America; she's a leftover from the Yiddish stage or Ellis Island.

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There is, in all fairness, a possibility that May has simply not toned down her straight-faced self-parody…. In that case it is a stylistic rather than attitudinal handicap. On the other hand, when Nichols and May broke up [their comedy act], he emerged as Broadway's and then Hollywood's Golden Boy while she, a woman, found fewer opportunities as a director. How much of her toughness stems from bitterness, from denying her femaleness? But why not compassion instead? She's been there, as they say; she knows what's at stake. (pp. 363-64)

Marjorie Rosen, "Changing—Breakthrough or Backlash?" in her Popcorn Venus: Women, Movies & the American Dream (adapted by permission of Coward, McCann & Geoghegan, Inc.; copyright © 1973 by Marjorie Rosen), Coward, McCann & Geoghegan, 1973, pp. 345-66.∗

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