Anniversary Post: Elaine May

Elaine May

On this day, 21 April, one of the greatest writer-directors ever, Elaine May, is 88 years old. She first came to prominence as part of a comedy duo with Mike Nichols (Catch-22).

May has not done all that much in Hollywood. Part of it is doubtless that she’s a woman and a demanding artist. She made two moderately successful and widely loved films A New Leaf (which she also starred in) and The Heartbreak Kid.

Her next film could well be her masterpiece, Mikey and Nicky. But it went well over budget and was almost a year late so Paramount Pictures did the mature thing and killed the film by basically not releasing it. (It no longer shocks me just how petulant and self-destructive studio executives are.)


Because of this, May didn’t direct anything for another decade and when she did, it went even worse. Warren Beatty put together the funding for Ishtar. And I think we all know how that ended.

Sadly, most people do not know much about the film except that it supposedly sucks. Of course, it doesn’t. It’s hilarious. And looking back, I really think the problem was that the critics found out how much money it cost. That’s never a good sign (eg, Heaven’s Gate).

After that, it was another decade without doing anything in Hollywood. When she returned, she wrote two excellent screenplays for two Mike Nichols films: The Birdcage and Primary Colors.

It’s sad that Elaine May didn’t direct more films, but all four of the ones she did direct were winners.

Image cropped from Nichols and May photo from Rossano aka Bud Care under CC BY 2.0.

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