Elaine May


Actor, Director, Screenwriter
Elaine May

About

Also Known As
Elaine Berlin, Esther Dale
Birth Place
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA
Born
April 21, 1932

Biography

A true pioneer with a sardonic wit and keen insight into the human condition, Elaine May rose to prominence as one-half of an improvisational team, alongside future director Mike Nichols, before becoming a greatly revered writer-director-actor in her own right. After working together in the Chicago improv troupe The Compass Players, Nichols and May joined forces as a comedy team, perform...

Family & Companions

Marvin May
Husband
Married in 1948; divorced.
Mike Nichols
Companion
Director, producer. Met in 1954; had brief romance before forming their well-known stage partnership.
Harvey Miller
Companion
Screenwriter, actor. Died in January 1999 at age 68.
Edmund Wilson
Companion
Author. Met in the late 1950s.

Notes

"You wouldn't dare fuck with [Elaine], because she was right back so fast, people fell left and right . . . Elaine was more interested in taking chances than being a hit. I was more interested in making the audience happy." --Mike Nichols quoted in PREMIERE, March 1994

Nichols: Miss Loomis?May: Yes, sir?Nichols: May I speak with you for a moment, please?May: Certainly.Nichols: Will you come into my office?May: Yes. (pause) Yes, sir?Nichols: Miss Loomis, Kravitz tells me you've been coming into office naked.May: Yes, sir.Nichols: Can you explain yourself?May: Well, I have the south office, and there are no windows. It's enormously warm in there, and it's more comfortable to work naked than with clothes on.Nichols: Oh, Miss Loomis, but you can't walk through the offices naked. This is an insurance company. You're not working at a bank, you know.May: Well, I've asked them to put in an air-conditioner . . . --sample Nichols and May sketch, reprinted in The New York Times, May 19, 1996.

Biography

A true pioneer with a sardonic wit and keen insight into the human condition, Elaine May rose to prominence as one-half of an improvisational team, alongside future director Mike Nichols, before becoming a greatly revered writer-director-actor in her own right. After working together in the Chicago improv troupe The Compass Players, Nichols and May joined forces as a comedy team, performing in nightclubs and on stage and television, before dissolving the partnership to pursue separate interests. For May, that initially led to the theater, with efforts such as her play "Adaptation" receiving excellent notices. She soon turned her attention to film, with hilarious appearances in films like Rob Reiner's "Enter Laughing" (1967). Not long after, May wrote, directed and starred in the off-the-wall comedy "The New Leaf" (1971), co-starring Walter Matthau. As a director, she scored another triumph with the Neil Simon-scripted "The Heartbreak Kid" (1972), a quirky comedy that played like an inverse of pal Nichols' earlier seminal work "The Graduate" (1967). As a writer, May made an indelible mark in cinema when she co-wrote the much-beloved romantic comedy "Heaven Can Wait" (1978), along with its star, Warren Beatty. Unfortunately, when she helmed the historically reviled comedic misfire "Ishtar" (1981), May's reputation as a director took a hit from which it never truly recovered. Although her light as a filmmaker never again burned as brightly, May continued to work steadily as a respected script writer - both credited and non - adding hits like Mike Nichols' "The Birdcage" (1996) and "Primary Colors" (1998) to her already impressive résumé.

Born Elaine Berlin in Philadelphia, PA on April 21, 1932, May was the daughter of Yiddish stage actor-director, Jack Berlin. The multi-talented Elaine (who would later take the surname May from the first of her many husbands) began performing onstage as a child, touring in several plays with her father, as well as acting in radio productions. Her sojourn with Chicago's The Compass Players, an improvisational comedy troupe that later evolved into Second City, brought her in contact with the likes of Alan Arkin, Barbara Harris and Paul Sills. But it was her teaming with another Compass player, Mike Nichols, which led to her first brush with fame. In 1956, they formed a successful comic duo and soon began performing mainstays in prominent NYC cabarets like The Village Vanguard and The Blue Angel. In just four years, on TV, radio, and stage with 1960's widely-acclaimed "An Evening with Mike Nichols and Elaine May" on Broadway, Nichols and May set the standard for urbane improvisational comedy before quitting at the top of their game in 1962. Ahead of their time, their humor profoundly influenced the next generation of comics. According to actor-comedian Steve Martin, "It was like a song: you could listen to it over and over. I used to go to sleep to them at night."

As a playwright May saw two of her plays - "A Matter of Position" and "Not Enough Rope" - produced in 1962 and had her first crack at the director's chair, helming an off-Broadway production of "The Third Ear" in 1964. She broke into film acting with incisive comic performances in Carl Reiner's "Enter Laughing" (1967) and Clive Donner's movie adaptation of Murray Schisgal's play "Luv" (1967), portraying Jose Ferrer's actress daughter in the former and Peter Falk's know-it-all wife in the latter. In 1969 May won accolades for directing a pairing of her own plays "Adaptation" and Terrence McNally's "Next" on the same off-Broadway bill. The success of that effort would set the stage for her movie debut as the writer-director of "The New Leaf" (1971). A modern day screwball comedy, the film centered on Walter Matthau as a recently impoverished eccentric who decides to marry - with murderous intent - a wealthy oddball botanist, played by May. Despite generally favorable notices, May tried to stop the film's distribution claiming that Paramount - the studio had cut two of the movie's darkest scenes - was releasing a version of which she disapproved. She also wrote Otto Preminger's "Such Good Friends" (1971) that year, taking the pen name Esther Dale - oddly, the name of a well-known character actress - to protest the liberties she claimed Preminger had taken with her script.

Thankfully, May's experience as a director on the hilarious "The Heartbreak Kid" (1972) was a much better one. Scripted by Neil Simon, the film, which follows a Jewish New Yorker (Charles Grodin) as he meets and pursues the shiksa of his dreams (Cybill Shepherd) while honeymooning with his less-than-glamorous spouse, bore more than a passing resemblance to Nichols' "The Graduate" (1967). May won praise for her handling of potentially difficult material, and both Eddie Albert (as Shepherd's protective father) and daughter Jeannie Berlin (as the abandoned bride) earned Oscar nods. However, she was back in hot water with Paramount when she spent too much time editing her third feature, "Mikey and Nicky" (1976), prompting the studio to seize it and release it in its still unfinished form. As in her previous films, betrayal - this time of Nicky by Mikey, his best and oldest friend - was at the heart of this offbeat study of petty gangsters. Though the film never quite evolved beyond its stage origins - May had first written it as a play - superb performances by Falk, John Cassavetes, Ned Beatty as a hired killer, and Joyce Van Patten as Falk's estranged wife made it worth watching. And the appearance of a properly edited print - legend had it that May secreted away an astounding amount of unused prime footage for years - shown as part of "Buried Treasures" at the 1980 Toronto Film Festival seemed to vindicate her original vision.

Around the time of the "Mikey and Nicky" debacle, Warren Beatty asked May to collaborate with him on the screenplay for a remake of 1941's "Here Comes Mr. Jordan," about a sports figure who dies before his time and is reincarnated. The result was "Heaven Can Wait" (1978), a charmingly whimsical mix of verbal and visual humor buoyed by strong performances from Beatty, Jack Warden, Grodin and Dyan Cannon. That same year, May also returned to screen acting, reteaming with Matthau for a segment of "California Suite" (1978), written by Neil Simon and based on his play of the same name. She also reportedly did an uncredited polish on "Reds" (1981), another Beatty vehicle, in addition to performing behind-the-scenes script doctor duties on Sydney Pollock's "Tootsie" (1982), starring Dustin Hoffman. A few years later, both Beatty and Hoffman, along with Isabelle Adjani, would star in May's now-notorious "Ishtar" (1987). Considered by many critics to be one of the worst film comedies ever made, "Ishtar" was in the tradition of the Bob Hope-Bing Crosby "Road" movies, with Beatty and Hoffman cast as untalented singer-songwriters caught up in international intrigue in North Africa. Like "Heaven's Gate" (1980) before it and "Waterworld" (1995) nearly a decade later, the production was the subject of numerous press stories which detailed shooting delays and the film's ever escalating budget due to production overruns. Whether or not May rightfully deserved to bear the brunt of the blame for the picture's difficulties was open to debate. What was indisputable, was the fact that all the negative publicity hurt "Ishtar" in its initial release - although it later found its champions - but the memory of its disastrous reception made May's chances of ever directing another feature exceedingly slim.

In 1980, May's return to stage acting reunited her with old pal Nichols, who starred as George opposite her Martha in a revival of Edward Albee's "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" at the Long Wharf Theater in New Haven, CT. With Nichols as producer-director and May as screenwriter, the duo worked together for the first time in a decade and a half on the feature film, "The Birdcage" (1996), a remake of "La Cage aux folles" (1978), itself based on a French stage farce. May relocated the story of two aging homosexuals to Florida's South Beach and added a layer of political humor, still gearing it to the mass audience's stereotype of gay characters - the butch male and the feminine drag queen. The film enjoyed runaway box office success, thanks to auspicious casting (Robin Williams, Nathan Lane, Gene Hackman, Dianne Wiest and Hank Azaria), Nichols' expert comic direction, and May's witty script. The pair reteamed for "Primary Colors" (1998), a well-received, if over-long, political comedy-drama based on Joe Klein's 1996 novel about the first Clinton presidential campaign. May's shrewd adaptation, although lamenting the present course of American politics, also presented a strong argument for why a flawed candidate can still deserve your vote. The script also earned her a second Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar nomination. May briefly resumed her acting career with a hilarious supporting performance as Tracey Ullman's slightly dim cousin in Woody Allen's "Small Time Crooks" (2000).

Life Events

1938

Began appearing on stage in father's productions

1938

Worked as child radio actress

1942

Moved to Los Angeles after death of father

1957

Moved to NYC with Mike Nichols; began appearing in Greenwich Village nightclubs

1957

TV debut (with Nichols), "The Jack Parr Show" (NBC)

1959

Quit TV series "Laugh Line" (NBC) after three weeks

1960

Broadway debut in "An Evening with Mike Nichols and Elaine May", directed by Arthur Penn

1962

Ended creative partnership with Nichols

1962

Off-Broadway debut as playwright, "Not Enough Rope"; also wrote "A Matter of Position", performed at Philadelphia's Walnut Street Theatre

1964

Stage directing debut, "The Third Ear"

1967

Film acting debut in "Enter Laughing"; also acted in that year's "Luv", her first association with Peter Falk

1969

Wrote "Adaptation", performed Off-Broadway on double bill with Terrence McNally's "Next" under title "Adaptation-Next"; also directed

1971

Film writing and directing debut, "A New Leaf"; also starred opposite Walter Matthau as a terminally klutzy and unworldly botanist and heiress

1971

Wrote Otto Preminger's "Such Good Friends" under pseudonym Esther Dale; adapted from Lois Gould's novel

1972

Helmed "The Heartbreak Kid", adapted by Neil Simon from a Bruce Jay Friedman story; reportedly provided uncredited polish on script; daughter Jeannie Berlin played the part of the dumped spouse and earned a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination

1976

Third film, "Mikey and Nicky", starring Falk and John Cassavetes, taken away by studio (Paramount) when editing process dragged on; Paramount cut film and released it; a director's cut was later screened at the 1980 Toronto Film Festival

1978

Reteamed with Walter Matthau as co-stars in one segment of Herbert Ross' "California Suite"; screenplay written by Neil Simon based on his play

1978

Co-wrote the remake "Heaven Can Wait" with Warren Beatty (who produced, co-directed with Buck Henry and starred), received first Academy Award nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay

1980

Reunited with Nichols to co-star in stage production of "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?", Long Wharf Theatre, New Haven, Connecticut; Nichols had directed the 1966 movie version starring Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton

1982

Made uncredited contribution to the screenplay of "Tootsie", starring Dustin Hoffman

1983

Directed stage productions of "The Disappearance of the Jews", "Gorilla" and "Hotline", all at Chicago's Goodman Theatre

1987

Scripted and helmed "Ishtar", reteaming her with Beatty and Hoffman; also co-wrote songs

1990

Acted with daughter Berlin in "In the Spirit", co-scripted by Berlin; film also reteamed her with Falk

1991

Wrote play, "Mr. Gogol and Mr. Preen", presented at the Mitzi E Newhouse Theater, Lincoln Center

1996

Scripted Nichols-directed "The Birdcage", an Americanization of the French farce "La Cage aux folles"

1998

Wrote "Primary Colors", directed by Nichols; earned second Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar nomination

1998

Returned to Off-Broadway as playwright and star (with daughter Berlin) of "Power Plays"; also co-starred opposite Alan Arkin

2000

Wrote the Broadway comedy "Taller Than a Dwarf"

2000

Resumed screen acting career with role in Woody Allen's "Small Time Crooks"

Videos

Movie Clip

Mikey And Nicky (1976) — (Movie Clip) You Would Have To Hire An Army Calmer and higher ranking Philadelphia gangster Mikey (Peter Falk) has convinced his childhood pal Nicky (John Cassavetes), who thinks he’s about to get whacked, to leave the hotel where’s he’s holed up, but we’ve no idea who Ned Beatty is, or who he’s talking to, in writer-director Elaine May’s Mikey And Nicky, 1976.
Mikey And Nicky (1976) — (Movie Clip) Maybe They’ll Forget About Me The second scene in the picture and the first with the principals (Peter Falk, John Cassavetes) together, writer-director Elaine May details just how freaked out small-time Philadelphia gangster Nicky is, believing he’s about to be killed, and why he’s called his life-long friend and colleague Mikey, in Mikey And Nicky, 1976.
Mikey And Nicky (1976) — (Movie Clip) Open, I’m In A Phone Booth Intense, baffling and irresistible opening from writer-director Elaine May, introducing her two title characters, John Cassavetes as Nicky and Peter Falk as Mikey, with substantial obfuscation, in the controversial, rarely-seen, intimate gangster drama that nearly ended her career, Mikey And Nicky, 1976.
California Suite (1978) - Don't Go In There! The hooker that east-coaster Marvin (Walter Matthau) is trying to hide from wife Millie (Elaine May) in their L-A hotel room is stone drunk, not dead, in California Suite, 1978, from a Neil Simon script.
Tootsie (1982) - Can I Call You Dotty? Michael (Dustin Hoffman), standing up erstwhile girlfriend Sandy (Teri Garr), and known to his fellow soap opera cast members only as "Dorothy," arrives to run lines and share dinner with new friend Julie (Jessica Lange) who, it turns out, has a child, in Tootsie, 1982.
Tootsie (1982) - No One Will Hire You Angry that he wasn't sent to audition for the Eugene O'Neill play, Michael (Dustin Hoffman) rushes to see his agent George (director Sydney Pollack), with whom he tangles about his career, a famous scene from Tootsie, 1982.
Tootsie (1982) - I Said Good Day, Sir! Moments after Michael's (Dustin Hoffman) first appearance in drag, he auditions for the soap, meeting director Ron (Dabney Coleman), producer Rita (Doris Belack, herself a daytime-drama veteran) and actress Julie (Jessica Lange), ending with a famous line, in Sydney Pollack's Tootsie, 1982.
Heartbreak Kid, The (1972) - I'm An Egg Salad Nut In a motel restaurant en route from their hurried New York wedding to their Miami Beach honeymoon, Charles Grodin as sporting goods salesman Lenny, who’s beginning to have serious doubts about his new wife Lila (Jeannie Berlin), in director Elaine May’s The Heartbreak Kid, 1972.
Heartbreak Kid, The (1972) - That's My Spot Lenny (Charles Grodin, title character) has given up waiting for neurotic wife Lila (Jeannie Berlin) to make it to the beach on the first day of their Miami Beach honeymoon, and he’s surprised when Kelly (Cybil Shepherd) presents herself, in director Elaine May’s , 1972.
Enter Laughing (1967) - Open, Famous Hollywood Actor Director and co-writer Carl Reiner's lively opening sequence, hero David (Reni Santoni) with parents (Shelley Winters, David Opatoshu) catching an IRT train in the Bronx, 1938, Tyrone Power and Ronald Colman indirectly featured, in Enter Laughing, 1967, co-starring Jose Ferrer.
Enter Laughing (1967) - The World Wonders Why I Drink David (Reni Santoni) received by Pike (Richard Deacon) at the audition for down and out actor Marlowe (Jose Ferrer, his first scene), his daughter Angela (Elaine May) at least equally wacky, another candidate being director Carl Reiner's son Rob, in Enter Laughing, 1967.
New Leaf, A (1971) - You Are An Aging Youth Careless and now destitute playboy heir Henry (Walter Matthau) visits his former guardian, nutty uncle Harry (James Coco), seeking financing for his plan to marry money in a hurry, in writer, director and co-star Elaine May's A New Leaf, 1971.

Trailer

Family

Jack Berlin
Father
Actor, director. Died in 1942.
Jeannie Berlin
Daughter
Actor, screenwriter, acting teacher. Born on November 1, 1949 in Los Angeles, California; raised partly by her grandmother.

Companions

Marvin May
Husband
Married in 1948; divorced.
Mike Nichols
Companion
Director, producer. Met in 1954; had brief romance before forming their well-known stage partnership.
Harvey Miller
Companion
Screenwriter, actor. Died in January 1999 at age 68.
Edmund Wilson
Companion
Author. Met in the late 1950s.
Sheldon Harnick
Husband
Lyricist. Married in April 1962; divorced in 1963; wrote lyrics for "Fiddler on the Roof", among other musicals.
Reuben Fine
Husband
Doctor. Married in 1963; divorced.
John Calley
Companion
Producer, executive. Together in the late 1960s.
Stanley Donen
Companion
Director. He reportedly proposed in spring 2000.

Bibliography

Notes

"You wouldn't dare fuck with [Elaine], because she was right back so fast, people fell left and right . . . Elaine was more interested in taking chances than being a hit. I was more interested in making the audience happy." --Mike Nichols quoted in PREMIERE, March 1994

Nichols: Miss Loomis?May: Yes, sir?Nichols: May I speak with you for a moment, please?May: Certainly.Nichols: Will you come into my office?May: Yes. (pause) Yes, sir?Nichols: Miss Loomis, Kravitz tells me you've been coming into office naked.May: Yes, sir.Nichols: Can you explain yourself?May: Well, I have the south office, and there are no windows. It's enormously warm in there, and it's more comfortable to work naked than with clothes on.Nichols: Oh, Miss Loomis, but you can't walk through the offices naked. This is an insurance company. You're not working at a bank, you know.May: Well, I've asked them to put in an air-conditioner . . . --sample Nichols and May sketch, reprinted in The New York Times, May 19, 1996.