Thursday, 17 February 2011

Elaine May: Largely Unsung, Yet So Sing-able

Back in the mid-1990s I worked a while at the British Film Institute on a number of documentaries about great filmmakers, and there I got to know many very talented and knowledgeable people, among them Mary Albert, a trained film editor who was also engaged part-time in a doctoral thesis on slow motion. So she and I used to have plenty of good chats about finessing matters of cinema, but I don’t think anything quite topped the day when we realised we were both avid fans of Elaine May’s Ishtar and – in the course of our animated conversation, and much to the consternation of the rest of the office – began to sing aloud snatches of the movie’s many musical numbers – ‘Telling the Truth Can Be Dangerous Business’, ‘The Lawnmower Song’, ‘Hot Fudge Love (Cherry Ripple Kisses)’ etc etc.
This is how we the anointed feel about Ishtar in particular, and May’s stuff in general. It would be more socio-culturally acceptable to say one were mainly a fan of the classic Nichols/May material c. 1950s/60s and, of course, The Heartbreak Kid (1972), which is probably rated as her greatest cinematic success. But for me you have to start out by defending the work that clearly served to terminate May’s directorial career, and not just on account of its commercial failure. If you read Peter Biskind’s recent biography of Warren Beatty you will be treated to the view – advanced chiefly by Ishtar’s genius production designer Richard Sylbert, but supported by significant others – that May ‘can’t direct.’ That's funny, and may be true on some level, but there really aren't that many movies I love more than Ishtar. I wrote the following in Ten Bad Dates with De Niro:
I like to imagine a parallel universe wherein May’s comedy is considered an endlessly quotable classic, hailed by the worthier critics for its accurate reflection of US foreign policy in the Middle East, MP3 files of its adeptly terrible songbook keenly swapped. None of that is ever going to happen on this planet; but such are the virtues discussed on rare occasions when two or more Ishtar fans are gathered. The rest of the world believes that May wasted Columbia’s money on some imbecile script allowing Dustin Hoffman and Warren Beatty to insult the audience as klutzy New York songwriters who dream of being Simon and Garfunkel. The duo wind up in Morocco, buffeted between leftist guerrilla Isabelle Adjani and CIA man Charles Grodin. This colossal commercial failure, funnily enough, is a heartening comedy about failure. Watch Beatty trying earnestly to talk Hoffman out of a suicide jump: ‘It takes a lotta nerve to have nothing at your age… Most guys would be ashamed. But you've got the guts to just say, ‘To hell with it.’ You say you’d rather have nothing than settle for less.’ The stricken look of dawning love on Hoffman’s face upon hearing this is worth your money alone.

A prominent member of the Elaine May Defence League is my pal Ryan Gilbey, first-rate film critic at the New Statesman. A few weeks ago I posted some YouTube clips of May on Facebook, just in a whimsical late-night spirit, but happily these prompted Ryan to devote an entire blog column to his May-love, which you can read here. One of Ryan’s specialist subjects is the ‘golden age’ of American moviemaking between, roughly speaking, Bonnie and Clyde and Raging Bull, and he places May adroitly in that moment, praising her ‘prickly sensibility’ as ‘consistent with the kind of downbeat, morally penetrating US cinema that was prevalent in the 1970s.’
If you don’t know her work, you’re wondering by now – is she actually funny? Decide for yourself. I shouldn’t say this but on YouTube you can watch the entirety of her wonderful A New Leaf (1971), which she not only directed but also shines in as a performer, playing – as Ryan thumbnails it – ‘a wealthy botanist earmarked for marriage and murder by a penniless former socialite (Walter Matthau).’
I also respectfully offer the following evidence. On the page, let’s start with her Vanity Fair Proust Questionnaire circa 2009. Turning to YouTube, let's have her tribute to Mike Nichols at an AFI Lifetime Achievement gala, one of the bits that got Ryan writing; her in her beautiful youth, cracking up the Emmys with Nichols in 1959; and some choice cuts from the opening reel of Ishtar.

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