A Conversation With Elaine May
The Austin Film Festival guest is her own unreliable narrator
By Marjorie Baumgarten, 11:40AM, Fri. Oct. 25
Don't believe everything you read about Elaine May.
At the outset of her Austin Film Festival conversation with Phil Rosenthal (Everybody Loves Raymond executive producer), the marvelous screenwriter, director, and performer freely admitted that she used to lie like crazy during interviews in the early part of her career.
"Nobody listened" when she and her comedy partner Mike Nichols answered questions honestly, she observed, so to keep herself entertained, she sometimes said whatever popped into her head. "I once said something won three Academy Awards, and no one checked."
Interviewer Rosenthal discovered this the hard way when some of the questions he lobbed, which were based on his obviously well-prepared background research, were met with May's stupefaction. "No, I never performed in the Yiddish theatre as a child," she retorted to one early query. And so it went.
The free-ranging conversation covered May's multifaceted career, during which she admitted to having "no sense of humor" before getting into improvisational comedy. "People called me Olga," she confessed, due to her love of the classic Russian novelists.
Her No. 1 tip for comedy writing? "You've got to have a roommate" for the central character to express witticisms to. Also, it's become necessary to brush up screenplays every few years to keep abreast of new technology. It's hard for a character to get lost anymore with GPS as ubiquitous as it is.
A recent recipient of the National Medal of Arts, May commented on the award-giver President Obama. Despite her disagreements with him, she found him to be "adorable. He's the guy you wish you'd dated in high school." However, she disagreed with Rosenthal, who has also had opportunity to meet the president, that the Commander-in-Chief has a weak handshake.
At 12:30 today, May will be present the first comedy that she wrote and directed A New Leaf at the Rollins Theatre.
For all our festival coverage, go to austinchronicle.com/austin-film-festival.