Friday, March 11, 2022

A Note on the Directorial Career of Elaine May

Where the history of the "New Hollywood" is concerned some figures, of course, get far more attention than others--and others less--in ways that do not seem wholly explicable simply on the basis of their presence or the influence of their contributions (for better and worse), with two factors seeming to me to be worth noting.

The first would seem to be the particular importance accorded directors in that era, auteur theory-minded chroniclers often making it a story of auteur directors--a Robert Altman, a Peter Bogdanovich, a William Friedkin, a Francis Ford Coppola, a Hal Ashby, a Martin Scorsese, a Michael Cimino. As a result those New Hollywood figures who were a huge part of the scene, and even directed notable films, but on the whole made a bigger mark as screenwriters than as directors--a John Milius or a Robert Towne or a Paul Schrader--get that much less attention.

The second is that the New Hollywood tends to be identified with particular themes and a particular aesthetic—work which was socially critical, genuinely gritty, and taboo-breaking and envelope-pushing with regard to what could be put on the screen, with this extending not only to sex, violence and politics, but to cinematic technique (with Peter Biskind remarking the "Brechtian" tendency in '70s Hollywood). The result was that an auteur New Hollywood movie that did not fit the pattern has been less likely to be recognized as part of that scene--with an obvious example George Lucas' Star Wars (very much a New Hollywood film in a lot of ways, but very far removed from this stereotype, and indeed much more likely to be talked about as the beginning of the post-New Hollywood of crowd-pleasing merchandised, franchised action movie blockbusters).

Considering the career of Elaine May it seems to me that attentiveness to her career--which had her very much part of that scene, from her time as Mike Nichols' comedy partner forward, and her collaboration with Warren Beatty, as well as a maker of three major feature films in her own right in the 1970s (complete with typically New Hollywood battles over "final cut") and the very New Hollywood denouement to her time as a director with her fourth, Ishtar (bad buzz full of accusations of a crazed director going wildly overbudget on an unworthy project, movie critics dutifully bashing it in an atmosphere of frenzy, etc.)--has suffered in the same ways. As with Towne and Schrader her status as a screenwriter (with credits on, among other films, Heaven Can Wait and Reds and Tootsie, and even in the '90s Wolf and The Bird Cage and Primary Colors) overshadowing the reception for the movies she helmed. And as with Star Wars her films, like A New Leaf and The Heartbreak Kid, while deservedly regarded as classics, are a far cry from the New Hollywood stereotype, while, if perhaps coming closer as a crime drama, 1976's Mikey and Nicky was badly chopped up by the studio and practically buried (so much so that her career as a director could be considered to have already ended once before)--all as 1987's Ishtar got an undeservedly bad reception, precisely because of the ways in which it was actually New Hollywood (not least, its politics). Still, recent years have seen Ishtar undergoing a rehabilitation (very belated, and perhaps limited in comparison with other New Hollywood classics, but a rehabilitation all the same), which may, besides leading to a reevaluation of her work, also contribute to a fuller understanding of New Hollywood's history extending beyond the clichés--and with it, just how it was that Hollywood has ended up in its current, artistically none-too-fortunate state.

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