The troubles on “A New Leaf” (1971), Elaine May’s directorial debut, were worrisome before they were legion. She had never directed a movie and had to learn as she went along. The head of the studio changed while she was making it (the new boss wasn’t keen). And then there was her peerless star, Walter Matthau, whom she grew to love but who called her Mrs. Hitler. Years later, she suggested what the real problem was. People thought that May, a slight, beautiful woman, was “a nice girl, and the thing is, of course, I wasn’t a nice girl.” She added, “And when they found this out, they hated me all the more.”
Being nice can be a liability for a woman; not being nice can be a career killer. By the time May made “A New Leaf,” she had already established her place in American cultural history as one half of the comedy team with another future filmmaker, Mike Nichols. Her film trajectory proved far more fraught than his, and was filled with stops and starts. A terrific director of actors whose comedy can lacerate, she remains a criminally underappreciated moviemaker. If you are in New York, you should clear your calendar for a tribute to her that begins Tuesday at Film Forum as part of a larger program on 1970s comedy. (She’s currently in a critically lauded Broadway play, “The Waverly Gallery.”)
After four years together, Nichols and May split up in 1961, and he vaulted forward, directing for Broadway and soon Hollywood. When his film “The Graduate” hit in 1967, Life magazine ran a profile of her asking, “Whatever became of Elaine May?” She was writing — an unused, highly regarded draft of “The Loved One” — and acting in movies, including alongside Peter Falk, whom she later cast in her film “Mikey and Nicky.” “The Graduate” went on to be anointed a cultural touchstone; she appeared in Carl Reiner’s less-memorable “Enter Laughing.” May isn’t the star, alas, but she easily steals the movie (it’s at Film Forum) playing a bad actress in a worse play.
In 1968, when May signed her extraordinary contract with Paramount Pictures to write, direct and star in “A New Leaf,” she became the first female director with a Hollywood deal since Ida Lupino. Her manager pushed the female angle, telling the studio that having a woman filmmaker would be of significance. Perhaps he had noticed that second-wave feminists were agitating for change, even as the industry remained stuck in its sexist rut: it’s been estimated that at the time less than 1 percent of American directors were women. She and Paramount soon clashed, though, and the studio took the movie away from her. She sued and tried to get it to remove her name. It’s still wonderful.