Elaine May

Active - 1967 - 2021  |   Born - Apr 21, 1932 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, United States  |   Genres - Comedy

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Biography by Jason Ankeny

Best known as one half of the famed Nichols and May standup comedy team, Elaine May also carved out successful careers as an actress, writer, and director. Born April 21, 1932, in Philadelphia, PA, she was the daughter of Yiddish theatrical actor Jack Berlin and as a child occasionally performed with him on-stage. While still in her teens, she was married and divorced, giving birth in 1949 to daughter Jeannie Berlin. May later went on to study method acting under the tutelage of actress Maria Ouspenskaya before relocating to the Midwest to attend the University of Chicago; there she first encountered fellow student Mike Nichols, harshly criticizing his performance in a production of Miss Julie. They met again in 1955 when both joined the Compass Players improvisational ensemble, a group of Chicago-based satirical players which also included up-and-comers Alan Arkin and Shelley Berman.

After the Compass Players disbanded in 1957, Nichols and May continued on as a team; developing a highly literate and lightning-quick comic style, the duo emerged as darlings of the New York club scene, releasing their first LP, Improvisations to Music, in 1959. The following year, they graduated to Broadway, mounting a cerebral sketch comedy showcase titled An Evening With Nichols and May. The production was enormously successful, but already both performers were itching to spread their wings, and they delivered their last show in July 1961. Nichols soon rose to even greater fame, beginning an acclaimed directorial career with the hit film Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? May, on the other hand, kept a lower profile, pursuing a career in theatrical writing. In 1967, she finally returned to performing with a pair of feature comedies, Clive Donner's Luv and Carl Reiner's autobiographical Enter Laughing.

May's next film was 1971's screwball comedy A New Leaf. Not only did she star, but she also wrote and directed. After authoring Such Good Friends for Otto Preminger, she next directed 1972's acclaimed comedy The Heartbreak Kid, based on a screenplay by Neil Simon. Not only did the film launch the career of star Charles Grodin, but it also garnered Academy Award nominations for supporting players Edward Albert and May's daughter, Jeannie. A four-year gap followed before May resurfaced as the writer-director behind Mikey and Nicky, a freewheeling comedy starring John Cassavetes and Peter Falk. In 1978, she appeared in Herbert Ross' California Suite and penned the Oscar-nominated screenplay for the Warren Beatty vehicle Heaven Can Wait.

Again, however, despite her success, May disappeared from view; she did not return to cinema for nine years, and when she did, the results were disastrous. The film in question was 1987's Ishtar, a comedy starring Beatty, Dustin Hoffman, and Isabelle Adjani; largely shot on location in the Middle East, the production was beset by personality clashes, rampaging egos, and other internal difficulties, and advance publicity alone was so terrible that the picture arrived to theaters stillborn -- produced at a cost of over 55 million dollars, it grossed less than eight million dollars. Ultimately, Beatty and Hoffman escaped relatively unscathed, leaving much of the blame to fall squarely on May's shoulders. Another long layoff followed, and apart from co-starring in the little-seen 1990 comedy In the Spirit, she did not attempt to mount a comeback prior to writing 1996's The Birdcage, which she adapted for director Nichols. Clearly the spark had returned to their working relationship after a layoff of over three decades, and she next wrote the screenplay for his political satire Primary Colors.

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  • As a youngster she appeared on stage in the traveling Jewish theatrical company of which her father was a member. She played mostly male roles.
  • Because of her itinerant childhood, she attended more than 50 schools.
  • Met Mike Nichols in the early 1950s at the University of Chicago and both became members of the Compass Players, a comedy troupe that would evolve into Second City.
  • In a four-year span during the late 1950s and early 1960s, she and improv-comedy partner Nichols had success on TV and radio, a smash Broadway run and three top-selling comedy albums to their credit before breaking up their act.
  • Unsuccessfully took legal action to keep the studio from releasing an edited version of 1971's A New Leaf, which she wrote, directed and starred in.
  • Cast her daughter, Jeannie Berlin, in one of the lead roles in the 1972 comedy The Heartbreak Kid, and the young lady was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress.
  • In 1980, she reunited with former partner Nichols for a six-week theater run of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
  • Wrote and directed 1987's Ishtar, starring Dustin Hoffman and Warren Beatty, a pseudo-comedy that was panned by many critics, and is considered one of the great cinematic flops.
  • In 2011, wrote George Is Dead, one of three one-act comedies that made up the play Relatively Speaking. The other two were written by Woody Allen and Ethan Coen.
  • Is the uncredited coscreenwriter of the films Reds (1981), Tootsie (1983), Labyrinth (1986) and Dangerous Minds (1995).