POSTED April 24 2013

Elaine May’s greatest performance

Elaine May

Elaine May

It was at Cannes in 1989, two years A.I. (After Ishtar). The rumor circulates that Elaine May, writer/director/actress/improv queen, is aboard the Sea Goddess, a chartered cruise ship anchored off the Port des Yachts.

This is the Cannes of Jane Campion’s Sweetie and Steven Soderbergh’s Sex, Lies and Videotape. There is no shortage of stories from the official competition itself.

Still, Vincent Canby, the late critic of The New York Times, and I promise each other that we will chase the Elaine May rumor. If it is true, we will figure out a way to interview the woman more damned elusive than the Scarlet Pimpernel.  We work our sources.

Between Catherine Verret, the low-key French film consul to the U.S., and Renee Furst, the ebullient publicist who represents independent filmmakers, we learn that the passengers on the Sea Goddess are American millionaires seeking sun and an understanding of the mysteries of film producing. Evidently May and director Arthur Hiller are along to entertain and demystify.

Vince calls my hotel room at midnight. “Did you get one?” I had. A handwritten invitation in that peculiarly French upright cursive.  We are to meet at 1:15 the next day at a certain dock to meet a tender that would take us to the ship. A tender! Like a Preston Sturges movie! The double-barreled persuasion of Catherine and Renee has secured us an invitation to hear May’s seminar to the would-be film investors. As we board the tender Vince, who might have been Shakespeare’s model for Puck, christens our one-mile journey with effervescent laughter.

Which is good because it turns out not to be a seminar, but a lounge act. Passengers serve May straight lines in the form of questions. Although in her jeans and safari jacket she resembles a distracted Bohemian, she returns each question with an authority and topspin that would make Lindsay Davenport jealous.

To those who made fortunes by manufacturing real products, she explains the beauty — and profit potential — of virtual product. She tells a story of a one-sentence story treatment that was bought for a million dollars. She adds that as of yet it has not been produced.

The scriptwriter of Heaven Can Wait and script-doctor of Tootsie quotes the Hollywood wisdom that “funny is money.” The writer/director of A New Leaf and The Heartbreak Kid and Mikey and Nicky and Ishtar tells the assembled that one with a spare hundred thousand or two or three can buy him/herself an executive producer credit on a film. She describes this as a “starter credit.” As a kid weaned on “An Evening with Mike Nichols and Elaine May,” the duo’s legendary LP, I begin to quake with suppressed laughter. I put down my notebook, deciding to enjoy the show and not review it. Vince, who saw Nichols & May perform live, keeps taking notes.

He records for posterity the question of the man who asks, “Is it safer to produce a movie with other people’s money?” Julian Schlossberg, May’s producer and friend, takes the mic and answers, “Yes, but sometimes a producer has to put up his own seed money.”

“In a pinch,” adds May.

Vince begins convulsing with suppressed laughter. We dare not look at each other. Nonetheless he whispers, “Is this her greatest performance, or what? May’s give and take and tickle continues for nearly two hours.

For the rest of the festival we end each sentence with “in a pinch.”

Do you have a favorite May movie/screenplay/performance?


  1. My own favorite May “performance” was private rather than public and also a couple of hours long, but closer to hanging out than to anything else, and it was delightful. It occurred a few summers back in Bologna, at Il Cinema Ritrovato. Stanley Donen was the guest of honor, and what I hadn’t realized was that he and May had been partners for the past few years, which was why she was there. In any case, Peter von Bagh, the festival director, knowing about my enthusiasm for her work, invited me along to a dinner. It was really the fulfillment of a lifelong dream for me.

    One of the first things she told me, after asking if I was Jewish, was that much of the standard biographical information about her was flat-out wrong because she had fibbed capriciously about her life to interviewers back in the early days, so that her actual birthplace wasn’t Philadelphia but Chicago, where she’d grown up. She told me she was rereading “Pride and Prejudice” at the time on her new Kindle, and a large part of what we talked about was her dislike of Lubitsch–she singled out “Heaven Can Wait” in particular–who had a reputation for being far less middle-class in his taste than he actually was. “Do you mean like H.L. Mencken?” I asked her, and she said, “Exactly.” We also bonded over the fact that we both dislike Billy Wilder’s “The Apartment,” and I made an extended effort to convince her to see “Avanti!” despite her dislike of Jack Lemmon, whom I maintained gave his best performance in this movie as the quintessentially ugly American abroad. (This part of our conversation is uppermost in my mind now because I’m currently in Berlin, preparing to introduce a screening of “Avanti!” this weekend at the Arsenal.)…One thing hat I couldn’t resist expressing some surprise about was the fact that she’d never heard of Manny Farber….On the subject of “Ishtar,” when I pointed out how outraged I was
    that Peter von Bagh, an alleged Marxist, had devoted more print to that film than any other writer (in his Warren Breatty bio, which she wasn’t interested in reading) without once breathing a hint that it was political, she said, “Of course it’s political!”

    At one point, Peter von Bagh asked me to declare my two favorite Elaine May movies, and she was clearly pleased when I cited “The Heartbreak Kid” and “Mikey and Nicky”; she was still upset about the cuts made in “A New Leaf,” which said included some of Jack Weston’s very best work. (I was also asked by Peter to cite my two favorite Donen movies during the same dinner, and at least managed to get out alive by mentioning “Singin’ in the Rain” and “Movie Movie”.)

    • Claire Skyes says:

      According to the 1940 census she was born in Pennsylvania. Unless, at 7, she lied to the census taker to hone her craft.

  2. George Toles says:

    Re: Jonathan Rosenbaum note

    Heaven Can Wait is a failure,I concede, but surely there are plenty of other Lubitsch films to love. The Apartment has its weaknesses (chief among them, that bromide-spouting doctor next door) but it strikes me as rather hard to dislike. That’s the challenge, I guess. I love Stanley Donen, but I thought Movie/Movie was a dud. A New Leaf contains my favorite Elaine May performance.

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