Daily Archives: October 8, 2017

The Mysterious Elaine May: Hiding in Plain Sight

This was written for the Writers Guild magazine Written By; it ran in their August 1997 issue and was later reprinted in my collection Essential Cinema.

My comparison of May with Erich von Stroheim, which may sound frivolous, is actually something I take very seriously. Both filmmakers are mainstream figures with the temperaments of avant-garde artists; Orson Welles’ description of Stroheim’s style as “Jewish baroque” also fits May’s quite well; and perhaps most significantly of all, both of these highly obsessional writer-director-performers create films populated almost exclusively by monsters, yet characters whom their creators clearly love. In this latter respect, May might even be considered more radical than Stroheim because one can’t cite a single villain in her four features — unlike, say, Schani the butcher (Matthew Betz) in Stroheim’s The Wedding March. Furthermore, for me, the two greatest Stroheim films, Foolish Wives and Greed, are echoed in many respects by The Heartbreak Kid and Mikey and Nicky, the two best films of May.

On the evening of June 27, 2010, in Bologna, Italy, I had the rare, unexpected, and delightful privilege of spending a couple of hours with May. It was a friendly conversation over dinner rather than any sort of interview, but she did tell me in passingĀ a few things about her life and work that I’ve added to this piece as footnotes.Read more »