Elaine May retrospective at Film Forum filled with must-see flicks

Charles Grodin and Cybill Shepherd star in 1972's "The Heartbreak Kid," directed by Elaine May. It screens at Film Forum on Tuesday.
Charles Grodin and Cybill Shepherd star in 1972’s "The Heartbreak Kid," directed by Elaine May. It screens at Film Forum on Tuesday. Photo Credit: FDNY

It’s no secret that Elaine May is one of the most transformative and significant figures in the history of American comedy. Yet, when it comes to the trailblazing icon’s work as a filmmaker, both as a writer and especially a director, she is still underappreciated.

Film Forum offers the chance to reassess a cinematic legacy that is still unfairly defined by the legendary box office flop of "Ishtar" as it commences a May-devoted sidebar on Tuesday to its exhaustive, weekslong "Far-Out in the ’70s" comedy series.

The May focus is a welcome facet of an essential retrospective filled with an abundance of big, generation-defining smashes ("Blazing Saddles," "Smokey and the Bandit," etc.) and lesser-known oddities (see, for example, a Jack Nicholson double feature of "Goin’ South" and "The Fortune"). 

Here’s what you can find at this tribute to the 86-year-old, who helped define modern American satire in her work with comedy partner Mike Nichols and is now continuing her remarkable career on Broadway in "The Waverly Gallery."

‘Enter Laughing’ (screens Tuesday): May co-stars in the filmmaking debut of another comedy icon, Carl Reiner, which tells a story based on Reiner’s experiences as a young man (played by Reni Santoni) struggling to make it in show business in late 1930s New York. May plays the daughter of a theater company owner (Jose Ferrer) who takes the protagonist under his wing.

‘The Heartbreak Kid’ (screens Tuesday and Jan. 31): May directs and Neil Simon writes this seminal 1972 comedy, which also stands as a landmark of Jewish New Wave cinema, in which Charles Grodin’s Lenny Kantrow decides he’s had it with his nagging new bride Lila (Jeannie Berlin) on their honeymoon, where he becomes entranced with Cybill Shepherd’s Midwestern college student. It’s dark and controversial, widely accused of stereotyping, but unflinchingly perceptive.

‘A New Leaf’ (screens Jan. 29): Directing for the first time, writing the screenplay and starring opposite Walter Matthau, May plays a botanist who comes into the orbit of a deadbeat playboy in this black comedy. The critics loved the movie, which was released in 1971.

‘Mikey and Nicky’ (screens Jan. 29): Peter Falk and John Cassavetes star in May’s 1976 dramatic two-hander about low-level mobsters running from a hit man. Little seen upon release, it is now widely considered to be a masterwork.

‘Heaven Can Wait’ (screens Feb. 5): Warren Beatty brought on May to co-write this big-screen adaptation of the Harry Seagall play (previously made by Hollywood as "Here Comes Mr. Jordan" in 1941 and later as "Down to Earth"), in which his character, a quarterback named Joe Pendleton, dies prematurely and returns to life in a different body.

‘The Birdcage’ (screens Feb. 5): Nichols and May reunited with this uproarious remake of the 1978 French movie "La Cage aux Folles" (which also screens in this festival). Nichols directs, May writes and the combination of Robin Williams, Nathan Lane and Gene Hackman produces one belly laugh after another.

‘Ishtar’ (screens Feb. 12): The thing to understand about the infamous, maligned "Ishtar," the movie that unfairly and irrevocably killed May’s feature filmmaking career, is this: It’s not great, but it’s really not that bad. In fact, the spy caper starring Beatty and Dustin Hoffman as a terrible singing duo in a fictional North African country has a lot to recommend about it, including some funny songs. Give it a shot.

If you go: Film Forum’s Elaine May series runs from Tuesday through Feb. 12, 209 W. Houston St., filmforum.org

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