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Retrospective puts May center stage

Elaine May with her 1950s-early ’60s improv partner, Mike Nichols. Elaine May with her 1950s-early ’60s improv partner, Mike Nichols. (Richard Avedon/Thirteen/Wnet)
By Gerald Peary
Globe Correspondent / November 7, 2010

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For decades, Elaine May has hidden out behind the scenes, helming an occasional off-Broadway play, making a hefty living as a Hollywood screenwriter both credited (“Heaven Can Wait,’’ “The Birdcage,’’ “Primary Colors’’) and uncredited (“Reds,’’ “Tootsie’’). Famously shy, she disappeared from public scrutiny after being scapegoated for the minuscule box-office and artistic failure of two films that she’d directed, “Mikey and Nicky’’ (1976) and “Ishtar’’ (1987). The latter, a retro road comedy starring the mega-priced combo of Dustin Hoffman and Warren Beatty, was regarded as an all-time studio disaster, decadently expensive to make, frivolous and worthless as a narrative, and with such paltry financial returns that it single-handedly staggered Columbia Pictures. Wasn’t that enough “Ishtar’’ humiliation? Elaine May also won a Golden Raspberry Award for Worst Director, 1987.

That was then. More recently, “Mikey and Nicky’’ has been reevaluated and many now see it as an astonishing work, a masterpiece of absurdist tragicomedy. We’ve also learned to enjoy two cynical comedies that May directed, “A New Leaf’’ (1971) and “The Heartbreak Kid’’ (1972). Even “Ishtar’’ has come to be looked at, by some at least, with bemusement and affection. In short, May’s career as a Hollywood director, 1971-1987, is a meritorious one, and worth honoring.

That’s what the Harvard Film Archive is doing Friday through Nov. 14, offering a four-film retrospective titled The Comic Vision of Elaine May. The filmmaker, now 78, will be at the HFA in person for showings of “Mikey and Nicky’’ and “Ishtar.’’ She’s coming up from New York, where she lives with the retired director Stanley (“Singin’ in the Rain’’) Donen.

“May has avoided interviews about her work as rigorously as J.D. Salinger and Thomas Pynchon,’’ observed critic Jonathan Rosenbaum. How then to explain the reticent filmmaker agreeing to speak at the Harvard Archive? She’s tried it before, and it was a positive experience. In February 2006, May appeared at the Walter Reade Theater in New York, under the auspices of Film Comment magazine. She was coaxed there by her compatriot of half a century, director Mike Nichols, for whom she’d written scripts. Nichols shared the stage with her, following a sold-out screening of “Ishtar.’’ The audience was admiring, and May could relax and joke, “If all the people who hate ‘Ishtar’ had seen it, I’d be a rich woman today.’’

Nichols and May met in the 1950s as students at the University of Chicago. Soon they were doing improv as members of the Compass Players, which would evolve into the original Second City troupe. High-strung, nimble of wit, Freudian-steeped, they formed a comedy team both loopy and brainy. By 1960, they’d gone nationwide, with hit LPs and a Broadway review; and they were celebrated as part of the same hipster-Jewish zeitgeist as cartoonist Jules Feiffer and satirists Mort Sahl, Lenny Bruce, and Shelley Berman. The other comedians performed monologues, Nichols and May did skits. Several priceless ones can be watched, via black-and-white kinescopes, on YouTube.

In 1961, Nichols and May ended as a team (though they would collaborate occasionally forevermore) and May went on to make her debut as a film director with 1971’s “A New Leaf.’’ The plot centers on an impossibly petulant, once-rich dandy played with aplomb by Walter Matthau, who seeks out a rich woman, to marry her and then kill her for the inheritance. He finds the perfect mark in May’s ditsy, nerdy botanist.

She’d written the script, but the deal was, suddenly, that she should direct.

“I said, I know nothing,’’ she recalled to Nichols in their 2006 talk. “I actually remember calling you and I said, ‘Well, how should I say “action’’? Firmly or . . .?’ . . . It was a very tough movie for me. I barely knew what a camera looked like.’’ Clumsy in parts, “A New Leaf’’ got by anyway, on the strength of May’s bubbly, gallows-humor script, and the vitality of the lead performances.

“The Heartbreak Kid’’ (1972) is beautifully directed, and, buoyed by Neil Simon’s dandy screenplay, the only May-made movie to go smoothly from start to finale. Charles Grodin is sublime as a romantically deluded husband who abandons his less-than-comely new wife on their Miami honeymoon to chase after the golden dream of lithe, blonde Cybill Shepherd. Only after the film was released came the attacks. Ignoring the obvious satire, some feminists accused May of being traitorous for not condemning Grodin’s shallow woman-hopping. Some Jews thought May self-hating for allowing Grodin to dump his Jewish bride (May’s daughter, Jeannie Berlin) for a sleek shiksa. Whatever the criticisms, “The Heartbreak Kid’’ was a hit. May’s last.

The problems making “Mikey and Nicky’’ were exhaustive and Byzantine, capped by interference from the producing studio. Paramount pushed for a quirky comedy but got an unclassifiable hybrid of a sweaty, talky John Cassavetes movie (he was one of the stars) and an avant-garde drama a la Ionesco’s “The Chairs.’’ In May’s supremely claustrophobic saga, a petty gangster, Nicky (Cassavetes), chased by a hit man, hides out with his dear pal, Mikey (Peter Falk), with dire results.

The initial reviews of “Mikey and Nicky’’ were pitiless and dreadful. The New York Post called it “an impenetrable, ugly, and almost unbelievable mess.’’ Who knew that Paramount had taken the film away from the filmmaker and recut it, and that an estranged May had fled to Connecticut with much of the prime footage?

What you view today is, gratefully, May’s approved director’s version. Critic Dave Kehr has described the reconstituted “Mikey and Nicky’’ as “a profound, unsentimental portrait of male friendship and of its ultimate impossibility.’’

Finally, there is “Ishtar.’’ Hoffman and Beatty played a malodorous song-and-dance team who seek employment in a Middle East desert Cold War zone. There, the CIA runs wild. Under the umbrella of a daffy, farcical, Hope-and-Crosby-type road movie, May was critiquing Ronald Reagan’s support for both Iran and Iraq, and the US government installing the despotic Saddam Hussein. “I think it’s hilarious,’’ Martin Scorsese has said of the film.

Even with all those brickbats, Elaine May likes it, too. That’s why she’s chosen to stand tall with “Ishtar’’ at the HFA.

For screening times and other information, visit hcl.harvard .edu/hfa/films/2010octdec/may.html.

Gerald Peary can be reached at gpeary@geraldpeary.com.

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