Screenwriter, director, playwright, and actress Elaine May first enjoyed success as part of the famed Nichols and May standup comedy team with Mike Nichols. During their time together (from 1956 to 1962), the duo became a staple at New York City clubs, performed on various television shows and staged a successful sketch comedy show on Broadway named “An Evening with Mike Nichols and Elaine May” (1960). They would act together in a stage adaptation of “Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf” at the Long Wharf Theatre in 1980. After the duo disbanded, May wrote several plays, including “Not Enough Rope,” “Adaptation,” “Power Play” and “Taller Than A Dwarf.” She also directed the off-Broadway production of “Adaptation/Next.” May debuted as a writer/director with “A New Leaf” (1971), which brought her a Writers Guild of America nomination and a Golden Globe for her starring role of Henrietta. Her film directing credits also include “The Heartbreak Kid” (1972), “Mikey and Nicky” (1976, also a writer) and “Ishtar” (1987, also a writer). May received Oscar nominations for scripting “Heaven Can Wait” (1978, shared with Warren Beatty) and “Primary Colors” (1998), which was directed by her old partner Nichols. She also wrote Nichol's comedy remake “The Birdcage” (1996). May took home a National Society of Film Critics Award and Chlotrudis and Online Film Critics Society nominations for her scene stealing role in Woody Allen's “Small Time Crooks” (2000). She was the recipient of the Lifetime Achievement Award in Comedy at the 1994 American Comedy Awards and the Career Tribute at the 2000 U.S. Comedy Arts Festival (along with Nichols).
May reportedly has been married many times. She has one daughter, actress Jeannie Berlin, who was nominated for an Academy Award and Golden Globe Award for her role in “The Heartbreak Kid.”
Childhood and Family:
Born Elaine Berlin on April 21, 1932, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Elaine May was the daughter of Yiddish theatrical actor Jack Berlin and actress Ida Berlin. Her father passed away in 1942 when she was 10 years old. Shortly thereafter, the family moved to Los Angeles, California. When she was younger, she often performed with her father on stage.
In 1947, Elaine studied method acting with veteran theater and screen actress Maria Ouspenskaya. Three years later, she moved to Chicago to attend the University of Chicago, where she first met her future comedy partner Mike Nichols.
Elaine married Marvin May while she was still a teenager and gave birth to her daughter, Jeannie Berlin, on November 1, 1949, before her 18th birthday. The couple later divorced. In 1972, she married lyricist Sheldon Harnick (born on April 30, 1924) of “Fiddler on the Roof” fame, but they divorced in 1973. She then married her psychoanalyst, Dr. David L. Rubinfine, and remained with him until his death in 1982. Their romance began when each of them were still married. Their affair and the eventual suicide of his former wife resulted in Rubinfine being banished by the New York psychoanalytic organization.
A New Leaf
Elaine May began her performing career as a child. In addition to touring in several stage productions with her father, she appeared in radio productions. After becoming a mother, the then-18 year old May pursued college studies and met fellow student Mike Nichols at the University of Chicago in 1954. The two were reunited in 1955 when they both joined the Compass Players improvisational ensemble, a group of performers whose members included Alan Arkin and Shelley Berman. After the breakup of the Compass Players, May teamed up with Nichols to form a comic duo in 1956 and brought the team to New York City the following year. Starting out in Greenwich Village nightclubs, they soon appeared around New York City and on various television shows, including “The Jack Parr Show” (1957), “The Steve Allen Show” (2 episodes, 1957-1958), “The DuPont Show of the Month” (“The Red Mill” episode, 1958) and “Omnibus” (“The Suburban Review” episode, 1958). They were then hired as panelists on the NBC game show “Love Line” in 1959, but quit after three weeks. The same year, they released their first LP, “Improvisations to Music.”
In 1960, May made her Broadway debut in “An Evening with Mike Nichols and Elaine May,” which was directed by Arthur Penn. Although the comedy was a huge success, the duo decided to end their creative partnership in 1962. The pair made their last performance together in July 1961.
After the breakup, May began a career as a playwright. Her first play, “Not Enough Rope,” hit off-Broadway in 1962 and her subsequent play, “A Matter of Position,” opened at the Philadelphia Walnut Street Theatre later that same year. By 1964, she had added stage directing to her endeavors, making her debut with “The Third Ear.”
Back to acting, May made her feature film acting debut with Reni Santoni, Jose Ferrer and Shelley Winters in “Enter Laughing” (1967), a comedy film helmed by Carl Reiner that was adapted from his autobiographical novel and the stage play of the same title. She played Ferrer's actress daughter, Angela Marlow, in the film. She then portrayed Ellen Manville in the bombed big screen adaptation of Murray Schisgal's play “Luv” (1967), which was directed by Clive Donner and co-starred Jack Lemmon and Peter Falk, and had an unaccredited part in the acclaimed drama “The Graduate” (1967), which was directed by her former partner Mike Nichols. The same year, she and Nichols co-wrote and acted together in “Bach to Bach,” a 6 minute length film directed by Paul Leaf.
In 1969, May received kudos for directing her play “Adaptation” (also a writer) and Terrence McNally's “Next” that performed off-Broadway under the title “Adaptation-Next.” The victory opened a way for her career as a screenwriter and film director.
May made her debut as director/writer with “A New Leaf” (1971), a dark comedy film based on a Jack Ritchie short story. The film earned positive reviews from critics despite the producer's attempt to replace her due to financial issues. She received a Writers Guild of America nomination in the category of Best Comedy Adapted from Another Medium. Also starring as a shy heiress named Henrietta, opposite Walter Matthau as Henry Graham, May was nominated for a 1972 Golden Globe for Best Motion Picture Actress - Musical/Comedy for her performance. Still in 1971, she also wrote the screen adaptation of Lois Gould's “Such Good Friends” under the pseudonym Esther Dale. The film was directed by Otto Preminger and starred Dian Cannon.
In 1972, May directed Charles Grodin, Cybill Shepherd and her daughter, Jeannie, in the dark comedy “The Heartbreak Kid,” which was adapted by Neil Simon from a story by Bruce Jay Friedman. Jeannie and Eddie Albert received Oscar nominations for Best Actress in a Supporting Role and Best Actor in a Supporting Role, respectively. Her daughter netted a Golden Globe nomination and a National Society of Film Critics and New York Film Critics Circle Awards for her portrayal of Lila Kolodny.
May returned to the director's chair when she helmed Peter Falk and John Cassavetes in the drama “Mikey and Nicky” (1976). The film was originally slated for a summer 1975 release but delayed to Christmas 1975 because of editing problems. However May, who is famous for her perfectionism in editing, still could not finish the editing process on time and that led to litigation between the director and Paramount Pictures. Paramount eventually won possession of the film with final cut rights and released the film on December 21, 1976. A director's cut version was later screened at the 1980 Toronto Film Festival. “Mikey and Nicky” marked May's last directorial effort for over a decade.
In 1978, May portrayed Millie Michaels in director Herbert Rose's “California Suite,” her first film role since 1971 and a reunion with screenwriter Neil Simon and actor Walter Matthau. She then co-wrote the screenplay of “Heaven Can Wait” (1978), based on Harry Segall's play of the same name, with Warren Beatty who also co-directed (with Buck Henry), produced and starred in the film. Along with Beatty, she received an Academy Award nomination, a Writers Guild of America Award and a Saturn Award for her writing.
In 1980, May revisited stage acting in a revival of Edward Albee's “Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf” at the Long Wharf Theater in New Haven, Connecticut. In the play, she starred as Martha, opposite long time pal Nichols as George. Nichols previously helmed the 1966 film version that starred Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. She remained on stage to direct the productions of “The Disappearance of the Jews,” “Gorilla” and “Hotline” (all 1983) at the Goodman Theatre at Chicago. On the big screen, May made an unaccredited contribution to the screenplays of Beatty's “Reds” (1981), Sydney Pollack's “Tootsie” (1982, starred Dustin Hoffman) and Jim Henson's “Labyrinth” (1986) before taking on director and writer duty for “Ishtar” (1987). Starring Warren Beatty (also a producer) and Dustin Hoffman, the comedy was a huge commercial failure. “Ishtar” won a Razzie for Best Director and Razzie nominations for Worst Picture and Worst Screenplay. May also co-wrote several songs for the soundtrack, including “You Look My Love,” “Love in My Will” and “I Look to Mecca.”
In 1990, May costarred with her daughter in the independent film “In the Spirit,” which was co-written by Jeannie and Laurie Jones. The film also reunited her with Peter Falk. The following year saw her play “Mr. Gogol and Mr. Preen” shown at the Mitzi E Newhouse Theater. May rejoined Nichols in 1996 when she wrote the screenplay of “The Birdcage,” which was directed and co-produced by Nichols. The comedy film was a remake of the 1978 French movie “La Cage aux Folles.” Although it received mixed reviews from critics, the film, which starred Robin Williams, Nathan Lane, Gene Hackman, Dianne Wiest, Dan Futterman, Calista Flockhart and Hank Azaria, was a success at the box office. May earned a WGA nomination for Best Screenplay Based on Material Previously Produced or Published for her work on the film.
May and Nichols assumed the same formula for “Primary Colors” (1998), an adaptation of the Joe Klein popular book. Starring John Travolta and Emma Thompson, the movie was nominated for Oscars for Best Actress in a Supporting Role (Kathy Bates) and Best Writing, Screenplay Based on Material from Another Medium, May's second nomination after “Heaven Can Wait.” May also won a BAFTA for Best Screenplay - Adapted and nominations at the Online Film Critics Society, USC Scripter, and WGA Awards. Also that year, she wrote and starred in the off-Broadway play “Power Plays.” Costars of the play included her daughter Jeannie and Alan Arkin.
In 2000, May landed a supporting role in “Small Time Crooks,” a comedy starring, directed and written by Woody Allen. For her acting job, she earned a National Society of Film Critics Award and nominations at the Chlotrudis and Online Film Critics Society Awards. The same year, she wrote the Broadway comedy “Taller Than a Dwarf.”
A remake of “Heaven Can Wait,” “Down to Earth” was produced in 2001 with Chris Weitz and Paul Weitz of the “American Pie” fame sitting in the director's chairs. Chris Rock starred in the movie. More recently, in 2008, May appeared in “AFI Life Achievement Award: A Tribute to Warren Beatty” (TV).
National Society of Film Critics (NSFC): Best Supporting Actress, “Small Time Crooks,” 2001
U.S. Comedy Arts Festival: Career Tribute, 2000 (Shared with Mike Nichols)
BAFTA: Best Screenplay - Adapted, “Primary Colors,” 1999
American Comedy: Lifetime Achievement Award in Comedy, 1994
Razzie: Worst Director, “Ishtar,” 1988
Academy of Science Fiction, Fantasy & Horror Films: Saturn Award, Best Writing, “Heaven Can Wait,” 1979
Writers Guild of America: Best Comedy Adapted from Another Medium, “Heaven Can Wait,” 1979