Nichols, May and The Heartbreak Kid

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There’s a famous line about Ginger Rogers and her struggle for recognition in a male-dominated Hollywood: “Ginger Rogers did everything Fred Astaire did, except backwards and in heels.” It’s a great little phrase and you can (as Barack Obama did recently) easily sub out Rogers for any number of famous women. One such woman is Elaine May, an extraordinary screenwriter and director who, like Rogers, risked disappearing in the shadow of her male creative partner. To my mind, May was the Rogers to Mike Nichols’s Astaire.

Before they were successful directors and screenwriters, they were the improvisational comedy duo Nichols and May. As partners and contemporaries of the famed acting coach Del Close, they began their careers in the mid-1950s with the Compass Players, the Chicago theater troupe that would become Second City. From the improv circuit, they took their two-person act to television and stage and recorded a handful of albums—one of which went on to win a Grammy. While their act tended to appeal to the highbrow, their premises were based on the mundane and archetypal—a rocket scientist who is chewed out by his mother for being too busy to call; a psychiatrist who can’t stop hiccupping through his patient’s sobbing confessions.

In 1961, at the height of their fame, Nichols and May disbanded. “Several things happened,” Nichols explained. “One was that I, more than Elaine, became more and more afraid of our improvisational material. She was always brave. We never wrote a skit, we just sort of outlined it: I’ll try to make you, or we’ll fight—whatever it was. We found ourselves doing the same material over and over, especially in our Broadway show. This took a great toll on Elaine.”

Following their split, Nichols went into film and May into theater. Nichols’s break came in 1966 when he directed the classic Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, starring Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. Critics dubbed him the “new Orson Welles,” and the next year he bested himself with The Graduate, starring Dustin Hoffman and Anne Bancroft. May, meanwhile, found moderate success in the theater until 1971, when she directed her first feature film, A New Leaf. The following year she had her first big Hollywood hit, an adaptation of the Neil Simon–penned screenplay The Heartbreak Kid.

While The Heartbreak Kid was warmly received by critics, many reviews seemed to boil the film down to a satire of, or even a malicious jab at, her former comedy partner’s film The Graduate. Both movies certainly parallel each other in plot: The Graduate is a dry comedy about a boy named Benjamin Braddock (Hoffman) drifting through life after college, having an affair with a married woman twice his age and then falling for her daughter; The Heartbreak Kid is a dark comedy about the recently married Lenny Cantrow (Charles Grodin), who regrets his wedding and likewise falls for a teenage beauty, Kelly (Cybill Shepherd), ultimately terminating his marriage to pursue her. Both films end similarly, too, with the main characters, immediately after their impulsive romantic elopement, staring into the camera with an indefinable expression on their faces.

In a way, The Heartbreak Kid picks up where The Graduate leaves off—with a man realizing that his fantasized romance didn’t fulfill his spiritual desires, which leads him to chase another whim. Unlike Benjamin, Lenny is living purely on impulse. His realization at the end is one of selfishness; he desires the chase more than the prize. It’s a great juxtaposition—Nichols’s gentle flirtations with existentialism versus May’s darkly realistic and fully grounded musings on male ego (the type only a woman in the 1970s would be so acutely aware of).

Whereas The Graduate is told through Benjamin’s eyes, May defines her protagonist primarily through the supporting cast. She sets up her shots with a focus on secondary reactions in relation to her main character, keeping the audience pointedly outside of Lenny’s thoughts. The result is that the viewer learns about Lenny through the expressions of his companions: Through his wife’s tears, his paramour’s amused smiles, her father’s simmering glares.

The infamous dinner breakup scene is a perfect example. Though driven forward by Lenny’s awkward stammering, as he attempts to ever-so-politely end his week-old marriage to Lila (expertly played by May’s daughter, Jeannie Berlin), the focus is all on his soon-to-be-ex-wife, who barely has to say a word to steal the scene. Lila’s expression falls from love and sincerity to innocent confusion, to philosophical awe, to mortal fear, and at last to pure stomach-churning devastation. While Lenny tries to comfort her, the camera fixes on Lila’s dry heaving. We never get this sort of intimacy with Mrs. Robinson, the object of young Benjamin’s illicit fantasies; compared with the supporting cast of The Hearbreak Kid, the family Robinson is rather one-dimensional.

While both films surely stand on their own, I think of May’s as the perfect comedic heightening of Nichols’s, especially given May and Nichols’s history. The Heartbreak Kid is not a satire as much as an alternative perspective—the flip side of the same coin. For every Benjamin Braddock out there who believes they’re fighting for truth and meaning in a void, there are just as many egocentric Lenny Cantrows, leaving Lilas in their wake.

Feature photo: Everett Collection