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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What we can learn from Harry Potter’s “mad women”

We revist the “mad” women of Harry Potter, both good, bad and somewhere in between.

Madness is a fluid thing. To be “crazy” has no fixed meaning, it changes to fit the definition required – whether that’s a quick fix to deflect blame for the powerful (think racism, terrorism or fascism damagingly dismissed as “mental illness”) or a cunning way to dismiss the powerless: She’s not telling the truth! She’s crazy! Madness may be utterly meaningless, but it has infinite power.

In the often unreal space of mental illness, the fantasy world of books, movies and television can intertwine with one’s lived experience. I hated reading until Harry Potter came to me as a traumatised ten-year-old. In between bouts of psychosis and extreme suicidal ideation I would read, and read, and read. They were big books too, so thick, no picture – but it was worth it. A whole world just for me! Now isn’t that magical?

As we approach the twentieth anniversary of this wonderful, wizarding world, I find myself returning to the “mad” women of Harry Potter, both good, bad and somewhere in between. Bellatrix Lestrange, Moaning Myrtle, Luna Lovegood, Professor Trelawney... Who are these characters beyond their exaggerated mannerisms and super cute style? What are they telling us about the cultural codes of madness and the construct of the “mad woman”?

Because despite being more distressed when I was sorted into Slytherin than when I was presented with a personality disorder, pop culture and medical realities cross over in interesting and unexpected ways. These culturally agreed upon outfits of “madness” are retold and remade over and over. Who can wear the costume of madness, and in what way, in the popular imagination?

Luna Lovegood

First, let’s go for one of for one of the “good guys”. “Looney Luna”, the dazed Hogwarts student as pale as a full moon, is portrayed in the films with a quietly mesmerising performance from Evanna Lynch. Bullied for her “horrid” dress sense and marked out for her “distinct dottiness”, Luna was one of my teen idols. Young, brilliant, equally skilled at making novelty hats, riding thestrals and saving the wizarding world, Luna is up there with the best of them!

An heiress to madness, as the child of Xenophilius Lovegood, notorious for his “lunatic rag”, The Quibbler (known for its coverage of elusive magical creatures and defiantly radical politics), Luna, in her ability to embrace the impossible, is often characterised as an ‘anti-Hermione’, she is more than a mere shadow of another girl.

After all, in inhabiting such a distinct world of her own creation, shaped both by the grief of losing her mother and her own personal vision, it could be easy to dismiss her as a mere manic pixie dream girl, especially when considering her ability to recognise and support Harry’s struggles when others could not, but Luna’s character is more robust than these misogynistic tropes. Not only does she save Harry’s reputation with an interview in the much-maligned Quibbler (another reminder not to judge the ‘loony’ on first glance), she serves as a dedicated member of Dumbledore’s Army, acting as an essential force in The Battle of the Department of Mysteries, The Battle of The Astronomy Tower and of course, the final Battle For Hogwarts. Yes, her eccentricities are dismissed as ‘loony’, but they belong to a heroic character in possession of creativity, wit, intellect – and, of course, unique style. (A necklace made of Butterbeer corks, anyone?)

Pale, pop cultural misfits are funny things. Winona Ryder, Audrey Tatou in Amelie, Zooey Deschanel, Kate Bush… sometimes outsiders are more insiders than you’d realise. Nonetheless, I will fangirl for Luna forever.

Professor Sybill Trelawney

Perhaps seen as another antagonist to Hermione’s bookish rationality, and an adult mirror for Luna’s own dream logic, Professor Sybill Trelawney is a shining star in a long line of magical “mad women”. Can’t you just imagine her and the Log Lady from Twin Peaks bonding over a pint of Pumpkin Juice? The links between madness and the mystic run deep, it is no coincidence that Sybill’s Grandmother takes the name of Cassandra. Who would believe a mad woman? But who but a mad woman can see the truth in a chaotic world? (Luna, too, is characterised as keen observer, after all.) The pop cultural mystic provokes so many questions in regards to the mythology of madness (an often unhelpful fetish for those of us who are actually struggling with our mental health) and broader questions of believing women when we are constantly dismissed as irrational, ridiculous or unreliable.

Though her exaggerated costume and “woolly” predictions could reduce her to a mere comic support act, Sybill has far more nuance than the (seemingly) ridiculous individual we are presented with in the start of the third book. Throughout the series, her character deepens and develops: we see a heartbreakingly vulnerable side to her in the fifth book, and though her gift for The Inner Eye may have been dismissed early on, her predictions eventually become essential in defeating Voldemort. Sybill even plays a fearless role in The Battle of Hogwarts, knocking out Death Eaters with her crystal balls. One of Harry Potter’s many lessons is not to dismiss unconventional women like Sybill too quickly. As a result, Sybill stands out as a beautiful branch on the tree of mystic weirdos. Who knows what miraculous things we might discover if we take the time to listen to her?

Moaning Myrtle

Existing as an exaggeration of teen girl melancholy, Moaning Myrtle is trapped in the school that bullied and eventually killed her. She’s pictured as forever crying in the girls’ bathroom on the first floor, unwanted and unmissed, with even her attempt at high school revenge washed out. There’s been so many perceptive conversations on the post-Kraus female gaze: wouldn’t it be interesting to locate Myrtle within them? She’s depicted as crushing on any boy that comes her way (be it Harry, Cedric or Malfoy), though the only thing she has to offer them is a toilet. Even her acne is “morose”.

This is a world where Janis Ian’s “At Seventeen” plays on loop for eternity, effortlessly brought to (after)life by the brilliant Shirley Henderson, Queen of crying in public bathrooms. I’ll leave with my favourite quote that could one up even the most contentious Lana Del Rey soundbite:

Myrtle: “I wasn’t paying attention. Peeves upset me so much I came in here and tried to kill myself. Then, of course, I remembered that I’m — that I’m —”

Ron: “Already dead.”

Bellatrix LeStrange

And then we have Bellatrix: crazy in love with the Dark Lord himself, escaped inmate from a madness inducing institution, and a total Amy Winehouse prototype in her aesthetic of long black hair, low voice and heavily-lidded eyes.

It’s striking how frequently certain traits reoccur in pop culture when we envision the criminally insane, especially when it comes to women. Much like Harley Quinn of the Batman universe or Drusilla in Buffy, Bellatrix talks in the bizarre baby talk so popular with the fantasy mad woman. We are presented with a woman infantilised. This is also at play in her relationship with Voldemort: she’s totally dependent and utterly out of control.

If we can read Luna and Sybill as playful antagonists to such rational figures as Professor McGonagall and Hermione, Bellatrix serves as an active threat against Molly Weasley, the only true maternal figure Harry really has in the series. Sirius’ face may be the one burnt off the House of Black’s family tree, but it is Bellatrix who is the real destroyer of families: from the torture of Neville Longbottom’s parents, to the murder of her cousin (and Harry’s Godfather) Sirius Black and her own niece, Nymphadora Tonks. She even kills Dobby! In setting Bellatrix up as a total monster, it’s unsurprising that she became the only character to earn an all caps curse word in this child-friendly book. Because female evil has a particular kind of power, it provokes disgust in ways that others do not. Consider Umbridge, another reigning villainess with her hot pink get-ups and kitsch cat study, a sort of Nurse Ratched of Hogwarts. To use the building blocks of femininity to make a monster harbours true horror, so it is the female villains, both mad and bad, that stand out most sharply when it comes to Harry’s nemeses.

In the exaggerated fantasy world of Harry Potter this cast of mad women may seem like simplistic set characters of quirky creatives, cry-babies, unrealizable narrators and outright she-Devils. However, if we look closer at these ghostly voyeurs, escaped prisoners and outright eccentrics we can position these characters within a longer cultural history of ‘insane’ and outrageous women. Madness is often presented as a sort of magic and it is these mad women, existing in the already improbable space of witches and wizards, that push even further against our received ideas of rationality, respectability, even human goodness. Pottermore may have sorted me into Slytherin, but it is the Hogwarts House of Mad Women whose robes I choose to wear.

Now read the other articles included in the New Statesman’s Harry Potter Week.

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