By Danica van de Velde
Elaine May opens her second feature film, The Heartbreak Kid (1972), by compressing the full cycle of courtship into three minutes. From the film’s smarmy protagonist, Lenny (Charles Grodin), rehearsing his seductive “hello” in the mirror before putting it into practice on Lila (Jeannie Berlin) in a bar, the film quickly transitions to the first blush of romance – their first kiss, their first date and Lenny’s first attempt to, for want of a better expression, get into Lila’s pants. With Lila rejecting Lenny’s amorous advances, the film cuts to their wedding day, where their first dance is set to a piano version of the Carpenters’ 1970 hit “Close to You”. This song has a number of different iterations in the film, and is realised most comically – not to mention ironically – in Lila’s off-key rendition during their honeymoon road trip to Miami, where it becomes increasingly evident that proximity is the last thing that Lenny is looking for with his new bride.
Referred to in an article by Manohla Dargis earlier this year as a “criminally underappreciated moviemaker,”1 May came to prominence in the 1960s, initially finding acclaim as part of an improvisational comedy duo with Mike Nichols. Unlike other comedy partnerships of the time, Nichols and May’s brand of humour focused on playing out scenarios as different characters, an approach that would in many ways foreshadow both their turns to filmmaking. The Heartbreak Kid particularly shares a genealogy with Nichols and May’s humour in its cuttingly observational take on human failings – what Carrie Rickey eloquently characterises as “the comedy of discomfort, at once ticklish and anxious.”2 This tension is first exhibited in the film when Lenny and Lila finally consummate their marriage. Lila’s need for reassurance in her constantly asking Lenny if the sex is “alright” is compounded in the post-coital set up of shots, as the camera cuts between Lenny’s bewildered expression of disdain and disappointment and Lila’s blissful unawareness. Tracing her fingers through his thick chest hair, she states, “Now we have the rest of our lives. Forty, fifty, sixty, a hundred years.” Lenny, however, finds a way out of this apparent death sentence when he and Lila eventually arrive in Miami and he meets Kelly (Cybill Shepherd) on the beach. Reflecting on his marriage, which is now only a few days old, Lenny claims, “It was just one of those dumb things I rushed into like joining the army except, this time, I’m walking away. I’m not going to wait three years to get out.” If there was any semblance of a love story unfolding in the film’s opening scenes, it is at this point that May makes it clear that she is not interested in romantic comedy, but rather the bittersweet sting of satire.
Although The Heartbreak Kid has almost overwhelmingly been lauded as a success by critics, it is the highly gendered and socio-economic divide between the film’s two female characters that has polarised scholars. May certainly does not take a subtle approach to representing the incongruity between brunette Lila’s loud unsophistication and blonde Kelly’s embodiment of an entitled and snobbish princess. To this end, Kelly’s first appearance in a sleek, black one-piece swimsuit is contrasted with Lila’s blue polka-dot bikini with matching robe. While Kelly exudes refinement and a certain mystique as she elegantly dives into the ocean, Lila eats Milky Way chocolate bars in bed after sex, talks too much and can’t swim.
Barbara Koenig Quart, drawing on Lila’s insecurity, slovenliness and inability to satisfy her husband sexually, goes so far as to refer to her as “one of the most negative images of a Jewish woman on film.”3 Mary G Hurd, however, provides an opposing opinion and shifts attention away from Lila’s behaviour to the reaction it elicits in Lenny, convincingly arguing that May “appears to be giving [him] room to hang [himself].”4 Indeed, when he abandons Lila one night, under the pretence of meeting an old army friend, Lenny assures her that he will not forget her. No sooner have the words come out of his mouth, the scene cuts to a close-up of Kelly’s face. Given that the film is portrayed through Lenny’s perspective, this cruel cut in the editing, which effaces Lila to focus on Kelly, provides further reinforcement of Lenny’s lack of integrity and May’s desire to insidiously highlight it.
Significantly, it is through the persistent use of close-ups, captured by cinematographer Owen Roizman, that May is able to further lambaste Lenny and further the underlying atmosphere of unease that pervades the film. Building her comedy around the constellations of expressions, looks and glances on their faces, May holds the characters in The Heartbreak Kid claustrophobically within the frame and traps them in scenes with the very people they wish to escape. This is not limited to Lenny’s moments of clear revilement at the sight of Lila, but hilariously apparent in the scenes that feature him with Kelly’s father (Eddie Albert), who fails to hide his utter contempt for Lenny in his ardent pursuit of his daughter. The act of looking has a specific currency in the film – from Lenny self-admiringly regarding himself in the mirror to Kelly telling him her father’s first impressions: “He hasn’t met you, but just from appearances he doesn’t like you.” Moments such as these, which proliferate throughout The Heartbreak Kid, are distilled in Rickey’s summation of a consistent thread across May’s small oeuvre of four films: “a woman’s gimlet-eyed view of the varieties of male vanity and narcissism.”5 Viewers can leave the film theatre after watching The Heartbreak Kid not as misanthropes, but with a wry smile of appreciation; this speaks to May’s skill at uncovering the darker side of relationships and managing to find a comedic slither of light.
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The Heartbreak Kid (1972 United States 106 mins)
Prod. Co: Palomar Pictures International Prod: Edgar J Scherick Dir: Elaine May Scr: Neil Simon Mus: Garry Sherman Phot: Owen Roizman Ed: John Carter Art Dir: Richard Sylbert
Cast: Charles Grodin, Cybill Shepherd, Jeannie Berlin, Audra Lindley, Eddie Albert
- Manohla Dargis, “The Marvelous Ms. Elaine May,” The New York Times, 21 January 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/01/21/movies/elaine-may-movies.html.
- Carrie Rickey, “Elaine May: Laughing Matters,” Sight & Sound 28.10 (2018): p. 40.
- Barbara Koenig Quart, Women Directors: The Emergence of a New Cinema (New York: Praeger, 1988), p. 42.
- Mary G Hurd, Women Directors and Their Films (Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 2007), p. 150.
- Rickey, op. cit.: p. 42.