Elaine May (1983)

Watching Elaine May’s shattering performance on Broadway in Kenneth Lonergan’s The Waverly Gallery as a feisty West Village widow descending into dementia threw me back in time to 1983, when I spent an entire summer on her trail as an earnest young arts reporter working on a magazine profile for Esquire. It was a plum assignment. Not too many interviews with Elaine May had ever been published. Just about the only ones I could find were the couple of riotously funny self-interviews that the New York Times Arts & Leisure section talked her into doing over the years. I quickly learned why you haven’t read many stories about her: she hates doing interviews and will do anything she can to avoid them.

            The story I wrote has never appeared in public before now. I call it…

 

“One Moment with Miss May”

Elaine May likes it when no one knows where she is. When Mike Nichols summoned her for a look-see at My One and Only, the Broadway musical he was doctoring in Boston, it took him two weeks just to locate her. That was a snap compared to the two years playwright Jeffrey Sweet spent trying to get her to sit still (she never did) for Something Wonderful Right Away, his oral history of the Chicago improvisational-comedy scene that spawned Nichols and May and half the other funny people in show biz. She has an apartment on the Upper West Side but mostly holes up at her house in the Hollywood hills. She’s so quiet about it, though, that a lot of her colleagues don’t even know she’s in town, and the ones who do have a hell of a time reaching her. She never, ever opens her mail, and she often pulls the phone jack out of the wall. Studios buzz Buck Henry, he says, for reports on the whereabouts of the elusive Miss May.

When I tracked her down, she was performing with Peter Falk at the Goodman Theater in Chicago in a play she’d written for an evening of three new one-acts by Chicago writers. She was sharing the bill with David Mamet and Shel Silverstein, the latter a friend of May’s who coaxed her out of the house and into the project. All told, the show ran four weeks in a 135-seat house, sold every ticket, and got the Chicago reviewers gushing. At May’s insistence, there was a blackout on national publicity, but the triple-header stirred up a lot of excitement locally, especially during previews when Warren Beatty was hanging around and helping out.

Everybody knows that Elaine May has become Hollywood’s most treasured script doctor, that she’s been polishing screenplays for big bucks and no credit in recent years, most notably Tootsie‘s. As Larry Gelbart, who shared the screen credit with Murray Schisgal, smoldered, “You can pick up Italian Vogue and see some item about Tootsie and it mentions no other names except Elaine May — this person who wanted no credit on the movie!” May also had a hand in the screenplay of Reds, particularly the scenes between Jack Nicholson and Diane Keaton. And in cutting the deal to make the now-scrapped picture The Mermaid, Warren Beatty reportedly reassured executives jittery about getting a workable script out of Robert Towne by saying, “Don’t worry. If there’s any problem, I’ll have Buck and Elaine come in and fix it.”

But her play in Chicago was the first piece of writing May has let out with her name on it since the 1978 movie of Heaven Can Wait. She hadn’t appeared as a performer since 1980, when she and Mike Nichols starred in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? at the Long Wharf Theater in New Haven (the production closed prematurely when Nichols caught pneumonia). And Elaine May hadn’t done much of anything in public since her husband of twenty years, psychiatrist David Rubenfine (shrink to the stars), died suddenly in early ’83.

In Hot Line, the Chicago one-act, she played a suicidal hooker and Peter Falk the counselor who tries to talk her out of it over the phone. A banal scenario — sounds like all those Nichols and May telephone skits, no? — but elevated by her almost frighteningly desperate Anne-Meara-meets-Diane-Keaton performance. A typical Elaine May heroine, she was scattered and neurotic yet tough and cynical. A lethal fruitcake. As Peter Falk’s character put it, “She’s got a vicious tongue, and she goes for the balls.” The play was tiny, a sketch really, funny and sad and sometimes surprisingly dated like those Laugh-In bits with the punchline, “What we have here is a failure to communicate!” Anyone with a clue to May’s personal life, though, couldn’t help reading into the play a subtext of May trying to contact her shrink husband (from whom she was separated when he died). The character demanding from the suicide counselor as if from God one good reason to go on living was also wondering why a mean bitch like herself deserved to live.

Relatively simple stuff, the play still went through the endless rewrites May is famous for. Originally two monologues, she decided to make the play a dialogue between her character and Falk’s, but then at the last minute cancelled previews and restored the alternating monologues. That meant things were in a tizzy right up until the gala opening, and I wouldn’t be able to approach May to talk. The whole point of being in Chicago was to snare a rare interview, and Greg Mosher, the artistic director of the Goodman, had indicated that if I hung around the chances were good she’d let her hair down. On opening night, I sent back a box of Godiva chocolates as a bribe (her fetishes are cigars and chocolates) and took my seat. Someone tapped me on the shoulder. It was that menace of Chicago society, Mrs. Phil Donahue, Marlo Thomas, deeply tanned and almost anorexic in what looked like her wedding dress. “Will you scootch down in your seat?” she squeaked. “I want to be able to see my friend.”

Afterwards, the cast and crew assembled in the lounge to booze it up, but there was no sign of May. Greg Mosher wheeled by and said, “Elaine’s up in her dressing room freaking out.” I was tasting the local beer and admiring David Mamet’s butch haircut when she finally appeared, looking lost in space. In person, Elaine May is like a 50-year-old teenager — she has the posture and wardrobe of a youngster, as if she hasn’t shopped in years, but she has those bags under the eyes that suggest both exhaustion and sophistication, and her shrewdly selective attention span lets her tune in or blank out at will. As I inched across the room, she was kissing this one and that one, dazedly accepting congratulations. I was just about to step up and make her acquaintance when That Girl zoomed in, took her by the hand, and led her off into the night.

 

Marlo Thomas, Jeannie Berlin, and Elaine May

Elaine May once agreed to an interview by correspondence with the Saturday Evening Post. To the first question, “Where were you born, and what has happened to you since then?” she replied, “Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. I have grown taller and learned to dress myself.” The point is, she’d love it if that’s all that were known about her. We do know a little more than that, but there’s conflicting evidence about even the most basic facts. She was born in Philadelphia in 1932 to Jack and Ida Berlin. Her father wrote, directed, and performed for a travelling Yiddish theater; her mother worked box office. Elaine hit the stage at 3, playing either little girls or a little boy named Benny (depending on which story you believe). She and her father also had a radio show called “Baby Noodnik,” in which she played a Yiddish Baby Snooks. Child-stardom ceased either at age 11 when her chest development made her unable to play a believable boy (“and,” she once said, “our people do not believe in breast-binding”) or more likely at age 10 when her father died and she and her mother either moved in with her Uncle Louis in Chicago or settled in Los Angeles. Her schooling was late-starting and erratic. She attended more than fifty schools in two years — “I kept learning that Mesopotamia was the first city” — and quit altogether at 14 or 15, now definitely in L.A. At 16 she married Marvin May, who either worked in an aircraft plant or built model ships and airplanes. They had a daughter, Jeannie, but the marriage was over long before the divorce came through four years later. Elaine studied acting with Maria Ouspenskaya and held jobs either writing movie scenarios and “posing” or as a private detective and roofing salesman. In 1952, when a bunch of theater types she knew gravitated to the University of Chicago, she dropped her kid with her mother and hitchhiked across the country after them.

The Chicago improvisational theater scene attracted people for different reasons, some artistic, some sociopolitical. For Elaine May, it was simply a place to apply her only employable skills: a quick mind and an evil tongue. “There was a bar called Jimmy’s near the university where we all hung out,” Mike Nichols once recalled. “One day, the wind was blowing and her hair was wild, and as we walked in some guy said, ‘Hi, Elaine, did you bring your broomstick?’ And she said, ‘Why, do you want something up your ass?’ Without pause for breath or thought.” She never registered with the university but attended classes, corrected professors, and joined campus theater groups anyway, terrifying everyone with her apparently unlimited knowledge and scorn.   Nichols and May weren’t the only celebrities to come out of the Compass Players, a bunch of U. of Chicago grads who started out entertaining in the back room of a bar with improvised scenes based on audience suggestions. But their stardom was swift — first New York club dates in 1957, first record album in 1958, smash Broadway show in 1960 — and unique, predicated as it was on an image of comedians not as crowd-pleasing yokels but as imperious know-it-alls, satirizing by embodying the intellectual pretensions of the ’50s: the name-dropping, the literary one-upsmanship, the empty jargon. “Mmm, yes,” May would say in her sexy murmur, discussing the TV quiz-show scandal with Nichols over the water cooler, “it’s a moral issue — to me, that’s always much more interesting than a real issue.” Their formidable sophistication, though, was largely a clever disguise. “They always ended their show by taking suggestions for the style in which to improvise,” Buck Henry recalls. “I once said to Mike, ‘You must have read all the great authors.’ Mike said Elaine had never read anything. I said, ‘That’s not conceivable.’ Mike said the point is that she’s read about them — she’s like a great scientist who can take scrapings of a few cells and extrapolate from that the entire body of an organism.” The chemistry between Nichols and May was dazzling — she was a bottomless font of comic ideas and he a master at structuring them. And these skills, apparent from the beginning of their collaboration, are still the basis of their individual legends: his as the most sought-after director of stage and film, hers as an all-purpose comic genius.

But after the team broke up, a chemical imbalance occurred. Nichols sailed effortlessly into a succession of triumphs directing plays (Barefoot in the Park, Luv, The Odd Couple) and movies (Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, The Graduate, Catch-22) while May’s career progressed in leaps, gaps, wild digressions, interruptions, and hesitations. She wrote a tiny play about a would-be suicide called Not Enough Rope that nobody much liked and a big play called A Matter of Position starring Mike Nichols that closed in Philadelphia with bad feelings all around. She acted in two ho-hum movies (Luv and Enter Laughing) and a Broadway show directed by Jerome Robbins that closed in previews. She was supposed to write the book for a musical based on Fellini’s Nights of Cabiria, but Neil Simon ended up doing that show, which became Sweet Charity. She wrote a screenplay of Evelyn Waugh’s The Loved One for Liz Taylor and Richard Burton that never got made, and when the movie she wrote from Lois Gould’s novel Such Good Friends did get made by Otto Preminger, she refused credit. She married lyricist Sheldon Harnick (pre-Fiddler on the Roof) and divorced him four months later, then married her shrink, whose ex-wife killed herself, leaving the newlyweds three daughters and guilt galore. May did have a big Off-Broadway success in 1969 with Adaptation, which she wrote and directed on a bill with Terrence McNally’s Next, and she wrote, directed, and starred with Walter Matthau in A New Leaf, which was a hit even though she sued to halt release of the film because Paramount changed the ending. Almost exactly the same thing happened with her next film, The Heartbreak Kid.

Elaine May has this problem, you see, with letting things go. She’s always had it. Even back in 1960, while still on Broadway with Mike Nichols, she sold a story to Mademoiselle and then changed her mind and asked for it back; told that the magazine was on the press that very moment, she offered to buy the press. On A New Leaf, she went through two producers (Howard Koch and Stanley Jaffe), two assistant directors, 82 shooting days instead of the scheduled 42, and more than twice her original $1.8 million budget. When the studio nixed location shooting in Jamaica, she spent a weekend writing sugarcane and lizards into the plot. Swoosie Kurtz, who acted with May in the New Haven production of Virginia Woolf?, remembers watching with fascination as she composed her bio for the program, filling a page with scribbling then crossing it all out so the only words legible were “Miss May.” Rabid perfectionism? Self-destruct mechanism? Maybe, but it’s also the mark of an inveterate improviser, who inhabits that ground where pure art meets pure science, where the quest is for possibilities not certainties, questions not answers. Without a Mike Nichols around to shape her flow of thoughts, May would be content to extend the improvisation, the creative moment, indefinitely. That impulse clearly coincides with an obsessive need for control, and there’s the rub. Nichols predicted years ago, “Elaine is going to suffer in Hollywood. She must have complete control of a given situation. Out there she will be at the mercy of many people.” Her showdown at the OK Corral came with Mikey and Nicky.

Remember Mikey and Nicky? That’s the movie starring Peter Falk and John Cassavetes that Elaine May wrote in 1969, the one about two guys on a street corner one night in Philadelphia. Some people said it was the most brilliant comic script they’d ever read. Then, as Cassavetes later told friends, May systematically destroyed it. She spent a year shooting 1.5 million feet of film (most director shoot 200,000 feet for a feature), two and a half years editing it (taking over an entire floor of the Sunset Marquis and covering the windows with tin foil), and a good part of a year playing hide-and-seek with Paramount. When the movie was a year overdue, May asked for more time and more money; Paramount refused, so she sold what she had completed for $90,000 to a dummy company that turned out to be Peter Falk and some friends. When Paramount got a court order demanding possession of the film, May got her husband (and that man was a doctor!) to stash a couple of reels with a colleague in Connecticut. When Warren Beatty tried to intercede on May’s behalf, suggesting the studio just kick in the extra bucks, Paramount chief Barry Diller exploded, “She is a brilliant woman, and a wonderful woman, but she can go to jail or the madhouse for ten years before I will submit to blackmail!” Everybody settled down, the movie was finished and released, and nobody could understand why this cheap-looking, incoherent movie took so long to make.

Anybody else would be finished in Hollywood. Not Elaine May. She acted in the movie of California Suite, catching her husband Walter Matthau with a hooker in his hotel room. She’s written at least two original screenplays, a science-fiction fantasy set on an imaginary planet and a comic thriller about a campaign volunteer who kidnaps a presidential candidate. Neither seems likely to be made because the first is too expensive and the second is owned by, uh, Marlo Thomas. There was talk of May doing the screenplay for Mike Nichols’s movie of Nora Ephron’s novel Heartburn; now she’s writing a movie with David Mamet. And, of course, she adapted Harry Segall’s play Heaven Can Wait with and for Warren Beatty, joining Buck Henry and Robert Towne to form the core of writers who stand by for all Beatty’s projects. There’s little chance she’ll be given complete control on a picture of her own after Mikey and Nicky, but ironically the same improvisational temperament that was her downfall as a director has made her extremely valuable as a script doctor.

“She’s like a secret weapon that you have and no one else has,” says Sydney Pollack, who directed Tootsie. “From her years of comic training with Mike Nichols, she’s able to capture the specific single spine of a character, like the line in a comic drawing.” “She understands human behavior, even though hers isn’t normal,” says Carl Reiner, who directed May in Enter Laughing. “She contributes little flashes of inspiration, which are always helpful when they come,” says Buck Henry. “She got, what, $300,000 or $400,000 for Tootsie? Just by saying they should make Bill Murray the roommate and Teri Garr the fiancée. It’s made it much easier for me. Whenever I go into a meeting now, I just say there should be a roommate and a fiancée — say, Teri Garr.”

May herself admits that she’s better off behind the scenes. “I’m not a pro as a director,” she said in a rare public appearance at the New School in 1975. “I’m a pro at thinking about movies. I’m a pro at talking about them. You ask me anything about a movie and I can answer you in movie language: budget, schedule, gross, net, distribution. I’m a pro at that. And that’s most of it, you know. If you can do that you can get hired anytime. I’m not that artistic. I have nothing to say that everybody else doesn’t know. I was much smarter 20 years ago. I was much smarter in my first movie than in my second. The only thing I think experience teaches you is what you can’t do. When you start, you think you can do anything. And then you start to get a little tired.”

The nifty thing about Elaine May’s new status in Hollywood is that it means she can remain in hiding professionally as well as personally, ever-revered and ever-mysterious. She’s carefully protected by a tight circle of friends that includes some of the biggest names in show business (Beatty, Nichols, Simon, Penn) as well as designer Anthea Sylbert and novelist Peter Feibleman. Her personal legend is so secure, based on stored-up goodwill from Nichols-and-May days and the ad hominem respect of her industry peers, that she doesn’t have to do anything to confirm her genius. Taking no credit and granting no interviews, she is assumed to be responsible for the best parts of any movie she comes in on, and she avoids messy questions about her spotty career or the details of her marriage or her guilt over her daughter….

Oh, right, what about the daughter? She became an actress, took her grandmother’s surname, and appeared as Jeannie Berlin in many of the “youth” pictures that came out of Hollywood in the late ’60s: Alice’s Restaurant, The Baby Maker, The Strawberry Statement, Getting Straight. Then she catapulted to stardom when her mother cast her in The Heartbreak Kid as Charles Grodin’s grotesque child bride; she spent most of the movie dribbling egg salad and slathered with sunburn ointment. She won an Oscar nomination, but after playing another chubby masochistic Jewish girl in Sheila Levine Is Dead and Living in New York, she dropped out of sight. Director Jonathan Kaplan, who went to school with Berlin, says she became disgusted with the roles she was offered, started her own theater group in Los Angeles, and runs a drama therapy workshop for retarded children. But a standup comic I met who was in an acting class with Berlin told me she’d become “a pill-popping freak.”

Curious to know the true story, I called her number in L.A. Someone else answered, asked who was calling, and yelled out, “Mom, it’s Don Shewey!” Then she said, “What do you want?” I said I was from Esquire. She said, “We don’t want that magazine.” I assured her I wasn’t selling the magazine, I was looking for an interview. “Mom, he’s from Esquire magazine. He wants ta interview you.” This “Mom” business was alarming — Berlin isn’t old enough to have a grown daughter. For a moment I thought it was Berlin faking and calling her own mother, who happened to be visiting, and it even occurred to me that it might be May disguising her voice and for some reason calling her daughter Mom. But the woman who answered the phone returned and said, “Jeannie can’t come to the phone right now. There’s been a terrible disaster here, and she’s going to have to leave this house for a while because it’s being overrun with rats.”

 

My chance for a private moment with Elaine May arrived at last.

Back in Chicago, I saw Hot Line again at a matinee, savoring the details in May’s performance, like the way she mocked shrink talk. “Yeah, be ‘honest’ with me. Let’s hear what that‘s like,” she’d say, or “You wanna know how I feel, or you wanna know what I think I feel from your point of view?” Castigating a directory-assistance operator who didn’t speak English, brushing her hair out of her eyes with a butcher knife, paying the burger delivery boy with pennies she’d hidden from herself all over her pigpen of an apartment, she convincingly impersonated someone too smart to live and too angry to die: a tidy chaos more scary than funny.

After the show, she appeared in the theater lobby with Peter Falk, and while he headed up the stairs she lingered a moment to talk to a girl at the concession stand. She was wearing a plaid short-sleeved shirt and blue denim skirt. She started toward the staircase and, forlornly looking for Falk, mouthed “Wait for me” like a waif in a silent movie.

I seized the moment and introduced myself.

“Oh, no,” she said. “I can’t, I’m not good at interviews. I’m terrible at them. I really dread them. I dread it already.” She said everything in a sort of whisper with her head down, so I could barely hear her. “You’ll forgive me, won’t you?” she said. “You will, I can tell by looking at you.” She looked away and played with her hair and looked back at me directly and said, “I don’t want anything about me in the magazine.”

By this time we were at the top of the stairs and outside. “Where are you headed?” I asked.

She mumbled something about “I have to rest my voice.”

“Are you having trouble with it?” I inquired politely, as we drifted with the crowd toward the street.

“Yeah.”

“Do you do exercises for it?”

“Yeah,” she said, “I shut up and drink hot water.”

“Hot water?” I said. “Ugh.

“Is that bad?” she asked.

“No, it just sounds like it doesn’t taste good.”

“Well,” she said, “it’s better than tea.”

I said, “Why is it better than tea?”

She said, “Because I don’t like tea.”

There was a long pause, broken only by the scuffle of shoes on the sidewalk. It was a beautiful sunny afternoon in Chicago. So this is Elaine May, the great comic genius, the vamp with the viper’s tongue, I thought — this slump-shouldered woman with the dark glasses next to me staring at the ground, hiding behind her hair, dangling her purse like a schoolgirl, making small talk about the Goodman and David Mamet and the matinee audience. “Such a sedate crowd. I’m going to get that taxi,” she said. “It was nice to meet you.”

Shaking my hand, she stepped off the curb and back into her legend.

*

 

But wait, the story doesn’t end there.

Esquire didn’t run my piece, understandably – not enough Elaine there. A year later, the New York Times Magazine assigned me to do a profile of David Geffen, one of the most high-powered moguls in Hollywood, who started in music and branched out into theater and movies. I flew to Los Angeles, thinking I’d be lucky to get an hour here, an hour there with him. Exactly the opposite of the Elaine May situation: he was completely open and inviting (wanting to impress me, no doubt) and invited me to go everywhere he went for an entire week (except to his bedroom – I was so NOT his type). That included his office on Sunset Blvd., his house in Bel Air, his house in Malibu, the L.A. opening night of Cats (he was nominally a producer, since his record label put out the original cast recording), lunch at the Palm with Irving “Swifty” Lazar, and screenings of Albert Brooks’ Lost in America and a rough cut of Martin Scorsese’s After Hours. The pièce de résistance? As a favor to Warren Beatty, he borrowed the private jet of Steve Ross, then president of Warner Communications, to fly Elaine May to Seattle in order to help playwright Herb Gardner fine-tune the pre-Broadway tryout of I’m Not Rappaport at the Seattle Repertory Theater.  (Given the teeny-tiny world of the rich and the famous, let us note that Herb Gardner had been partnered for some years with Marlo Thomas, whom Geffen had also dated when he was trying to pass for straight and who sold him the house in Bel Air.) At the last minute, Beatty couldn’t make the trip, but completing the party were the legendary Broadway producer Bernie Jacobs (then-head of the Shubert Organization), his vivacious and opinionated wife Betty, and Elaine May’s daughter Jeanne Berlin.

Hearing this guest list, I quietly freaked out but said nothing to Geffen about my previous experience with El Mondo del May.

On the appointed morning, I rode to the airport in the limo with Geffen and his right-hand man, Eric Eisner, stopping along the way to pick up Elaine May, Jeannie Berlin, and a female friend of Jeanne’s. They piled in, taking the plush leather seats facing us, cheerfully recounting a nearly disastrous household mishap (burst pipe, flooded rooms) as we sped along the freeway. Eventually the time came for introductions. Geffen introduced Eisner and then explained, “Don is doing a story on me for the New York Times.

Elaine went pale, and her eyes widened in terror. “David!!! New York Times!!!!” She looked over her shoulder. “Driver, could you pull over?” She wasn’t really joking.

I tried as hard as I could to disappear into the upholstery. David said something to smooth over the situation and change the subject. During the flight, I laid low, chatting with Eisner. Elaine sat on the floor  playing Trivial Pursuit with Jeannie and her friend. Geffen perched on the side of an armchair next to Bernie and Betty, discussing the projected earnings of Cats over the next 10 years, while an apple-cheeked waiter served drinks and deli sandwiches.

When we got to Seattle, two cars awaited to take us to dinner and then to the theater. Geffen, Eisner, and I took one car, and the other guests took the second car. In the parking lot, headed to the restaurant, I found myself walking alongside Elaine. “Don!” she said. “You’re still here!” As if to say, “How come my magic powers didn’t make you vanish?”

At dinner, I sat as far away from her as I could, hiding behind Geffen. In the course of the meal, Elaine held forth in an extremely entertaining fashion. I tried to discreetly jot down some of the hilarious things she was saying, until Geffen noticed. “You’re taking notes?” he said quietly, with some alarm. I didn’t want to get him in trouble, so I put my notebook away. After a while, I excused myself and holed up in the men’s room to record whatever I could remember from the conversation. Two remarks stuck out for me. She floated her theory that Samuel Beckett’s famously enigmatic play Waiting for Godot is really about insomnia. And she talked about seeing E.T. in a movie theater in Los Angeles. “All around me, people are sniffling, and I keep thinking, ‘When is this fucking puppet gonna die?’”

Dinner ended. We saw the show. Elaine stayed in Seattle to work with Gardner. The Jacobses were flying back to New York the next day. Geffen and Eisner and I took the private plane back to L.A. the same night. Life went on. Years went by. Elaine May got one more chance to make a movie, the Warren Beatty-Dustin Hoffman desert romp Ishtar, which outdid Mikey and Nicky in the debacle department. She laid low for a long time, had a couple more plays produced (Mr. Gogol and Mr. Preen at Lincoln Center Theater, Adult Entertainment Off-Broadway, starring Jeannie Berlin), and continued to craft screenplays for successful Mike Nichols films (Primary Colors, The Birdcage).  But except in the occasional movie (Woody Allen’s Small Time Criminals), I hadn’t laid eyes on Elaine May again until last Saturday night when, at age 86, she gave one of the funniest and saddest performances I’ve seen onstage all year.