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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Britain's diversity crisis starts with its writers. Here's why

What happens on the casting couch draws the headline, but the problem starts on the page, says James Graham. 

I’m a playwright and screenwriter, which – pertinent to the issues we’ll be discussing in this enquiry – still feels weird to say. I get embarrassed, still, saying that, in a taxi or hairdressers. I don’t know why I still carry that insecurity about saying I’m a writer, but I do, because it sounds like I’m lying, even in my own head.

Obviously I’m completely biased, and probably overstating the influence and importance of my own profession, but I think so many of the problems surrounding lack of representation in the performing arts start with writers.

If we aren’t encouraging and generating writers from certain communities, classes or backgrounds to tell their stories, to write those roles, then there’s not going to be a demand for actors from those communities to play them. For casting agents or drama schools to prioritise getting diverse actors on stage. We need to create those plays and TV dramas –like the ones that I grew up with. I didn’t have any access to much theatre until I was fifteen, but I did have Boys From the Black Stuff, and I did have Cracker, and I did have Band of Gold. I think the loss of those regional producing bodies – Central, Granada – now all completely centralised into London, means that we just tell less of those stories. I remember a TV show called Boon – anyone? – which was set in Nottingham, and I would see on the TV streets I’d walked down, and think, Oh my God, that actor is walking down a street I’ve walked down. That sounds like it’s insignificant. If you’re from a town that is deprived, that feels ignored, it isn’t.

I was very lucky that at my school (which was, at the time, the largest comprehensive school in the country), from the headmaster down to the drama teachers, everyone just believed that working class kids should do plays. Be in plays, read plays, perform plays to the community. Both inside the curriculum of the school day, and outside it – drama teachers dedicating their time to staying behind. Our head of drama identified a group of us who clearly had a passion for it. We weren’t likely thesps. One lad’s entire family were made unemployed when the pit closed. Many lived on the big council estate. My parents and step-parents worked respectively in warehouses, the local council, or as the local window cleaner (incidentally, my first real job. Which I was terrible at).

Our drama teacher was encouraged and determined enough to launch the first ever Drama A-Level in our school. Based on that, about 10 or 12 of us got the confidence – or arrogance – to take our own show to the Edinburgh Festival. We were 16 or 17, and the first people in our community to ever go to visit the festival. We did a play up there, and after that, a psychological unlocking happened, where I thought: maybe I could do a degree in drama (it was the first time I had ever thought to do so) at university (the first in my family to go. Well, joint-first. My twin sister went on the same day, but I walked into my digs first).

I enrolled in drama at Hull University. A high proportion of my peers were middle class. A higher proportion from London or the South East. They talked often about institutions I had never heard of. They were talking about the National Theatre: I didn’t know we had a national theatre that my parents had been paying tax for that I had never been to. Many had performed with the (again, apparently) ‘National’ Youth Theatre, also in London. Paul Roseby, also on this panel, has made such leaps forward in getting the NYT producing in regional venues, and making auditions possible for people across the UK, but unfortunately, at the time, that wasn’t the case for me – and I was the ideal candidate to be in the National Youth Theatre.

I started writing because I had the confidence after I read texts by people like Jim Cartwright, Alan Bennett, John Godber, Alan Ayckbourn: Northern writers, working class writers that made me think it wasn’t just something that other people do.

After returning home, and working at local theatres, I moved down to London. I had to. The major new writing producers are there. All the TV companies are there. The agents are there. I was lucky to find support in a pub fringe theatre – though the economics meant there was no money to commission, so I wrote plays for free for about four years, that would get produced, and reviewed in the national press, while I worked various jobs in the day and slept for a time on a mate's floor. The first person to ever pay to commission me to write a play was Paul Roseby of the National Youth Theatre. I’m now very lucky to be earning a living doing something I love. In a way, compared to actors, or directors, it’s easier for writers who don’t come from a background that can sustain them, financially, in those early years. Your hours can be more flexible. Yes, it was annoying to miss rehearsals because I had a shift in a call centre, but it was still possible to do it. If you’re an actor or director, you’re fully committed. And if you’re doing that for nothing, there starts to be cut-off point for those from backgrounds who can’t.

I’m sure that local and regional theatres are the key to drawing in talent from less privileged backgrounds. But the range of national arts journalism that cover work outside London has been so significantly reduced. In our little echo chamber a few weeks ago, we theatre types talked about Lyn Gardner at the Guardian. Her coverage has been cut, which is very directly going to affect her ability to cover theatre shows outside of London – and so the self-fulfilling cycle of artists leaving their communities to work exclusively in London takes another, inevitable, turn.

I am culpable in this cycle. I have never done a play at the Nottingham Playhouse, my local producing house growing up – why? Because I’ve never submitted one, because I know that it will get less national press attention. So I just open it in London instead. That’s terrible of me. And I should just bite the bullet and say it doesn’t matter about the attention it gets, I should just go and do a story for my community. And if I, and others, started doing that more, maybe they will come.

I also want to blame myself for not contributing back to the state schools that I come from. I really really enjoy going to do writing workshops with kids in schools, but I would say 90 per cent of those that I get invited to are private schools, or boarding schools, or in the South of England. Either because they’re the ones that ask me, because they’re the ones who come and see my shows in London and see me afterwards backstage, or because they have the confidence to email my agent, or they have the budget to pay for my train ticket. Either way, I should do more. It would have helped the younger me so much to meet a real person, from my background, doing what I wanted to do.

I don’t know how to facilitate that. I take inspiration from Act for Change, creating a grassroots organisation. I know that there is a wealth of industry professionals like me who would, if there was a joined-up structure in place that got us out there into less privileged communities, we would on a regular basis go to schools who don’t get to meet industry professionals and don’t unlock that cultural and psychological block that working class kids have that says, that is not for me, that is something that other people do, I would dedicate so much of my time to it. That’s just one idea of hopefully better ones from other people that might come out of this enquiry.

James Graham is a playwright and screenwriter. This piece is adapted from evidence given by James Graham at an inquiry, Acting Up – Breaking the Class Ceiling in the Performing Arts, looking into the problem of a lack of diversity and a class divide in acting in the UK, led by MPs Gloria De Piero and Tracy Brabin.