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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Would the BBC's Nazi drama SS-GB have felt half so resonant a year ago?

This alternate history is freighted with meaning now we're facing the wurst-case scenario. 

Would SS-GB have felt half so resonant a year ago? Though the clever-after-the-fact Nostradamus types out there might disagree, I can’t believe that it would. When it comes to the Second World War, after all, the present has helpfully stepped in where memory is just beginning to leave off. The EU, in the process of fragmenting, is now more than ever powerless to act in the matter of rogue states, even among its own membership. In case you hadn’t noticed, Hungary, for instance, is already operating as a kind of proto-fascist state, led by Viktor Orbán, a man whom Jean-Claude Juncker, the president of the European Commission, jokingly likes to call “the dictator” – and where it goes, doubtless others will soon follow.

The series (Sundays, 9pm), adapted from Len Deighton’s novel, is set in 1941 in a Britain under Nazi occupation; Winston Churchill has been executed and the resistance is struggling to hold on to its last strongholds in the countryside. Sam Riley plays Douglas Archer, a detective at Scotland Yard, now under the control of the SS, and a character who appears in almost every scene. Riley has, for an actor, a somewhat unexpressive face, beautiful but unreadable. Here, however, his downturned mouth and impassive cheekbones are perfect: Archer, after all, operates (by which I mean, barely operates) in a world in which no one wants to give their true feelings away, whether to their landlady, their lover, or their boss, newly arrived from Himmler’s office and as Protestant as all hell (he hasn’t used the word “degenerate” yet, but he will, he will).

Archer is, of course, an ambiguous figure, neither (at present) a member of the resistance nor (we gather) a fully committed collaborator. He is – or so he tells himself – merely doing his job, biding his time until those braver or more foolhardy do something to restore the old order. Widowed, he has a small boy to bring up. Yet how long he can inhabit this dubious middle ground remains to be seen. Oskar Huth (Lars Eidinger), the new boss, is keen to finish off the resistance; the resistance, in turn, is determined to persuade Archer to join its cause.

It’s hard to find fault with the series; for the next month, I am going to look forward to Sunday nights mightily. I would, I suppose, have hoped for a slightly more charismatic actress than Kate Bosworth to play Barbara Barga, the American journalist who may or may not be involved with the British resistance. But everything else seems pretty perfect to me. London looks suitably dirty and its inhabitants’ meals suitably exiguous. Happiness is an extra egg for tea, smoking is practically a profession, and
the likes of Archer wear thick, white vests.

Swastikas adorn everything from the Palace of Westminster to Trafalgar Square, Buckingham Palace is half ruined, a memorial to what the Germans regard as Churchill’s folly, and the CGI is good enough for the sight of all these things to induce your heart to ache briefly. Nazi brutality is depicted here as almost quotidian – and doubtless it once was to some. Huth’s determination to have four new telephone lines installed in his office within the hour is at one end of this horrible ordinariness. At the other is the box in which Archer’s mutinous secretary Sylvia (Maeve Dermody) furiously stubs out her fag, full to the brim with yellow stars.

When I first heard about The Kettering Incident (Tuesdays, 12.20am; repeated Wednesdays, 10pm) I thought someone must have found out about that thing that happened one time I was driving north on the M1 with a more-than-usually terrible hangover. Turns out it’s a new Australian drama, which comes to us on Sky Atlantic. Anna (Elizabeth Debicki), a doctor working in London, pitches up back in Tasmania many years after her teenage friend Gillian disappeared into its Kettering forest, having seen a load of mysterious bright lights. Was Gillian abducted by aliens or was she, as some local people believe, murdered by Anna? To be honest, she could be working as a roadie for Kylie, for all I care. This ponderous, derivative show is what happens when a writer sacrifices character on the altar of plot. The more the plot thickens, the more jaw-achingly tedious it becomes.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit