As someone who tried, often unsuccessfully, to promote female stage directors in Washington, D.C.’s professional theater scene, I am sympathetic to the cause of providing more opportunities for women to direct at a high level, including Hollywood, as well as addressing directly the many and varied obstacles women face. One is a dearth of historical role models in the field. Quick, now, name five successful and respected female film directors. One just died, Penny Marshall. The pioneer in the field, actress Ida Lupino, always turns up on such lists, but which of her six films in the 50’s is a classic? “Hard, Fast and Beautiful?” “The Bigamist?” I’ve seen all of the films she directed, and she was a solid, professional director (and also an excellent actress). But Stanley Kubrick she wasn’t. Katheryn Bigelow has to be on the list, and she’s directed several excellent films, including “The Hurt Locker,” which won a
“Best Picture” Oscar. But her resume would rank somewhere around 500 or so in a gender-blind list. Okay, that’s three.
The reasons for this are not merely discrimination in the show business industries, though that is certainly a major factor. However, as we have seen and continue to see among activists for other traditionally marginalized groups, admitting inconvenient truths that counter a group identify narrative is neither popular nor common. Unfortunately, such activists have a bad and unethical habit of hyping the accomplishments of members of their favored groups, perpetuating falsehood “for the common good” and making themselves less credible and respectable advocates as a result. In politics, we saw this repeatedly during the 2016 campaign when Hillary Clinton was described as being one of the “most qualified” Presidential candidates in American history, as assertion that is simply untrue by any objective standard. As with the Clinton hyping, it is particularly troubling when the talents and accomplishments of a an individual are hyped by journalists to advance an agenda. Journalists are not practicing their craft ethically when they intentionally try to deceive the public and distort the record, regardless of their supposedly good intentions.
Now, you might say, and I might be inclined to agree, that when current journalism standards have sunk as low as they are now, and when the news media appears to be capable of previously unimaginable deceptions in an effort to advance one political party over another, a New York Times female film critic’s efforts to bootstrap the cause of female directors by absurdly hyping the directing skills of Elaine May is small potatoes indeed. However, “The Marvelous Ms. Elaine May,” by chief Times film critic Manohla Dargis, is worthy of genuine alarm. In it, an accepted “authority” sets out to claim that black is white, that May has been an outstanding film director when she hasn’t even been a good one. She relies on the ignorance of her readers to make this argument, because May’s films—she’s directed four–have been such flops that the odds of a readers having seen all of them are daunting. Worse, I have to assume that Dargis is doing this for political reasons. Either that, or she is so gender-biased that she can’t see straight.
The article’s existence in the pages of the Times tells us that even arts reporting is now polluted beyond trust and recognition by political agendas and propaganda. Moreover, its goal is to intentionally misinform the public.
Let me note here that I admire the talents of Elaine May, whom I first encountered when she and her long-time partner Mike Nichols did a series of beer commercials tha ran during Red Sox games. She was a deft sketch comedian, and also a sharp writer of satire. My theater company in Arlington, Virginia produced her most successful play, the Off-Broadway hit “Adaptation.” However, after the team of Nichols and May broke up, Nichols became on of the most critically-acclaimed and successful film directors of the last 50 years, and May didn’t. Dargis hints that sexism and discrimination were the culprits, because May was also a “brilliant” director. This is worse than claiming the Hillary was the most qualified candidate in history. It’s more like saying that she ran one of the best campaigns in history. I’ve watched all four of Elaine May’s movies. Can’t fool me!
Her first Hollywood effort was a mess called “The New Leaf.” My family went to see it the week it was released because we were all Elaine May fans. Writes the critic,
“In 1968, when May signed her extraordinary contract with Paramount Pictures to write, direct and star in “A New Leaf,” she became the first female director with a Hollywood deal since Ida Lupino. Her manager pushed the female angle, telling the studio that having a woman filmmaker would be of significance. Perhaps he had noticed that second-wave feminists were agitating for change, even as the industry remained stuck in its sexist rut: it’s been estimated that at the time less than 1 percent of American directors were women. She and Paramount soon clashed, though, and the studio took the movie away from her. She sued and tried to get it to remove her name. It’s still wonderful.”
Well, not exactly—it’s unwatchable. My family wanted to walk out of it, but my dad resisted, saying that it had to get better. Hilariously, Dargis writes, “May’s inexperience as a director doesn’t show.” What I most remember from “The New Leaf” is a scene in which Walter Matthau, playing a lazy playboy who is out of cash, visits his rich uncle (played by James Coco) to beg for money. (I think Coco was an uncle; it doesn’t matter, and the less time I spend on that film the better). As we watched the scene, my father noticed that you could clearly see reflected in the large silver bowl in front of where Coco was sitting the camera and film crew, moving around and pointing! It was amazing (and distracting), and the reflection was visible throughout the rather long, unfunny sequence. That’s not just inexperience, or even a “blooper,” that’s director negligence and incompetence. When the movie was on TV, the reflection was too small to discern, and maybe by now it has been digitally removed.
May’s next film was her most successful, 1972’s “The Heartbreak Kid.” Many professional critics loved—still love— “the dark romantic comedy,” which was written by Neil Simon in a bad mood, but audiences didn’t. It lost money, and for a good reason: it’s a cruel, mean-spirited, ugly movie about a shallow man abusing women. Interestingly, Mike Nichols also directed a mean-spirited, ugly movie with similar themes, “Carnal Knowledge”—but that film was a drama. Both movies made me nauseous, but at least the Nichols film invited us to find the misogynist behavior of the main character horrifying, not funny.
“The Heartbreak Kid”is about a Jewish shlub played by Charles Grodin who marries his earthy, Jewish, virgin girl friend because that’s the only was he can have sex with her. The young woman, played by May’s daughter, actress Jeanie Berlin, is completely guileless and trusts this creep to love her, so she feels secure being unrelentingly herself. In one scene that lives in my nightmares, Berlin tells Grodin at a deli about how wonderful it will be to spend their long, long lives together, all the time chewing an egg salad sandwich opne-mouthed as she talks. Grodin watches the chewed egg salad periodically fall out of Berlin’s mouth with growing horror, and you can see him regretting his proposal. It’s a funny, awful scene that would be an acceptable Saturday Night Live skit, except that in the film Berlin is lovable and innocent, and you know she’s going to get hurt.
Sure enough, the poor woman gets badly sunburned on the first day of the couple’s honeymoon. Lobster red, slathered with ointment and with her lips and face swollen, she is relegated to bed by the resort doctor. Grodin goes out to the beach by himself, leaving her alone and in pain—nice—and promptly becomes infatuated with a sexy young super-shiksa, played by Cybil Shepherd. Before the honeymoon is over, Grodin tells Berlin that he wants a divorce, in another scene that I would have my eyes surgically removed rather than watch again. One particularly ugly aspect of May’s work on the film is how ruthlessly she exploits her own daughter, making her so unattractive in an effort to cast Grodin as a tragi-comic hero. Berlin’s performance is superb—she was nominated for an Oscar—and that role essentially relegated her to obscure films and small roles for the rest of her career. I know I never wanted to be reminded of that egg salad again. Thanks, Mom!
Movie #3 was “Mikey and Nicky.” From Wikipedia:
Originally intended as a summer 1976 release, then delayed by editing problems, Mikey and Nicky was released in New York City on December 21, 1976. Because May missed the film’s delivery date, litigation followed between her and Paramount, with the studio gaining possession of the film with final cut privilege. May didn’t direct again for over a decade.
The film’s original $1.8 million budget had grown to nearly $4.3 million ($16.6 million in contemporary dollars) by the time May turned the film over to Paramount. She shot 1.4 million feet of film, almost three times as much as was shot for Gone with the Wind. By using three cameras that she sometimes left running for hours, May captured spontaneous interaction between [Peter] Falk and [John] Cassavetes. At one point, Cassavetes and Falk had both left the set and the cameras remained rolling for several minutes. A new camera operator said “Cut!” only to be immediately rebuked by May for usurping what is traditionally a director’s command. He protested that the two actors had left the set. “Yes”, replied May, “but they might come back“. Angered by May’s contentiousness during filming and editing, Paramount booked the completed film into theaters for a few days to satisfy contractual obligations, but did not give the film its full support.
May had similar battled with the studio during “The New Leaf,” which she wanted to have run three hours. In four films, exactly half broke down over May’s “artistic temperament,” and the films suffered. Orson Welles did stuff like this, but he had also directed “Citizen Kane.”
So after a decade of being shut-out of directorial opportunities due to her own ineptitude and arrogance, May finally got a big-budget comedy to direct–“Ishtar.” (May wrote the screenplay.) “Ishtar” is not only hard to watch, it’s hard to watch without becoming furious. I know a lot about this film, because my late friend, Bob McElwaine’s brother produced it, and I heard a lot of behind-the-scenes tales. The best that the film’s own producer could say about “Ishtar” was that “it wasn’t as bad a people said.”
The film was vanity production pushed by pals Dustin Hoffman and Warren Beatty to prove that they could be a comedy team like Bing Crosby and Bob Hope in their famous “Road” movies. Anyone who had followed these actors’ careers should have known this was a disaster in the making. While both have played characters in comedies, neither is a natural comic. Hoffman in particular labors when he’s trying to be funny (See: “Hook”): his best comic turn, by far, was in “the Graduate,” under the direction of …Mike Nichols. He also did well in “Tootsie,” under the hand of another superb director, Sidney Pollack. Unfortunately for Dustin (and Warren), “Ishtar” was directed by May, and the result was painful, amateurish performances that made it clear that what Bing and Bob did on “The Road to Morocco” wasn’t as easy as they made it look.
“Ishtar” lost money, embarrassed its stars, and jsutly ended May’s directing career, yet Dargis writes–she really does—of its failure,
“Ishtar” didn’t sink its studio and some critics dug it, but it didn’t take off at the box office and effectively marked the end of her directorial career. It’s a tremendous loss, and a scandal. Filled with great physical comedy and songs that are so awful they’re great, “Ishtar” is a movie whose time is now.
Because, you know, a woman directed it. Like it or else, you misogynist bigots!