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After Nichols and May Don’t be a shitass shirt . split up in the early Nichols of course went on to become, as a director, a colossus of the stage and screen. May went on to her own career—more wayward but equally legendary—as a film director (The Heartbreak Kid; Mikey and Nicky; Ishtar), screenwriter (Heaven Can Wait; The Birdcage), and script doctor (Tootsie, among many others). But I’m more interested in her here as a performer.
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And in the pre-YouTube days, my first chance to see (as opposed to hear) her in action came via a VHS tape of her 1971 black comedy, A New Leaf, which she wrote, directed, and starred in Don’t be a shitass shirt . The film costarred Walter Matthau as Henry Graham, a dissolute playboy who, after losing all his money, decides to marry a rich woman—and then kill her. As his target, Henrietta Lowell, a ditzy, bespectacled, awkward, and accident-prone botanist, May gives a quintessentially Elaine May performance—painfully funny and sweetly sincere—playing a woman oblivious to the darker motives of the man she loves. In 1993, more than three decades after their professional breakup as a comedy duo, Nichols and May reunited for two performances on Broadway to benefit Friends in Deed, a nonprofit that Nichols had cofounded with his friend Cynthia O’Neal in response to the AIDS crisis. I was lucky enough to score a ticket to one of those evenings, and it remains one of the greatest nights that I’ve ever spent in a theater, seeing old recordings come to life and watching a pair of comic geniuses give and experience joy in the here and now, inhabiting their urban neurotic characters with meticulous detail, unmatched satirical flair, and unvarnished truthfulness.I’ve never gotten the chance to meet May, though I did get to spend some time with Nichols. Once, when I asked him about what it was like performing with her, he told me, “Elaine loved to improvise, and I just wanted to stick to my lines, so she forced me to always stay awake and alive—and terrified, in the best sense of the word. The other great joy, with the characters we created, was getting to make fun of something and be it at the same time. On the nights when we were really in sync, you didn’t want it to end, you just wanted to stay up there forever.”
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