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.

Kyle Seeley
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For emotional value, Emily is Away – a nostalgic instant messaging game – is this year’s best release

If you want to express your lingering teenage angst, there’s no better option.

Every now and then, a game is released that goes beyond what it may look or sound like. It goes straight to the pit of your insides where you thought you had no soul left, and jolts you back to life. Or at least it attempts to. This year, it's Emily is Away.

Firstly, anyone and everyone can virtually play this thing as it’s a crude Windows XP simulator displaying an AIM/MSN messenger client and can run on the PC equivalent of a potato. And it's free. It’s a short game, taking about 30 minutes, in which you play a person chatting away to your friend called Emily (who could be more), choosing from a set list of pre-selected instant messages.

Each chapter takes place in a different year, starting in 2002 and ending in 2006.

You’re instantly smacked with nostalgia thanks to the user screen of Windows XP and a fuzzed out background of Bliss, which was the default wallpaper in the operating system, and probably the most widely seen photo in the world. And your ears aren’t abandoned either, with the upbeat pinging sounds reminiscent of how you used to natter away with your personal favourite into the early hours.

The first chapter starts with you and Emily reaching the end of your last year in high school, talking about plans for the evening, but also the future, such as what you’ll be studying at university. From this early point, the seeds of the future are already being sewn.

For example, Emily mentions how Brad is annoying her in another window on her computer, but you’re both too occupied about agreeing to go to a party that night. The following year, you learn that Brad is now in fact her boyfriend, because he decided to share how he felt about Emily while you were too shy and keeping your feelings hidden.

What’s so excellent about the game is that it can be whatever you wish. Retro games used the lack of visual detail to their advantage, allowing the players to fill in the blanks. The yearly gaps in this game do exactly the same job, making you long to go back in time, even if you haven't yet reached the age of 20 in the game.

Or it lets you forget about it entirely and move on, not knowing exactly what had happened with you and Emily as your brain starts to create the familiar fog of a faded memory.

Despite having the choice to respond to Emily’s IMs in three different ways each time, your digital self tries to sweeten the messages with emoticons, but they’re always automatically deleted, the same way bad spelling is corrected in the game too. We all know that to truly to take the risk and try and move a friendship to another level, emoticons are the digital equivalent to cheesy real-life gestures, and essential to trying to win someone’s heart.

Before you know it, your emotions are heavily invested in the game and you’re always left wondering what Emily wanted to say when the game shows that she’s deleting as well as typing in the messenger. You end up not even caring that she likes Coldplay and Muse – passions reflected in her profile picture and use of their lyrics. She also likes Snow Patrol. How much can you tolerate Chasing Cars, really?

The user reviews on Steam are very positive, despite many complaining you end up being “friend-zoned” by Emily, and one review simply calling it “Rejection Simulator 2015”.

I tried so hard from all of the options to create the perfect Em & Em. But whatever you decide, Emily will always give you the #feels, and you’ll constantly end up thinking about what else you could have done.