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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.