Elaine May only got the chance to direct four films in her career – and that really is too bad, because three of those four films are actually quite good. Yes, you can blame Ishtar for destroying her directing career if you want – apparently the phrase “movie jail” was coined in honor of May who was essentially locked away from making movies after its large failure. But that ignores the fact that she had not had a chance to direct a film for more than a decade before Ishtar ever came out, and that Ishtar only came around because Warren Beatty had to use his considerable clout to get it made. One cannot help but think that the marked change in style from her first three films to Ishtar had something to do with May attempting to become a more mainstream filmmaker. Yes, A New Leaf, The Heartbreak Kid and Mikey & Nicky are all very different films from each other – but all of them thrive on specific human behavior, and want to make the audience uncomfortable, pushing the awkwardness of the situations in the movies to the extreme.
One cannot help but think that Hollywood sexism had something to do with May not getting another chance to direct after Ishtar. Many directors have had failures – even huge failures – and got to direct again. Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate is synonymous with Hollywood bloat, and was a colossal failure, and he got to direct four films after that. And he’s hardly the only one. Yet it seems like when a female filmmaker makes a bomb, that’s it for her.
That really is quite sad, because May was a gifted filmmaker, and I really want to know where she was headed to after Mikey & Nicky. Yes, I think The Heartbreak Kid is her masterpiece – and A New Leaf is better than Mikey & Nicky as well, but the latter film really seemed like May was pushing herself farther than she had before, and the film is far more than the John Cassavetes-clone many seem to think it is (it also isn’t an unheralded masterpiece of 1970s cinema, like some of its supporters claim either – but I digress).
There are some things in cinema history that depress me. That we’ll never see the fully uncut version of Orson Welles’ The Magnificent Ambersons (1942) for example, or that Night of the Hunter (1955) was a bomb, so its director Charles Laughton, stuck to acting after that – cutting his directing career to one, perfect masterpiece, or the fact that Jean-Claude Lauzon died never having made a follow up to his brilliant Leolo. Another of those depressing things is that Elaine May’s directing career ended after just four films. I really wish we could have seen whatever other films she had in her.