No Joke: Elaine May at the Harvard Film Archive

by Alicia Anstead

The comic vision of writer, director, performer and cultural icon of Elaine May is well known among those in the Hollywood and Broadway industries. But May has tended to avoid -- or resist -- the spotlight. Her earliest work was in live comedy with Mike Nichols, who went on to become a director. As did May. The two have set the stage for American theatrical and screen history.

In a rare appearance, May will be present at the screenings of two of her films during a mini Elaine May festival at Harvard Film Archive this weekend: "Mikey and Nicky," 7 p.m. Nov. 12 and "Ishtar," 7 p.m. Nov. 13 at the Carpenter Center, 24 Quincy Street. Other screenings over the weekend include "A New Leaf" (starring May) and "The Heartbreak Kid."

Below, Haden Guest, director of HFA and lecturer for VES, answers a few questions about May's importance to American film history and about her appearance at Harvard.

Why do an Elaine May mini festival right now?

Of the major filmmakers who redefined the American cinema in the 1970s, Elaine May remains one of the least recognized and appreciated. We are delighted that Ms. May will make a very rare in-person appearance at the HFA this weekend.

What is May's most important contribution to the film culture of America?

One of Elaine May's greatest contributions is to American film comedy, which her films together push into an entirely new terrain -- from the black comedy of manners of "A New Leaf" to the trenchant and absurdist political satire of "Ishtar," which remains ahead of its time as a prophetic critique of American interventionist folly in the Middle East. Elaine May's films also offer some of the most complexly contradictory characters in American comedy -- would-be murderers with an unexpected tender side, boyishly innocent adulterers, close friends who betray one another.

What do you think Harvard film students can learn from May's work?

Elaine May offers one of the finest examples of an artist who has refused to compromise her singular vision and voice -- in both her films and her plays. She shows how working within one of the arguably most difficult genres -- comedy -- can offer a certain freedom to pursue wholly original ideas.

Which of the movies being offered this weekend is your favorite and why?

"Mikey and Nicky" is certainly one of my favorite of Elaine May's films because of its uneasy balance of dark pessimism with unexpected comedy, because of its ability to capture the stumbling rhythms and strange contradictions of two life-long friends and how sometimes the closest of friends hurt each other worst of all.

[Caption: Elaine May and Mike Nichols were partners in comedy in the 1960s. ]

[Caption: Elaine May and Walter Matthau in "A New Leaf"]