Heartbreak Supernova: On Carrie Courogen’s “Miss May Does Not Exist”

Tim Riley reviews Carrie Courogen’s “Miss May Does Not Exist: The Life and Work of Elaine May, Hollywood’s Hidden Genius.”

Heartbreak Supernova: On Carrie Courogen’s “Miss May Does Not Exist”

Miss May Does Not Exist: The Life and Work of Elaine May, Hollywood’s Hidden Genius by Carrie Courogen. St. Martin’s Press. 400 pages.

AS IF ON CUE, renowned comic and writer Elaine May returned to Broadway soon after #MeToo’s Harvey Weinstein revelations broke in 2017, in Kenneth Lonergan’s Pulitzer Prize–winning play The Waverly Gallery. As the tide swept up Roger Ailes, Bill Cosby, Matt Lauer, Charlie Rose, and Louis C. K., May’s resurgence delivered the best kind of creative revenge. The performance won her a long-overdue Tony, along with a Drama Desk Award and an Outer Critics Circle Award, not to mention a renewed interest in her work, and even sparked talk of her making more films as she neared 90 years old.


May (born Elaine Iva Berlin) first conquered Broadway with her comedy partner, Mike Nichols, in the early 1960s. Propelled by acute psychological insights, mainly the dynamics of romantic couples, their character work brought the improv form to the mainstream. Across three full-length albums released between 1958 and 1962, their bits (lover’s squabbles, professional pettiness, rampant social hypocrisies) carried layered meanings and pithy asides. Their best routines seemed part of some larger, preexisting project, scenes from an invisible epic of modern life. Kennedy’s “Camelot” cultural frame provided a range of elitist material that flattered educated audiences, the kind where even the sainted Dr. Schweitzer grew homicidal listening to an insufferable dentist’s wife on safari. The album with that routine, Mike Nichols & Elaine May Examine Doctors (1961), survives as a gale-force critique of medical culture. Even their ethnic stereotypes surpassed cliché: a Jewish mother opens her phone call to her astronaut son by saying, “It’s your mother. Do you remember me?” The frothy Nichols and May chemistry lingered more seductively than any single routine.


But even before their second album, An Evening with Mike Nichols and Elaine May (1960), won a Grammy Award in 1962, the team had broken up. They each pursued movie directing, but Nichols soared, while the more writerly May suffered the worst of Hollywood’s sexism. Nichols started winning directing Tonys (for Barefoot in the Park in 1964) before leaping to Hollywood for Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966) starring Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor. Meanwhile, May’s career lagged and sputtered, her Hollywood break arriving as a crooked package deal—directing Neil Simon’s script The Heartbreak Kid in 1972. In this farce about Jewish assimilation, a groom (Charles Grodin) ditches his Jewish wife (May’s daughter, Jeannie Berlin) on their honeymoon in favor of a shiksa goddess (Cybill Shepherd). While the groom humiliates himself, his identity, and his bride, the comedy erupts from his unremitting innocence: Grodin’s Lenny seems beyond embarrassment. (When the Farrelly brothers remade the material in 2007 as gross-out slapstick featuring Ben Stiller, May’s original tart and pointed tone stood in drastic relief.)


“Elaine is the exact opposite of everyone else in Hollywood,” Grodin later said. “She’s always fighting to get as little credit as possible, to keep her name off movies, and to not be invited to parties. She’s happier without any of that.” Her next effort, Mikey and Nicky (1976), was a keening mob tragedy that she wrote and directed. But otherwise, as the decades wore on, May became an icon of failure and invisibility, her strongest work as a script doctor remaining uncredited (for hits like Shampoo [1975], Scrooged [1988], and many others), even though two of her scripts, for Heaven Can Wait (1978) and Primary Colors (1998), received Oscar nominations.


Carrie Courogen’s brisk, agreeable new biography, Miss May Does Not Exist: The Life and Work of Elaine May, Hollywood’s Hidden Genius, is the first dedicated entirely to May and follows Mark Harris’s redoubtable Mike Nichols: A Life (2021), published seven years after Nichols’s death. The narrative surveys May’s bumpy career, with interviews stretching back to her University of Chicago days with an improv comedy troupe that would become the Second City (she never even graduated from high school). Courogen treats May with the respect her talent deserves without overselling the “Hollywood done her wrong” angle or falling into too much rapture. May’s difficulty among Hollywood producers has as much to do with industry misogyny as it does with her own self-defeating obsessions. Many passages detail an erratic professional style that confounds belief: holed up in editing rooms with a cigar, she could out-micromanage Stanley Kubrick.


Courogen sprinkles her narrative with gems from the many production assistants, crew members, and collaborators with whom May worked—enough backstage chatter to make the book feel of a piece with May’s comedy.


¤


What now looks like a classic origin story was, for its time, mildly subversive. May met Nichols in Chicago doing a bit for the Compass Players, helping improv coach Del Close develop the now-famous “yes, and …” prompts he wrote about in Truth in Comedy: The Manual of Improvisation (1994). Courogen suggests that May holds a secret authorship to that book and Close’s method in general. Among Saturday Night Live players like Tina Fey and Daily Show vets like Steve Carell and Stephen Colbert, Elaine May wears a Chicago godmother tiara—“a small woman, iron willed but bird boned,” Courogen writes.


Nichols and May thrived on their supernatural interactions, comedic soulmates who only briefly dated. “They were, for better or worse, ‘in some weird way, each other’s unconscious,’” Courogen quotes Nichols as saying. And the contrast proved palpable: Nichols, one friend had said, “believes that you can tell a book by its cover. Elaine is interested in the inside of the book and even more in the jelly stains and finger smudges on the pages.” Their relationship was “much too serious for marriage,” Nichols once said.


A second-rate biographer would simply extend the contrast of the wildly talented Nichols playing off May’s smarts while enjoying the high life as a major director. May quickly got labeled “difficult,” settled for bad contracts, and struggled to sell her scripts. But Courogen describes an often unsympathetic creative artist via ample first-person testimony. May spent way too much time overthinking her material, excelled more in on-the-spot situations, and never adapted herself to the Hollywood game. “When there is big money at stake, there is always the atmosphere of panic,” she once quipped.


As a result, she became a pure Hollywood martyr: too good to ignore, too risky to invest in. Before Heartbreak Kid (1972), she starred in her own A New Leaf (1971) with Walter Matthau, from her uneven script about the insipid rich. But then she directed Mikey and Nicky, a relentlessly dark “buddy” yarn starring Peter Falk and John Cassavetes. The latter film, in which betrayal emerges as the slowest burn, maps out how a clown’s darker views can strike more viciously than any dramatist’s. Mikey and Nicky captures masculinity from a female vantage that answers Martin Scorsese’s Mean Streets (1973). Carol Grace’s sex scene traces a high school date rape by middle-aged men in agonizing detail. The movie bombed, but Cassavetes’s bravura turn as Nicky made it a cult favorite.


“There’s a big technical side to the visual stuff, which [May] could never master,” Paul Sylbert, who served as that film’s production designer, claimed. “She can’t light a cigarette without burning her hand. She works on impulses, intuitions. It’s easy to do on a typewriter, but impossible to do when you have other people standing around.” Among the many set stories gathered here, one featuring Falk stands out:


Just before a new take began, Elaine pulled him aside. “I want to remind you of something,” she whispered. Falk leaned in closer to hear her, put his arm around her waist, his cheek to her cheek. He didn’t hear her say anything. Instead, after a split second of confusion, he felt the sensation of teeth—Elaine’s teeth!—on his lip. “My first thought was this is a gag,” he wrote, “but then it started to hurt and I was about to push her when she suddenly, savagely, sank her teeth as deep as they could go into my lip. I was in the middle of my scream when I heard Elaine in her small voice say to the cameraman, “Action.”


Nobody thought Mikey and Nicky would go big, but in retrospect, women fail bigger in Hollywood. It took 11 years for May get her next feature, Ishtar (1987), now synonymous with calamity. May’s original script plunked hack songwriters (played by Warren Beatty and Dustin Hoffman) down in the Middle East to satirize the United States’ profligate oil dependency. Courogen argues convincingly that this film has aged better than many might assume, and that its shipwreck story has long since warped into fiction.


Quoting collaborators including Sylbert and Phillip Schopper, Courogen surgically removes all the dross from Ishtar’s legend to tell a fairly standard account of a Moroccan location shoot gone south. When it premiered, Columbia’s new studio head, David Puttnam, sought vengeance for previous beefs with both Beatty and Hoffman. According to Courogen, Puttnam tanked the movie launch with bad press without ever watching it. This self-sabotage displays rampant male entitlement: yanking support from a female director was demonstrably bad business, but the stories skewered May, not Puttnam. As a result, she never directed another feature. By comparison, the flop of Heaven’s Gate (1980) put Michael Cimino in “director’s jail” for a mere five years before he helmed Year of the Dragon.


May worked as screenwriter on many Nichols projects (including The Birdcage [1996] and Primary Colors), and doctored many other scripts without credit. In important ways, the imaginary comic epic they worked on as beginners colors everything they made afterwards. They both aimed for the sharp energy and juicy provocations of their early bits; they were that good. Courogen, writing that “Elaine was good. Maybe too good,” quotes British director Clive Donner: “The devastating thing about Elaine […] is that she’s better at everything—writing, acting, directing—than almost anyone else I know.” In one of her best passages, Courogen writes:


There was something almost comedic about the contrast between Elaine the filmmaker and Elaine the consultant, the way a woman who so rarely wrote tight scripts herself was able to trim the fat from the scripts of others, or present one decisive, strategic answer instead of throwing twenty ideas at the wall.


If Courogen can’t match May’s wit, it’s to her credit that she doesn’t try. The quips pile up like chocolates: at a friend’s nuptials in 1957, she quipped, “Isn’t it a beautiful first wedding.” And in one of her more famous lines about Ishtar, she said, “If all the people who hate Ishtar had seen it, I would be a rich woman today.”


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Fans as towering as literary critic Edmund Wilson regarded May as a “genius,” and she inspired many discerning reviewers to hyperbole. The New Yorker critic Pauline Kael said, “Elaine May has the rarest kind of comic gift: the ability to create a world seen comically. Her satirist’s malice isn’t cutting; something in the befuddled atmosphere she creates keeps it mild—yet mild in a thoroughly demented way, mild as if impervious to sanity.” In a less generous assessment, The New York Times’ Margo Jefferson derided May’s 1995 stage play Hotline as a “banal” work reminiscent of “a talking cure in which the talk gets duller and duller and the cure farther and farther away, until we long to bring a curtain hurtling down on the whole thing.”


If her narrative meanders as May’s career flounders, Courogen quotes enough fresh sources to keep things moving. “Elaine, with her three releases—second only to Ida Lupino’s seven—was responsible for 20 percent of the entirety of female-directed films” of the 1970s and ’80s, she concludes. In 2021, May appeared in Peter Hedges’s The Same Storm, and Dakota Johnson recently confirmed that a new May script, Crackpot, was in development. May seems finally to be getting her overdue recognition, but as Joyce Chopra observes in her memoir Lady Director: Adventures in Hollywood, Television and Beyond (2022), championing female directors as a cultural phenomenon is quite different from actually financing their projects.


The cost of May’s jagged intellect has been a chaotic life, though her partnership (after three marriages) with director Stanley Donen provided two decades of stability until his death in 2019. Barack Obama awarded May the National Medal of Arts in 2013. Her Best Actress Tony at age 87 garnered both pent-up feminist rage and industry admiration. In her acceptance speech, after generous nods to the cast, she claimed that actor Lucas Hedges’s scripted description of her character’s death was so brilliant, she thought, “I’m going to win this guy’s Tony.”

LARB Contributor

Author Tim Riley writes the riley rock report on Substack.

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