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Elaine And Erich . . . Two Peas In The Pod?

June 14, 1987|JONATHAN ROSENBAUM | The writer, a professor of film studies at UC Santa Barbara, becomes film critic of the Chicago Reader in August.

In all of Elaine May's films, one encounters a will to power, a witty genius for subversion and caricature, and a dark, corrosive vision that recalls the example of Erich von Stroheim. The legendary Austrian-born director who started out, like May, as an aggressive actor ("The Man You Love to Hate"), Stroheim the film maker was known throughout the '20s for his intransigence and extravagance--what one studio head termed his "footage fetish."

The thematic and stylistic parallels between May and Stroheim are equally striking. Broadly speaking, "A New Leaf" is her "Blind Husbands"--a bold first film about ferocious, cynical flirtation, with the writer-director in the lead part. The Miami of "The Heartbreak Kid" matches the Monte Carlo of "Foolish Wives;" the squalor and hysteria of "Mikey and Nicky" hark back to "Greed." "Ishtar" is May's "The Merry Widow"--a piece of puff pastry enclosing a bitter almond. In all four films by each director, the personality of the film maker is markedly stronger than that of the producer involved.

If "Mikey and Nicky" and "Greed" are the ultimate testaments of a bleak vision of capitalism--just as the preceding "Heartbreak Kid" and "Foolish Wives" are more opulent celebrations of chicanery (on the part of director and hero alike)--"Ishtar" and "Merry Widow" are closer to being pacts with the Devil. Made in each case by a compulsive perfectionist in love with retakes, and set in imaginary countries, they buckle into a blockbuster format at the outset, complete with familiar plot and superstars, and then proceed to subvert it from within.

Neither film is a masterpiece but there's no indication that they're trying to be one. The idea is merely to turn a war horse into something personal, perverse, light and enjoyable.

None of this is supposed to matter. Insofar as the Reagan Era reduces everything to business, Stroheim remains a villain in this town. We were reminded of this at the Oscars ceremony, when Richard Dreyfuss, presenting an Irving Thalberg Award to Steven Spielberg, praised Thalberg's "courage" in firing Stroheim. He might have added that this exemplary act also entailed reducing "Greed" from 22 reels to 10--and burning the rest, according to Stroheim, for the 43 cents worth of silver.

It isn't surprising that "Ishtar" is being weighed for its own potential silver. A publicist told me that she caused some embarrassment simply by laughing at a press showing. A comedy costing $40 million-plus is no laughing matter.

Because my own investment in "Ishtar" consists of my respect for May's work and the price of a ticket, I can freely express my gratitude that Warren Beatty, the producer and co-star, will never be the recipient of a Thalberg Award. Whatever else one could say about him, he doesn't play by the rules. In fact, he allowed the immensely gifted May to write and direct a film with a budget higher than one enjoyed by any other woman.

And May has rewarded him with a dopey comedy that manages to charm its audience while exposing the idiocy of America's role in the Third World--from Irangate to Contragate and back again--without preaching or polemics. Not a sermon like "Salvador" or "Platoon," which projects adolescent macho metaphysics about Good and Evil onto the same subject; not a genocidal romp like the Indiana Jones epics. Just a lighthearted farce about two aging misfits who combine show biz and politics with the same square and dimwitted charisma as our current President.

Like such equally obsessive film-making eccentrics as Jerry Lewis and John Cassavetes, May lavishes her attention on the unreclaimable rather than the conventionally heroic. But she always finds a surprising degree of heroism and humanity in these figures nevertheless, from her own Lewis-inspired performance as a klutzy horticulturist in "A New Leaf" to her inept innocents abroad in "Ishtar." With Stroheim, she shares a knack for exploiting unexpected facets of actors, then pushing them to extremes. The former turned Zasu Pitts into a tragedian for "Greed;" May turned the usually sheepish Hoffman into both a stud and a maniacally jibbering auctioneer in "Ishtar."

"Telling the truth can be a dangerous business," Beatty and Hoffman sing in "Ishtar"--a truism that May's career (like Stroheim's) amply illustrates. Stuck with a conventional Neil Simon script in "Heartbreak Kid" and forbidden by contract to alter a word, she wickedly transformed the entire story by making the eponymous hero (Charles Grodin) and his newlywed wife (Jeannie Berlin) Jewish--thereby making the former's lunge after Cybill Shepherd during a Miami honeymoon a good deal more provocative. After exploring the cruelties of marriage in her first two movies, she has turned to male bonding in the second two, with equally paranoid overtones--a tragedy, then a comedy about mutually betrayed friendship.

The personal nature of May's work is more than just a matter of alluding to her hometown (Philadelphia) in one gag of "Ishtar," or reminding us of Mike Nichols' "The Graduate" (by way of Hoffman and Simon & Garfunkel) in another. Significantly, the stars of "Mikey and Nicky," Cassavetes and Peter Falk, like those of "Ishtar," are her contemporaries.

Her extraordinary capacity to identify with the loutishness of the former characters and the stupidity of the latter ones suggests an autocritique of deep and complex proportions. If "Ishtar" allows her to continue with this work--hopefully yielding her "Wedding March," "Queen Kelly" and "Walking Down Broadway" (Stroheim's last three directions)--then this is money well spent.

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