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Celebrating Elaine May: The 2016 WGA West Screenwriting Award

Elaine May returns to the spotlight on February 13, in Los Angeles, to accept the WGA West Screenwriting Award, for her original and prolific, credited and un-credited, screenwriting brilliance over many decades.
Why are some people hyper-famous for having no talent while others are original, brilliant, and relatively unknown?
In the case of writer/director/comic pioneer/actress Elaine May, resident planetary genius, she has chosen a largely shadowed career in exchange for the infinite horizon of creative autonomy.
In other words, no TMZ sound bites, while boarding a plane and munching a rice cake, for her!
Elaine May was a pioneer of comedy improv, with her partner, Mike Nichols, who came together as comedy soul mates in Chicago’s 1950’s Second City, the progenitor of SNL.
As the “May” in “Nichols and May”, her career path appeared to be stratospheric, with no hint of an end in sight.
Their genius together was one of those lifetime moments of perfect fate. They were individually unlike anyone else, each insanely gifted with unique comic voices, and together—-whamo!
The live-wired intellect and emotional skin they shared made them appear seemlessly attached, organically yet also, as they played it, thoughtlessly.
Everyone was in on the joke, including Elaine and Mike.
Elaine May and Mike Nichols invited the audience to simultaneously laugh, cry, feel themselves as funny, change the way they told the truth about the world and themselves, and have a hell of a fabulous time.
It was mind-blowing and freshly hatched and everyone loved them.
They played literate, coolly zany, and self-deprecating characters; characters with no psychological self-understanding, and leaking with the adamant lack of it.
In a nutshell, only one among the many, the essence of the work of Mike Nichols and Elaine May was about how unconscious we are, how it’s a tragedy that is extremely funny. Their characters were familiar, hysterical and iconic.(INSERT MOTHER PIECE)
Who better to make the point that we are not awake than these two mad geniuses?
I suppose, from a writer’s point of view, this is a story about choosing, in both their cases, to take consistent incremental steps, and risks, toward an artistic public career. Because the work is what you do best and is so much fun, you keep doing it. Though maybe you are not quite developmentally ready for that personal, emotional shift from private to public.
Maybe you don’t want it.
Mike Nichols has said much on the topic of the adoration and mainstream acceptance their act received, pointing out that they were flummoxed by the applause and popularity they had.
After the famous break-up of Nichols and May, May emerged as a director of four films, “A New Leaf” (1971), “The Heartbreak Kid (1972), “Mikey and Nicky” (1976), and “Ishtar” (1987).
She became, unsurprisingly, a quotable screenwriter, prolific playwright, and exceptional comic actress celebrated for writing hugely successful screenplays, such as, “Heaven Can Wait” and “The Birdcage”, while remaining deliberately un-credited in many, many more.
In fact, she is famous for choosing to be un-credited in her script writing and doctoring.
(Remember I said she chose to have a shadowed career? This was me, “foreshadowing”).
The real truth is, there is absolutely no way Elaine May can hide from us, because once you know Elaine May’s comic voice, you hear her in every script she’s had her paws on. And once you hear Elaine May’s speaking voice, you never forget it.
She is highly respected in her career of being an un-credited writer of numerous films, which is itself, an interesting idea for a film character. “Tootsie”, is one of many reputed May-written masterpieces. It is a film in which Dustin Hoffman’s character delivers a desperate defense of his acting talent and pleads with his agent to get him work, with the line, “I did an evening of vegetables!” Pure Elaine.
Since it was Elaine’s idea to carve a career from un-credited screenwriting, let’s consider that maybe this is an emblematic game that tickles Elaine. Elaine May is playing hide and seek with us.
Which makes us want her even more.
And yet, she is stepping out at the moment.
She recently directed an unforgettable episode of the high quality PBS series, “American Masters”, on Mike Nichols, having aired on January 29, 2016.
The documentary spells out, in Mike’s own words, that Elaine May was the shining apex of his career. I predict that Elaine wins the Emmy for Documentary for this beautifully directed, achingly loving tribute to her stand-up partner, Mike.
Okay, so Elaine doesn’t want to live a public life.
In television vernacular, “I get it”.
Once you review her work, you will know how she also taunts us to want her words, her mind, to need much more of her.
In this way, she may be giving us a wry, unconsciously flirtatious, “f**k you”, and not even know it!
Personal note to Elaine May: Whatever this hide and seek is designed to achieve (or not), in the paraphrased spirit of presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, “You, Elaine, may not want to play (vote) with us, but we will never stop celebrating you”.

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