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ReFocus: The Films of Elaine May$
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Alexandra Heller-Nicholas and Dean Brandum

Print publication date: 2019

Print ISBN-13: 9781474440189

Published to Edinburgh Scholarship Online: May 2020

DOI: 10.3366/edinburgh/9781474440189.001.0001

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Dangerous Business—Elaine May as Existential Improviser

Dangerous Business—Elaine May as Existential Improviser

(p.63) Chapter 3 Dangerous Business—Elaine May as Existential Improviser
ReFocus: The Films of Elaine May

Jake Wilson

Edinburgh University Press

Before Elaine May was a film director, she was famous for her improvised comedy skits with Mike Nichols. While May's subsequent films may not be improvised in the literal sense, this essay will argue that in many respects they can be seen as extensions of the principles guiding her early work with Nichols, in particular the notion of performance as a shared act of creation in the moment. This chapter establishes connections between the sketches of Nichols and May and two aspects of May's filmmaking above all. First, all of her films are built around double acts, implying a complicity between performers even when the characters they are playing are at odds or deceiving each other―an extension of the “yes, and...” principle associated with the tradition of theatre improvisation founded by Viola. Second, the allegedly “troubled” production histories of all her films can be seen as implying a commitment to filmmaking as existential adventure which places her at odds with standard Hollywood practice―and which can be linked to the way the films explicitly question conventional notions of success and failure.

Keywords:   Elaine May, Women’s Filmmaking, Women Directors, A New Leaf (film), The Heartbreak Kid (film), Mikey and Nicky (film), Ishtar (film), Comedy, Existentialism, Improvisation

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