Acting on stage in 1959
April 21, 1932
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, U.S.
|Other names||Esther Dale|
|Occupation||Comedian, film director, screenwriter and actress|
|Spouse(s)||Marvin M. May (19??-19??; divorced); 1 child
Sheldon Harnick (1962–63; divorced)
David L. Rubinfine (1964–82; his death)
Elaine May (born April 21, 1932) is an American film director, screenwriter and actress. She achieved her greatest fame in the 1950s from her improvisational comedy routines in partnership with Mike Nichols. She is a two-time Academy Award-nominated screenwriter and also the mother of Oscar nominee Jeannie Berlin.
Early years and personal life
May was born Elaine Iva Berlin in Philadelphia in 1932, the daughter of Jewish parents, theater director/actor Jack Berlin and Ida Berlin, an actress.:39 As a child, Elaine performed with her father in his traveling Yiddish theater company, which he took around the country. Her stage debut on the road was at the age of three, and she eventually played the character of a generic little boy named Benny. 
Because the troupe toured extensively, May had been in over 50 different schools by the time she was ten, having spent as little as a few weeks enrolled at any one time. She says she hated school and would spend her free time at home reading fairy tales and mythology.:331 Her father died when she was 11, after which time she and her mother moved to Los Angeles. She later enrolled in Hollywood High School.
May dropped out of high school when she was fourteen. Two years later, when she was sixteen, she married Marvin May, an engineer and toy inventor. They had one child, Jeannie Berlin, who became an actress and screenwriter. They divorced years later, and she married lyricist Sheldon Harnick in 1962, who is best known for his work in Fiddler On The Roof. Their marriage was short-lived, however, and they divorced a year later. She next married her psychoanalyst, Dr. David L. Rubinfine, and they remained married until his death in 1982. Her current partner is American film director and choreographer Stanley Donen.:332
After her divorce from Marvin May, she studied acting with former Moscow Art Theatre coach, Maria Ouspenskaya. She also held odd jobs during that period and tried to enroll in college. She learned, however, that colleges in California require a high school diploma to apply, which she didn't have.:39 After finding out that the University of Chicago was one of the few colleges that would accept students without diplomas, she set out with $7 to her name and hitchhiked to Chicago.
Soon after moving to Chicago in 1950, May began informally taking classes at the university by sitting in without enrolling. She nevertheless sometimes engaged in discussions with instructors. Mike Nichols, who was then an actor in the school’s theatrical group, remembers her coming to his philosophy class, saying "something outrageous," and leaving.:324
They learned of each other from friends, eventually being introduced after one of his stage shows. Six weeks later, they bumped into each other at a train station in Chicago. "We had instant rapport,” remembers Nichols. They began spending time together over the following weeks as “dead broke theatre junkies.”:324-325
The Compass Players
In 1955, May joined a new, off-campus improvisational theater group, The Compass Players, becoming one of its charter members. The group was founded by Paul Sills and David Shepherd. Nichols later joined the group where he resumed his friendship with May. At first he was unable to improvise well on stage, thinking, “I can’t do this at all.” Then Nichols and May began developing improvised comedy sketches together, which "sparked his latent gift.":333 Nichols himself remembers this period:
From then on it became mostly pleasure because of Elaine’s generosity. The fact of Elaine—her presence—kept me going. She was the only one who had faith in me. I loved it. . . . We had a similar sense of humor and irony. . . . When I was with her I became something more than I had been before.:333
Actress Geraldine Page says “they clanked together with great efficiency. Like a juggernaut.”:336 Thanks in part to Nichols and May, writes Amy Seham, the Compass Players became an enormously popular satirical comedy troupe. Seham adds that "they codified techniques for adapting the freedom of the workshop to the pressures of the stage.”
May became a prominent member of the Compass's acting group, a quality others in the group observed. Bobbi Gordon, an actor, remembers that she was often the center of attention: “The first time I met her was at Compass. . . . Elaine was this grande dame of letters. With people sitting around her feet, staring up at her, open-mouthed in awe, waiting for “The Word.”:330-331 A similar impression struck Compass actor Bob Smith:
May would hold court, discussing her days as a child actor in the Yiddish theater, as men hung on her every word. Every guy who knew her was in love with her. You’d have been stupid not to have been.:329
As an integral member of their group, May "gave novices a chance," claims actress Nancy Ponder, including the hiring of a black actor, and generally making the group “more democratic.” Ponder adds, “she was the strongest woman I ever met.” She took "creative leaps," writes Nachman, “that improved everyone’s work.”:330
But in giving all her attention to acting, however, she neglected her home life. Fellow actress Barbara Harris recalls that May lived in a cellar with only one piece of furniture, a ping-pong table. “She wore basic beatnik black and, like her film characters, was a brilliant disheveled klutz.”:330
Some members of the group, including Nichols, found her to be physically attractive, which could be distracting. Group actor Omar Shapli was “struck by her piercing, dark-eyed, sultry stare. It was really unnerving,” he says.:329 Nichols remembers that as a result of her attractiveness, “everybody wanted Elaine, and the people who got her couldn't keep her.” Theater critic John Lahr agrees, noting that “her juicy good looks were a particularly disconcerting contrast to her sharp tongue.":329
May’s sense of humor, including what she found funny about everyday life, was different from others in the group. Novelist Herbert Gold, who dated May, says that “she treated everything funny that men take seriously. . . She was never serious. Her life was a narrative.”:329 Another ex-boyfriend, James Sacks, says that “Elaine had a genuine beautiful madness.” Nevertheless, states Gold, “she was very cute, a lot like Debra Winger, just a pretty Jewish girl.”:329
Her high intelligence is also remembered by some in the group. "She’s about fifty percent more brilliant than she needs to be," says actor Eugene Troobnick. While those outside their theater group sometimes noticed that same quality: British actor Richard Burton, then married to Elizabeth Taylor, met May while he was starring in Camelot on Broadway, and would later say, “Elaine was too formidable, one of the most intelligent, beautiful, and witty women I had ever met. I hoped I would never see her again.”:331
Nichols and May comedy team
Nichols was personally asked to leave Compass Players in 1957 because he and May "were so good, they eventually threw the company off balance," wrote club manager Jay Landsman. Nichols was told he had "too much talent.":338 Nichols left the group, with May quitting with him, in 1957. They then formed their own stand-up comedy team, which they called Nichols and May. After making a number of contacts with agents in New York, they were invited to audition for Jack Rollins, who would later produce most of Woody Allen's films. Rollins was "stunned" by how good their act was:
Their work was so startling, so new, as fresh as could be. I was stunned by how really good they were, actually as impressed by their acting technique as by their comedy. . . . They were totally adventurous and totally innocent, in a certain sense. That’s why it was accepted. They would uncover little dark niches that you felt but had never expressed. . . . I’d never seen this technique before. I thought, My God, these are two people writing hilarious comedy on their feet!:340
By 1960, they would make their Broadway debut with "An Evening with Mike Nichols and Elaine May," which later won a Grammy. After performing their act a number of years in New York's various clubs, and then on Broadway, with most of the shows sold out, Nichols could not believe their success:
We were winging it, making it up as went along. It never ever crossed our minds that it had any value beyond the moment. It was great to study and learn and work there. We were stunned when we got to New York. . . . Never for a moment did we consider that we would do this for a living. It was just a handy way to make some money until we grew up.:333
His feelings were shared by May, who was also taken aback by their success, especially having some real income after living a near-poverty lifestyle. She told a Newsweek interviewer, "When we came to New York, we were practically barefoot. And I still can’t get used to walking in high heels.":343
Their “instant success” in New York was due to their unique act, which some saw as “the next big thing.” Charles H. Joffe, their producer, remembers that at one show, the line went around the block, and Milton Berle himself tried three times, without success, to see their act.:341 Critic Lawrence Christon, after seeing them perform, remembers how he felt: "You just knew it was a defining moment. They caught the urban tempo, like Woody Allen did.":343
They continued to perform nightly to mostly sold-out shows, in addition to making various TV and radio appearances, including doing TV commercials.:346
Among the qualities of their act, which according to one writer, made them “the rarest of comedians," was that they used both "snob and mob appeal," giving them a wide audience. Nachman explains that "their partnership was a new kind of comedy team, nothing at all like the traditional duos—Laurel & Hardy, Fibber McGee & Molly, Burns and Allen, Abbott & Costello, Martin and Lewis—with a smart one and a stupid one."
What differentiated their style, according to Nachman, was the fact that they did mostly "scenes," a method very unlike the styles of other acting teams. Many of the other comedy duos added singing, drama, malapropisms or shtick. Nor did Nichols and May rely on fixed gender or comic roles, but instead adapted their own character to fit a sketch idea they came up with. In doing so, they chose real-life subjects, often from their own life, which were "deliciously satirical, often hilarious vignettes that commented on life around them," writes Nachman.:322 He explains how they accomplished this:
They relied on joking references and, most of all, on the audience recognizing clichés and character types, for most of what Nichols and May did was to make fun of the new intellectual, cultural, and social order that was just emerging at the time. Young Americans in the late 1950s were their main joke in an era when America still took itself seriously. Nichols and May merged comedy and reality and helped shape their generation’s satirical sensibility.:321
Nichols structured the material for their skits, and May came up with most of their ideas.” Improvisation became a fairly simple art for them, according to May:
It's nothing more than quickly creating a situation between two people and throwing up some kind of problem for one of them.
Nichols notes that after coming up with a sketch idea, they would perform it soon after with little extra rehearsal or writing it down. He gives an example of one sketch idea that came easily because "we both had extremely difficult Jewish mothers”:
There was the time my mother called me and said, “Hello, Michael, this is your mother—do you remember me?” and I said, “Mother, let me call you right back,” and I called Elaine and I said, “I’ve got a really good piece for us tonight.” And I gave her that line and we did the piece that night exactly as it exists now.:335
"May cracked the stereotype of what roles a woman could play," states Nachman. And producer David Shepherd notes that she accomplished this partly by not choosing traditional female roles for her character, at least by the standards of the 1950s. Instead, she played characters of "challenging, sophisticated and worldly women." Those might include the woman as a doctor, a psychiatrist, or an employer,” although none resembled feminist roles.:337 Shepherd concludes that "Elaine broke through the psychological restrictions of playing comedy as a woman.":322
Nichols and May did have different attitudes toward their improvisations, however. Where Nichols always needed to know where a sketch was going and what its ultimate point would be, May preferred exploring ideas as the scene progressed. May says that even when they repeated their improvisations, "it’s not by rote, but by re-creation of the original impulse," and that she liked to make slight changes during a performance. This difference in technique is explained by Nachman:
May had more range than Nichols . . . and freer improvisational skills, but Nichols—the latent director at work—labored to shape the pieces, steer them, and know when to end them and, for their records, what to delete.:323
Rollins, their manager, realized that in most situations "it was a question of lopping and polishing what they already had. But that was the only thing. Elaine would go on forever if you let her. She is insanely creative.":342
Influence on other comedians
Nichols and May created a new "Age of Irony" for comedy, which includes actors "batting contemporary banalities back and forth" as a key part of their routine. That style of comedy was picked up and further developed by other comics including Steve Martin, Bill Murray, and David Letterman.:323
Steve Martin notes that Nichols and May satirized "a new thing then, which was 'relationships.' The word came into being in the early sixties. Now we can’t get rid of the word, but it was the first time I ever heard it satirized.”:323 He recalls that soon after discovering their recorded acts, he “went to sleep at night listening to these records for weeks, for months. . . . They influenced us all and changed the face of comedy.”:324
Similarly, Lily Tomlin was affected by their routines and considers May to be her inspiration as a comedian: "There was nothing like Elaine May, with her voice, her timing and her attitude," says Tomlin. She adds:
The nuances of the characterizations and the cultured types that they were doing completely appealed to me. They were the first people I saw doing smart, hip character pieces. My brother and I used to keep their "Improvisations to Music" on the turntable twenty-four hours a day.:324
Audiences were still discovering them in 1961, four years after they arrived. However, at the height of their fame, they decided to discontinue their act that year and took their careers in different directions: Nichols becoming a leading film director and May becoming primarily a screenwriter and playwright, with some acting and directing. Among the reasons they decided to call it quits was that keeping their act fresh was becoming more difficult. Nichols explains:
Several things happened. One was that I, more than Elaine, became more and more afraid of our improvisational material. She was always brave. We never wrote a skit, we just sort of outlined it: I’ll try to make you, or we’ll fight—whatever it was. We found ourselves doing the same material over and over, especially in our Broadway show. This took a great toll on Elaine.:349
Nichols said that for him personally the breakup was "cataclysmic," and he went into a state of depression. "I didn't know what I was or who I was,” he adds. It was not until thirty-five years later that they would work together again as a team, when he directed The Birdcage in 1996, with May writing the screenplay. Nichols recalls that working with her again "was like coming home, like getting a piece of yourself back that you thought you’d lost.":353
Looking back on their earlier years, Nichols says that "Elaine was very important to me from the moment I saw her.":325 He adds that for May, "Improv was innate. There are very few people who have the gift of Elaine.":359
Director Arthur Penn said of their sudden breakup, "They set the standard and then they had to move on.":351 To New York talk show host Dick Cavett, "They were one of the comic meteors in the sky.":348 Nachman tries to summarize the effect of their break-up on American comedy:
Nichols and May are perhaps the most ardently missed of all the satirical comedians of their era. When Nichols and May split up, they left no imitators, no descendants, no blueprints or footprints to follow. No one could touch them.:319
Following the break-up, May wrote several plays. Her greatest success was the one-act Adaptation. Other stage plays she has written include Not Enough Rope, Mr Gogol And Mr Preen, Hotline (which was performed off-Broadway in 1995 as part of the anthology play, Death Defying Acts), After the Night and the Music, Power Plays, Taller Than A Dwarf, and Adult Entertainment. She also directed the off-Broadway production of Adaptation/Next. Most recently, she wrote the one-act play, George is Dead, which starred Marlo Thomas, and was performed on Broadway from 2011 to 2012 as part of the anthology play, Relatively Speaking, directed by John Turturro.
May made her film writing and directing debut in 1971 with A New Leaf, a screwball comedy based on Jack Ritchie's The Green Heart. (Ritchie would later retitle the story after A New Leaf.) The film starred Walter Matthau and May in the lead roles. Originally, May handed in a 180-minute black comedy that the studio cut into a 102-minute weird romance.
Her second directorial effort was The Heartbreak Kid. This comedy was critically lauded and modestly popular, based on a screenplay by Neil Simon, and starring Charles Grodin, Eddie Albert, Cybill Shepherd and May's own daughter, Jeannie Berlin. Albert and Berlin each received Supporting Actor/Actress Oscar nominations for the film.
May followed up these two comedies with the bleak crime drama entitled Mikey and Nicky. Budgeted at $1.8 million and scheduled for a summer 1975 release, the film ended up costing $4.3 million and not coming out until December 1976. She was eventually fired by Paramount Pictures (the studio that financed the film), but succeeded in getting herself rehired by hiding two reels of the negative until the studio gave in.
The film's subsequent failure at the box office damaged her career in Hollywood until Warren Beatty decided to give her one more chance. Their collaboration, Ishtar (1987), co-starring Beatty and Dustin Hoffman, was an even more notorious disaster than her previous film. Largely shot on location in Morocco, the production was beset by creative differences among the principals and enormous cost overruns. The advance publicity was largely negative, and despite some positive reviews from The Los Angeles Times and The Washington Post, the film was one of the biggest cinematic disasters of all time. Since that time, May has not directed another film.
Elaine May received an Oscar nomination for updating Here Comes Mr. Jordan as Heaven Can Wait. May reunited with her former comic partner, Mike Nichols, for The Birdcage in 1996. The film relocated the classic French farce, La Cage aux Folles, from France to South Beach, Miami. May received her second Oscar nomination for Best Screenplay when she again worked with Nichols on Primary Colors in 1997. She was one of several writers, none of whom were given credit for contributing to the screenplay, for the 1982 megahit Tootsie, notably the scenes involving the character played by Bill Murray.
Films as writer
- Such Good Friends (1971) – Under the pseudonym Esther Dale
- Heaven Can Wait (1978) – Co-Writer (Oscar nominee and WGA winner)
- Reds (1981) – Co-Writer (Uncredited)
- Tootsie (1982) – Co-Writer (Uncredited)
- Labyrinth (1986) – Co-Writer (Uncredited)
- Dangerous Minds (1995) – Co-Writer (Uncredited)
- The Birdcage (1996) (WGA nominee)
- Primary Colors (1998) (Oscar nominee and WGA nominee)
Films as writer and director
- A New Leaf (1971) – also role as Henrietta Lowell (WGA nominee)
- Mikey and Nicky (1976)
- Ishtar (1987)
Films as director only
- The Heartbreak Kid (1972)
Films as actress
- Enter Laughing (1966) – as Angela
- Luv (1967) – as Ellen Manville
- Bach to Bach (1967) – as a Woman
- The Graduate (1967) - as Girl with Note for Benjamin
- A New Leaf (1971) – as Henrietta Lowell (Golden Globe nominee, Best Actress (musical or comedy))
- California Suite (1978) – as Millie Michaels
- In the Spirit (1990) – as Marianne Flan
- Small Time Crooks (2000) – as May (National Society of Film Critics winner, Best Supporting Actress)
- Quart, Barbara. Women Directors: The Emergence of a New Cinema, Greenwood Publishing (1988)
- Thompson, Thomas. “What Ever Happened to Elaine May?”, Life magazine, July 28, 1967
- Nachman, Gerald. Seriously Funny: The Rebel Comedians of the 1950s and 1960s, Pantheon (2003)
- Seham, Amy E. Whose Improv Is It Anyway?: Beyond Second City, Univ. Press of Mississippi (2001) pp. 14-16
- Lavin, Suzanne. Women and Comedy in Solo Performance, Routledge (2004) p. 40
- Isherwood, Charles (2011-10-20), "Each Family, Tortured in Its Own Way", New York Times
- "Ishtar". Metacritic.
|Wikimedia Commons has media related to: Elaine May|
- Elaine May at the Internet Movie Database
- Elaine May at the Internet Broadway Database
- video: "Elaine May Salutes Mike Nichols at the AFI Life Achievement Award" (2010), 8 min.
- video: "Mother and Son" act, 6 min.
- video: "Elaine May Salutes Warren Beatty at the AFI Life Achievement Award (2008), 3 min.