Sometimes I find it hard to really sum up my taste in films. I’m definitely a film geek but I wouldn’t describe my tastes as too obtuse. I have friends who hunt out their sustenance in the most unexpected places. Some travel the world to film festivals in far-flung places, others trawl archives and torrents for unreleased gems, most of my friends veer towards the cult subjects – the grimy horrors, the campy sci-fi, the saucy sex comedies of the 1970s British suburbs. My tastes are more mainstream but not actually mainstream. The films that have always fascinated me are the films that were meant to be mainstream. Those weird little aberrations which crop up on every star’s IMDB page. Films which had big casts, proper budgets, everything going for them but… for whatever reason… just didn’t happen. Sometimes they were mis-marketed, sometimes victims of behind-the-scenes politics at the studio, sometimes they were just released at the wrong moment in history. I like finding great, high quality films that vanished. There are thousands of them.
Now, although every star has one and, indeed, every director and producer and writer has one, it’s rare to find a director who worked completely in the mainstream but whose entire career consists of such films. Let alone one whose entire body of work deserves to be recognised as classic cinema. I mean, sure, there are directors who made shitty films for years and, with the assistance of passed time, achieve a level of unintended kitsch glory. But I’m talking about a director who made three incredible movies. Two with A-list Hollywood stars and one with an A-list cast of highly respected character actors. A director whose final directorial effort had a $40 million budget in 1986. How does a director like that, and their entire body of work just slip through the cracks?
I’m talking about a writer/director called Elaine May. You might have heard of her, if you have, it will probably have been for one of two reasons – either because she was a highly respected and influential comedienne or because she was the director of Ishtar. Ishtar, that’s the film of hers most people have heard of. Heard of, but I’d wager, not seen. Most people haven’t even heard of it. It was considered toxic long before it was released, was famous mainly as a punchline and became the frame of reference for a Hollywood flop for a couple of years before it was unceremoniously forgotten about. It was the saddest kind of flop, too. Because it was neither gloriously shit or belatedly discovered. Nobody went to see it. Nobody remembers it. I had to buy a French DVD of it as the UK ‘uncut’ release (a baffling minute shorter than the standard version) is long out of print.
So, if you like your comedy black yet full of pathos. If you like your characters existing on the fringe of society and the brink of sanity and you like your films well-observed, wry and heartfelt, it would be my pleasure to introduce you to the cinema of Elaine May…
A NEW LEAF (1971)
This was May’s first film and she writes, directs and co-stars. I can’t think of another female director from that era working in the mainstream who was allowed such a favoured situation. She hits the ground running. The film tells the story of a vile millionaire playboy called Henry Graham, played with majestically aloof pomposity by Walter Matthau. Graham blows his whole inheritance through financial laziness and, when faced with the prospect of poverty, sets about to find himself a wealthy wife who can keep him in the style to which he is accustomed. Matthau is a misanthrope of the highest order and finds the notion of having to marry to be a massive inconvenience and treats all of his prospective partners with a dismissive weariness. As time runs out, he happens upon Henrietta Lowell, a nerdish, clumsy, uncomfortably comfortable botanist. He bites the bullet and romances her as best he can, planning to fleece her or, if needs be, engineer an accident to finish her off. Like all the best rom-coms, what he doesn’t expect is to come to love her. If that’s what even happens. Like May’s other lead characters, there is something deeply, unrepentantly vile about Graham. He doesn’t deserve love. He’s a bad person. But maybe he isn’t. May has a skill with creating characters who aren’t simply flat stereotypes, they are conflicted, animalistic and intensely human. So as much as we hate Matthau and feel bad for May, the eventual promise of romance is an exciting one. It’s also one of a very rare breed of films – a sneeringly sarcastic romantic comedy. The background is populated by incredulous, snarky old men. The leads are unattractive individually and together. Yet, here is a deeply funny and quite moving little piece. It feels like the kernel that Wes Anderson’s entire oeuvre sprung from and if you dig his films, you should hunt this one out. And so you would expect May’s career to head merrily down that path – the female director churning out the better-than-average spunky little romantic comedies. But no. Four years later, she’s making a film almost completely diametrically opposed in every way…
MIKEY AND NICKY (1976)
What’s the last film you’d expect from a female ex-comedienne director in the mid-seventies? A grimy gangster film. It would be horribly misogynistic to declare surprise that a female director could produce a dark, intelligent, brooding hoodlum flick – and I’m not. But I am surprised that any studio in the 70s paid for that to happen. Surprised and delighted because, frankly, this one is a corker. How Mikey and Nicky is not a bonafide cinema classic is beyond me. it features character acting legends Peter (Columbo) Falk and John Cassavettes as two small-time crooks. Lifelong friends. Cassavettes’ Nicky has stolen some money from the mob and holed up in a cheap hotel ravaged by paranoia and a burning stomach ulcer. Out of his mind, he calls Mikey to help him out. Making Mikey jump through hoops in a desperate bid to help flee the city and not get killed. To begin with, it’s unclear whether there is even a hit out on Nicky but slowly, with the appearance of an impassive Ned Beatty, we realise there might be something to his paranoia. But that’s not all that happens slowly.
The story itself never really develops from the first ten minutes, it’s the story of one night on the streets and hovels of New York in which two friends try to avoid a hitman. What develops – masterfully – is the backstory. The history as to how they got to this point. And that story is Shakespearean. A story of friendship, love, loyalty, betrayal, power, greed, redemption and futility. We don’t just learn these characters’ stories, we learn about every side of their personalities. Again, May’s strength is in creating complex, real characters. We flit between loving and hating these guys. Trusting and fearing them. Some of their actions are unforgivable, they’re randomly violent to innocent victims. They are feral and thoughtless. But they are also damaged and reflective, nostalgic and scared. This is a portrait of the male psyche. At first it seems like there will be no female characters at all in this night-landscaped journey, but the wives and girlfriends start to appear and here May excels.
A scene in which the boys visit Nicky’s ‘girlfriend’ is possibly the most awkwardly uncomfortable sex scene I’ve seen. It is neither graphic nor entirely non-consensual, it is just a harsh illustration of male disrespect and frustration. The scene pays out in real time whilst Nicky patronises, lies and wears down Nellie’s defences, rejects her intelligence and wishes and leaves her no option but to have sex with him whilst his friend waits, listening on awkwardly in the kitchen. When the act is over and Nicky tires of her, Mikey – clearly the nicer of the partnership – approaches her seemingly to make her feel better but, no, he’s just making a move too.
This film is brilliant. When you compare it to the films from that era and genre that have become classics, it’s impossible to figure out why this doesn’t sit amongst them. To me, this makes Mean Streets just seem like a bunch of posturing. The emotional depth and intelligent intensity of Mikey and Nicky seems to stem from the shooting method. Apparently May was fearsomely idiosyncratic in her directing style. According to Wikipedia, she shot 1.4 million feet of film for this – three times the amount of film used in Gone With The Wind. The acting was largely improvisational and the cameras would just roll and roll. This pays off. The two lead actors show their range and their brilliance it’s both a buddy movie and a thriller. Again, it is rife with pathos but also darkness.
So, commercially, Ishtar was dead on arrival. The stories of its production had already lead to industry mocking. By this point, May and the film’s stars Dustin Hoffman and Warren Beatty (who also produced) were known as three of the most difficult forces in Hollywood and this wasn’t helped when May firstly flew the whole crew out to a remote part of the Moroccan Sahara because she wanted perfect sand dunes, only to decide that dunes were cliched and order the crew to flatten a square mile of them instead. What May was attempting was bold – a broad comedy film in the Bob Hope ‘Road To’ mold – but starring two non comedians in the comedic leads. Neither Hoffman nor Beatty were what could be called comic actors but – as you’ll have seen in the clip above – the trio work this to its advantage. The roles are played deadpan with a dimwitted intensity which is consistently pant-wettingly funny. The first half hour alone of failed gigs, wretched songwriting sessions and embarrassing suicide bids is some of the funniest American tongue-in-cheek I’ve ever seen. The thrust of the ensuing narrative – a mistaken-identity style political/military farce is serviceable but the performances never fail to be anything but charismatic and hilarious. The supporting cast features M.Emmett Walsh and the always great Charles Grodin. Fuck, even the extras in this film are brilliant. This is a Sunday afternoon film of the highest order. Is it brilliant? Maybe not, maybe it’s not a classic but it’s so much fun. It bears repeated viewings. It deserves to be fondly remembered. It deserves to be remembered. It deserves to be available.
May wrote a couple more films for her ex-comedy partner, Mike Nichols (director of The Graduate) and it’s not like she hasn’t been busy over the years – she did a lot of comedy and a lot of theatre. I’m sure she’s kept busy and achieved a lot but it upsets me that these three films (along with The Heartbreak Kid, a decent Neil Simon scripted Grodin film which she directed) represent her entire body of writer-director work. I would have loved to have seen what else she had to offer. I feel that she was accomplished and talented from the first film to the last, so I’m not so sure that she would have got any better, I just wish she had done more. There is such a scarcity of confident directors who understand comedy, film acting and really grasp the concept of character. Her work is at least equal to that of her contemporaries at the time and although I have no idea whether the absence of any further work is through her own choice or that of the system, I think it’s a massive shame that we were denied more from this rare talent.