Gilbey on Film: shady Elaine

The greatest Hollywood star you’ve never heard of.

Who knew so much pleasure could come from a couple of YouTube links? A friend of mine, the writer Richard T Kelly, posted clips on Facebook a few weeks ago of two public appearances by one of my favourite actor-writer-directors, Elaine May.

I find myself returning to watch them whenever I've felt in need of a pick-me-up. And, being nothing if not promiscuous with my enjoyment, I hereby share these gems with you. Both are taken from American Film Institute ceremonies at which May was called upon to speak. The first honours Mike Nichols, her former comedy partner; the focus of the second is Warren Beatty, whom May directed in the ill-fated but brilliantly spiky Ishtar, after doing script work both credited (Heaven Can Wait) and uncredited (Reds) for the star. May is 78 years old now. Looking at (and laughing through) these clips, it's hard to think of a young comic, male or female, who has her killer timing.

May's films are hard to come by. Her greatest work, The Heartbreak Kid, received a rare television showing last month. It's one of the most disturbing and painful films of the 1970s. Oh, and it's a comedy. It may be scripted by the playwright Neil Simon, usually known for a soft-centred and nostalgic take on Jewish family life, but the prevailing, prickly sensibility is May's. Her movie is consistent with the kind of downbeat, morally penetrating US cinema that was prevalent in the 1970s, while also offering an early example of the comedy of embarrassment, a genre that has provided such fertile ground in recent television.

But even David Brent from The Office would look away during the scene early in the film that shows Lenny (Charles Grodin), criticising the table manners of his new wife, Lila (Jeannie Berlin), just hours into their marriage. Surely Alan Partridge would feel his toes curling when Lenny starts manufacturing increasingly absurd reasons for Lila to stay imprisoned in their Miami hotel room while he goes for drinks with Kelly (Cybill Shepherd), a Wasp beauty whom he has recently met on the beach. And Larry David from Curb Your Enthusiasm would have to cover his eyes and moan in agony when Lenny ditches Lila over dinner in a crowded restaurant on the last day of their honeymoon.

It was a big mistake for the Farrelly brothers to remake the film (which they did in 2007 with Ben Stiller in Grodin's role). They are accomplished directors who showed, in Shallow Hal and Stuck On You, a touching faith in humanity. But it's precisely that quality that made them so poorly suited to this story of a man who pursues tirelessly the women he wants, only to find he doesn't want them once they're in his arms.

The original film is unsparing towards its vain or vulnerable characters, while never allowing them to warp into caricature. As Lila dribbles egg salad down her chin, or the snivelling Lenny tries to ingratiate himself with Kelly's gruff father (Eddie Albert), the picture doesn't play things for cheap laughs. On the contrary, these laughs come at a price, with May wringing out the comedy drop by toxic drop, relying on long takes or claustrophobic close-ups to magnify the sense of unease.

David O Russell, the writer-director of Three Kings and The Fighter, is one ardent admirer of the film. "My mother took me to see it at a Sunday matinee in 1972," he has written. "The emotional brutality and black comedy of this film, and others like it in the early 1970s (Five Easy Pieces, Klute, Carnal Knowledge) interests me greatly, much more than the graphic/ironic violence of the 1980s and 1990s. Grodin plays the consummate male narcissist in all his contradictions: he seems sincere, reasonable, even justified at times, as he pursues his cruel path of desire, and we cannot help rooting for him much of the time, I think, even as we cringe at the results – sort of like how we couldn't help rooting for Bonnie and Clyde or the gangsters in The Godfather."

No wonder the Farrellys couldn't pull it off. Material like this demands a tough cookie. And they don't come much tougher than May. This small, birdlike woman, who had been a child actor in her father Jack Berlin's Yiddish theatre company, made her first impression pecking away at American mores as part of a witty double act with Nichols.

The duo released bestselling albums of their improvised routines and played a year-long, sold-out run on Broadway in 1960. There were rumours that they were also lovers. (May was once asked, "So did you guys have an affair or what?" to which she replied: "Exactly.") But while Nichols broke away to enjoy solo success as the director of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and The Graduate, May vanished so comprehensively that Life magazine was already moved to run a "Where is she now?" feature by 1967.

Not that she had ever relished the limelight. "I'd appreciate it," she once told a reporter who was writing a profile of her, "if you didn't mention my name in your article." The sleevenotes on the Nichols/May album Improvisations to Music contained the enigmatic message "Miss May does not exist" in place of the customary biographical details.

On those rare occasions when she did consent to be interviewed, it sometimes emerged that she had written the piece herself, playing both subject and pseudonymous inquisitor. "Nobody tells the truth in an interview," she explained. "Except people who have never been interviewed. And they only do it once."

Only the most meagre titbits of information surfaced about her life. When she was 18, she had a daughter, Jeannie Berlin, who was later Oscar-nominated as the luckless bride in The Heartbreak Kid. In 1972, May wed Sheldon Harnick, lyricist of Fiddler on the Roof, in a marriage that was so brief it was later said that she got custody of the cake.

May did finally emerge from the long shadows cast by her partnership with Nichols to direct four features. In A New Leaf (1971), she played a wealthy botanist earmarked for marriage and murder by a penniless former socialite (Walter Matthau). Studio executives baulked at the morbid humour, and pruned so much footage (hacking the film down from the three-hour cut that she is rumoured to have delivered) that May tried to have her name removed from the credits.

After The Heartbreak Kid, she shot Mikey and Nicky (1976), a despairing buddy movie starring John Cassavetes and Peter Falk, which took her almost two years to edit. And the damning reviews that greeted Ishtar (1987), in which Warren Beatty and Dustin Hoffman play useless entertainers, seems to have put paid to her directing career for good, though she has not stinted on writing her own screenplays (The Birdcage and Primary Colors, both directed by Nichols) or polishing other people's (Tootsie, Labyrinth, Dangerous Minds).

She's also as unpredictable in front of the camera as she is behind it – check her out in the 1978 California Suite, where she's reunited with Walter Matthau, or as a dowdy ditz in Woody Allen's otherwise unexceptional Small Time Crooks.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

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Marc Maron: a conversation with the anxiety co-pilot

Now that the interview-based podcast WTF has had millions of downloads and featured guests from Iggy Pop and Barack Obama, what does its host Marc Maron want to say?

Richard Pryor decided to talk about race. Sam Kinison used his fame and his family history to talk about God. Bill Hicks asked why nothing produced in America seemed quite worthy of the people who consumed it. Now that the intimate, interview-based podcast WTF has had millions of downloads on iTunes and has featured guests from Mel Brooks to Iggy Pop and, this summer, Barack Obama, what does its host, the comedian Marc Maron – adopter of stray cats, recovered addict and vinyl hoarder – feel he has to say?

“I think the type of conversations that I have on the show are something that is missing in our lives,” Maron told me one recent Friday, down the line from the garage in the garden of his home in Highland Park, Los Angeles, where WTF has been recorded twice a week since 2009. “We’ve lost the knowledge that it’s not that hard to have an hour-long conversation with someone. You’re built to carry whatever problems they have. I think it’s good for the heart.”

If the Maron family crest bore a motto, it might be that timeless adage: “Wherever you go, there you are.” Born in 1963, Maron was raised by a real-estate broker mother and an orthopaedic surgeon father, first in New Jersey, then in Alaska, then in Albuquerque, New Mexico. “My father is and was both an overactive hypochondriac and a physician,” he wrote in his 2013 memoir, Attempting Normal, “which is a bad combination.” After studying English at Boston University, he began performing stand-up comedy at the age of 24.

“I don’t think of myself as a joke guy,” he told me. “Most of what I do is creating a dialogue around my own problems. Some people call it ‘navel-gazing’ but I’d prefer to call it ‘compulsive self-awareness’.”

And there have been many problems. Maron, now 51, began his 2013 comedy special Thinky Pain by telling the audience in the basement of the Village Gate nightclub in New York that he didn’t “have a lot of respect for people that don’t have the courage to lose complete control of their life for a few years”.

When Maron was 35, unhappily married, hoovering up booze, weed and cocaine most evenings, he met a beautiful aspiring comedian 12 years his junior, who told him he looked dreadful and offered to help him get sober. And she did, more or less. He divorced his first wife and pinned his hopes on his second. By 2009, he was living on the US west coast, divorced for a second time, barely able to work and newly dismissed from the morning talk show he’d co-hosted on the left-leaning Air America radio network.

“It was a period where I needed to talk a lot,” he said, “but also to sort of re-engage with something I think I had practised as a child: being part of somebody else.” With the former Air America producer Brendan McDonald, Maron began recording conversations with comedian friends, seeking advice, delving into their lives. He asked stock questions, such as “What did your old man do?” and “Who were your guys?”, as if they might provide some clue to where he had gone wrong. Then people started to listen.

“I started getting emails saying somehow or other the dialogue with my guests, or my monologues, were making people feel better or getting them through dark times,” he said. “I never anticipated people would get that type of help from the show.”

In a recent episode with Ian McKellen, Maron explained to the British actor that his listeners were “sensitive, slightly aggravated, usually intelligent people”, not so much “a demographic, more of a disposition”. By 2010, WTF had attracted a cult following. Robin Williams came to the garage and talked about his depression. Maron’s fellow stand-up Todd Glass came out as gay on the show after a string of suicides among young LGBT people. Friends whom Maron had known throughout his career, including David Cross, Sarah Silverman and Bob Odenkirk, joined him to reminisce. His 2010 interview with Louis CK, arguably the best-known US comedian of recent years, was voted the greatest podcast episode ever by the online magazine Slate.

“Comedians in their infancy are generally selfish, irresponsible, emotionally retarded, morally dubious, substance-addicted animals who live out of boxes and milk crates,” Maron wrote in his memoir. Yet, as they mature, they can become “some of the most thoughtful, philosophical, open-minded . . . creative people in the world”.

“The best comics are people that have taken the chance to live a life independent of mainstream culture and expectations,” he told me. “They’re constantly looking for an angle on the information coming in. They write things down. It’s the life of a thinker, or a philosopher, or poet – however you want to put it.”

I suggested that poetry was an ideal analogy for comedy, not only because poets reframe reality in a truthful way but also because they can be savage and resentful, particularly to fellow poets. It’s a fact Maron openly concedes about himself.

“I’m the clown that thought Louis CK’s show Louie should be called F*** You, Marc Maron,” he said at the 2011 Just for Laughs Comedy Festival in Montreal. The episode of WTF with Louis CK, a friend since the late 1980s, is remarkable not only for the moment when CK becomes audibly emotional as he discusses the birth of his first child, but for the way in which he unflinchingly airs his grievances with Maron, who confesses to envying CK’s success so much that they lost contact for a time. “You were being a shitty friend by being jealous,” CK says. “I could’ve used you . . . I got divorced. I got a show cancelled. I could’ve used a friend.”

So, in 2015, with a TV series about his life on the IFC cable network concluding its third series, the widely discussed interview in which Obama opened up about parenting, gun control and racism in the US and a series of high-profile appearances in Dublin, London and Sydney booked to showcase new material, surely the glass at last looks half full? “Maybe,” he said. “There are some people whose ego is able to accept the love and adoration of an audience. I’ve always been one to question that.”

Yet the improvements to his life – recognition, financial security, reconciliation with old friends – are undeniable. “Most creative people move through a tremendous amount of insecurity, which can turn to hostility. But the podcast became socially relevant and some of the insecurities dissipated. I could accept myself, for the most part, and realise that all the hard work I’d done for half my life had manifested into something that connects with people.”

Maron’s biggest anxiety today, he explained at the end of our talk, before opening the garage door to face the day, is that he’s “swamped with work all the f***ing time”.

“I beat myself up feeling like I should be out in the world, seeing a play or some art or something. Often, when I do monologues, I think, ‘I’ve got nothing to talk about.’ But then I go on and talk about nothing.”

The truth is that Marc Maron isn’t Richard Pryor or Bill Hicks – but that’s OK. We live in a different time. Perhaps what listeners need most is not more opinions, but a little help getting out of their own way: a co-pilot to navigate the anxieties of living day to day. “That’s exactly right,” he said. “The little things.”

Marc Maron performs at the Southbank Centre, London SE1, on 3 and 4 September

Philip Maughan is Assistant Editor at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 03 September 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Pope of the masses