May 01-1

By Dean Brandum.

The following was originally written as a chapter for inclusion in ReFocus: The Films of Elaine May (Edinburgh University Press, 2019, edited by Alexandra Heller-Nicholas and Dean Brandum). Due to space issues, however, it does not feature in the final version of the book and is thus published here as an exclusive.

“The screenplay credit for ”Reds” is shared by Warren Beatty and the British Marxist playwright Trevor Griffiths – strange bedfellows even by Hollywood standards – and one cannot watch the movie without wondering who wrote what. Maybe we’ll never find out, but after seeing ”Occupations,” the early Griffiths play… I’d be willing to bet that it was Mr. Beatty who dreamed up the gags about John Reed and Louise Bryant’s cute pet puppy.”[1]

Barely distributed and beset with litigation and rumours of ‘difficult’ behaviour by its director, Mikey and Nicky soured Elaine May’s reputation as a viable Hollywood filmmaker. With her prospects of returning to the director’s chair appearing dim, it was Warren Beatty, one of the most powerful figures in the industry at the time who helped May rebuild her reputation as a reliable contributor to a successful film and in the process redefined her role as that of an essential collaborator (as she had been with Nichols), rather than the all-controlling auteur that had been the feature of her most recent work. This essay will explore May’s role on both Heaven Can Wait (1978) and Reds (1981). On both of these films Beatty received credits for producing, writing, acting and directing. May worked as a screenwriter on both projects, yet coming to each at crucially different points of their production processes. For the former she was commissioned to write the first draft that was then extensively rewritten by Beatty and others. On the latter she was summoned to rewrite the script after the original writer, at first alone and then with Beatty, had completed two unsatisfactory drafts.

In researching this essay what became apparent was the difficulty in determining the degree of input that any screenwriter has within a collaborative project. Published screenplays are available to read yet they do not supply notations stating which writer wrote which line or created a particular narrative or character development. Certainly there have existed many cases within Hollywood of writing teams having long and successful partnerships whereby one can assume each member has a shared sensibility that results in a finished work that is identifiably ‘collaborative’ with each bringing their individual strengths – whether it be structure, development or dialogue – to the project and in turn forming a cohesion that produces a near-singular vision. Indeed, although not working in cinema, this was the hallmark of the work created by May and Nichols for stage, television and recordings. Yet on both Beatty films the final screenplays were the work of a number of writers contributing at different points of the production. In the quote that opened this essay, stage critic Frank Rich was bemused by the thought of Trevor Griffiths including sequences of a cute puppy (a narrative device in which the pet is given as a Christmas present and utilised to depict the love between the protagonists and, as it ages into a grown dog, the passage of time) in Reds. Was it Griffiths or was it Beatty he wondered? And it is a reasonable question as they are the only credited writers on the film. The thought proposes an imagined heated discussion between the committed British Marxist and the Hollywood playboy about the puppy’s historical accuracy, relevance and necessity to the narrative. However, unbeknown to Rich (and to filmgoers) it is most likely that the puppy was included long after Griffiths had departed the project and had his draft rewritten by Beatty and an uncredited Elaine May. Yet, at the time of writing we have no proof of that, no “the puppy was Elaine’s idea” from Beatty. We can surmise, but pinning-the-puppy on May is fraught with not assigning her the due she is deserved in providing a humanism to an earlier draft that was reportedly heavy on political rhetoric but lacking in emotional involvement. In any case, there exists no official accreditation of Elaine May having anything to do with Reds, puppies or otherwise. The film’s screenplay is credited to Griffiths and Beatty and there it remains on the negative, on all subsequent media releases and on all promotional material. Griffiths and Beatty share the credit and they share the success that the film enjoyed (both critically and, to a degree, at the box office). To pass off the puppy to another writer would invite another into the shared glory and perhaps Griffiths, who has never stated otherwise, thought the puppy was an ideal and worthwhile inclusion.

In discussing the Beatty-directed films for which May contributed, it is folly to attempt to discern her input above and beyond others, credited or otherwise, into the finished screenplay. Therefore this essay eschews the opportunity to discuss either Heaven Can Wait or Reds in terms of May’s authorship and instead investigates her involvement within the framework of the collaborative process in Hollywood’s industrial process: how a writer’s role functions in the production of a film and ruminates on the meaning of accreditation upon the finished product.

* * *

9781474440189March 29, 1982 was the occasion of the fifty-fourth Academy Awards presentations and Reds, with twelve nominations, was favoured to collect many of the prizes on offer. Reds had been Warren Beatty’s passion project and the Academy had rewarded his achievement with four nominations – best picture (as producer), director, actor and screenplay written directly for the screen (shared with co-writer, Trevor Griffith). This quadrella of the four major nominations had only been achieved twice previously. Firstly by Orson Welles for Citizen Kane (1941) and then by Beatty himself for Heaven Can Wait (1978). Welles had only managed to win the screenplay award and on Beatty’s first shot he had gone home empty-handed.

Reds lost the Best Picture award to Chariots of Fire (1981, Hugh Hudson) and received only three awards. One of these went to Beatty, who was presented with the Best Director statuette.  This was a rare case of the director of the Best Picture not being awarded the highest prize. For many commentators Beatty’s award was a recognition of his all-round feat in bringing this immense project to the screen, and it recognized all aspects of his work before and behind the camera on the production.

When accepting the award Beatty began by paying tribute to his onscreen co-star and offscreen partner Diane Keaton and then went on to explain that the key to his success was in surrounding himself with good people. He then reeled off the names of these fourteen good people. Not mentioned was his credited co-writer, Trevor Griffiths. First mentioned was Elaine May who does not appear anywhere in the film’s credit crawls, but was one of several writers who took a turn at revising the screenplay.[2]

However, in this warm appreciation the exact nature of May’s input into the success of Reds was never acknowledged. May’s actual role in the production remained unidentified. To this day one can look up Elaine May on and find no mention of this film among her credits (although, at the time of writing her work on Wolf (1994) is listed under ‘miscellaneous’ as ‘script revisions – uncredited’.[3])

Beatty’s speech so incensed his editor Dede Allen (who had also acted as executive producer) that her own omission was explained, by the director as one that would have been made up for in the Best Film speech which Beatty (as the credited producer) expected to win. Indeed, as he noted in his Best Director speech, the fourteen ‘good people’ he neglected to acknowledge were those already receiving citations as nominees by the Academy. If this was the case then one would expect not only Allen to be thanked, but also Trevor Griffiths. However, as she was not nominated (let alone credited) it is doubtful that Beatty would have found room for Elaine May in his Best Picture speech, had it eventuated.

So, for the casual film enthusiast, viewing the Oscar telecast in 1982, the reasons for Beatty’s mention of Elaine May in his acceptance speech would have remained a mystery, unless they were also fervent readers of the trade papers or long-form dissections of the film’s ponderous production history. Reds’ gestation from the time of Beatty first becoming interested in the story to its realisation upon the screen was long and in which time he made a number of films whilst attempting to gain financial approval from a Hollywood studio. In following the journey to fruition it becomes apparent that, when working as a screenwriter for Beatty the director, the notion of authorship of the written screen word is murky at best. Talented writers from a variety of backgrounds are drawn (or cajoled) into working with the enigmatic star, only to have their efforts altered, rewritten or dismissed.

Reds told the story of John Reed and Louise Bryant, middle-class American intellectuals and newspaper correspondents who were staunch agitators for the Communist cause in the 1910s. Present in Moscow during the October Revolution of 1917, they relayed the news of Lenin’s Bolsheviks seizing power to captivated readers in the United States. Reed became a trusted ally of the party and was entrusted with promoting the cause in America. Under increased scrutiny from the US government and unable to heal fractures within the local branches of support he returns to Europe to find that the unity that had begun so promisingly had also collapsed due to infighting. Imprisoned in Finland due to his beliefs, Bryant endures an arduous journey to find him, eventually reuniting in Moscow. Suffering from Typhus he died in 1920, honoured as a hero in Russia and the only American to be interred within the Kremlin. It was Reed’s book, Ten Days that Shook the World (1919) that remains one of the key accounts of the Revolution.

Beatty first became aware of the story of John Reed in 1964, when on a trip to Russia pursuing a ballerina he had fallen for. Although raised in a comfortable middle-class Virginian household, Beatty’s family were staunch believers in Roosevelt’s “New-Deal” Democrat party policies and as a moderately successful young actor in the 1960s he had retained a strong interest in politics and political history. That Reed, who, when not agitating for progressive reform enjoyed a bohemian lifestyle fraternising with the artistic elite and indulging in their open relationship practices, appealed to Beatty is of little surprise. Accessing the writer’s collection housed at Harvard University, Beatty wrote a treatment for a possible film. During post-production on Bonnie and Clyde (Arthur Penn, 1967) Beatty told editor Dede Allen that the John Reed story would be his next film.

Bonnie and Clyde was a critical and commercial hit and Beatty as both co-star and producer finally achieved the success that had eluded him over several years as a ‘promising’ potential star. That he had pushed for the film to be re-released after an initially middling reception had displayed an acumen for business savvy – a quality respected in the industry. Such clout did not extend to an immediate production on the John Reed story as a series of film misfires derailed his momentum, as did taking time off from the business to campaign on behalf of George McGovern as the Democrat’s 1972 presidential nomination. By the middle of the decade Beatty was arguably better known for his appearances in the gossip columns that for those on the screen.

Beatty’s fortunes turned in 1975 with the release of Shampoo (Hal Ashby), a comedy of sexual and social mores that took place over the course of election day, 1968. As the womanising hairdresser George Roundy Beatty successfully satirized his own public persona and in the process took a number of pointed jabs at the hypocrisy of Beverly Hills’ well-heeled Republican set. Popular with both audiences and critics, Beatty and co-writer Robert Towne received an Academy Award nomination for their screenplay.

Heaven Can Wait
Heaven Can Wait

Beatty’s next project was an adaptation of Harry Segall’s 1938 play, Heaven Can Wait which had already been produced on film in 1941 as Here Comes Mr. Jordan (Alexander Hall) with Robert Montgomery and Evelyn Keyes in the leading roles. This time he initially considered only writing and producing the film as casting the lead role (in this iteration, a boxer who dies due to a guardian angel’s over-officious mistake and has to return to life in another’s body) with a non-actor, albeit at the time the most famous person on Earth.

He pitched the idea to Elaine May on the hope of getting her to co-write. The following quote by May at an American Film Institute honouring of Beatty relates both the convoluted plotline and the manner in which he pitched it to her:

It’s a remake and I’m not going to be in it, I’m putting this together as a starring vehicle for Muhammad Ali and its about a boxer and he dies and he goes to heaven but it’s a mistake so they bring him back but his body’s been cremated so they put him in the body of a C.E.O. who’s wife has just murdered him and the C.E.O. comes back and when the C.E.O. comes back everybody in the movie sees the C.E.O. as the C.E.O. but the audience sees the C.E.O. as Muhammad Ali and then Muhammad Ali meets a girl and then a boxer dies and then he goes into his body. It’s a love story.[4]

May’s recollection is amusing in its telling, but it does leave out a crucial detail – before May came on board there was already a script, written in 1969 by Francis Ford Coppola as a starring vehicle for Bill Cosby at Warner Bros. Although the project was announced by the studio it was never produced after Cosby fell out with his manager Roy Silver who had commissioned the project. It was then that Beatty purchased the script from Silver and was considering making the film at Warners. It was only when Ali backed out that Beatty discarded the Coppola script and decided to begin afresh and brought May on board to provide a first draft. [5]

Perhaps swayed by the comic possibilities the absurdity of the pitch offered, May agreed to collaborate on the script that eventually Beatty starred in as a footballer, rather then a boxer (Ali had continually deferred signing on due to his fighting schedule). Beatty also decided to co-direct with writer Buck Henry, the decision to share duties due to workload as producer-co-writer and star.

Heaven Can Wait was not the first time Beatty had requested May to work upon a screenplay. In 1964 Beatty had planned to make a comedy about a compulsive Don Juan. Offering May the opportunity to May to craft a script, she declined the offer and instead the task fell to a young stand-up comedian named Woody Allen who included a role for himself that grew and grew over each subsequent draft that it overshadowed Beatty’s part. Eventually Beatty left the project and was replaced by Peter O’Toole. What’s New Pussycat? (Clive Donner,1965) did retain Beatty’s answering machine salutation as its title.

Although they did not work on that project, Beatty and May remained good friends. It is here, with some reluctance and trepidation that I feel it is necessary to ruminate on the nature of their relationship. Whilst Peter Biskind’s book Easy Riders, Raging Bulls: How The Sex-Drugs-and-Rock ‘n’ Roll Generation Saved Hollywood may off little in the way of analytical insight into the works produced in the New Hollywood era, it is probably the most widely read examination of the period, most likely due to the candid and gossipy recollections of the key players involved. Tellingly, Beatty receives 106 page listings in the book’s index; May only two. Her mentions amount to a romantic involvement with producer John Calley that only serves as a means of Calley meeting and then working with Mike Nichols (who is generously peppered throughout the text) and that she co-wrote the screenplay for Heaven Can Wait. Nowhere, not even in passing, does Biskind mention A New Leaf, The Heartbreak Kid or Mikey and Nicky. For a book bubbling with the salacious and controversial, on that level alone the troubles May encountered on at least two of those films would have seemed ripe for inclusion. Instead, she barely counts as an extra within his ensemble of notables of the period.

May does feature with some prominence in Star, Biskind’s later biography of Beatty. Yet although her intelligence and talent are acknowledged, more is made of her temperament, nature and eccentricities. “She could get lost in a closet” and “She was very, very difficult. Very crazy” are two descriptions in Biskind’s introduction of her into Beatty’s story. Declining to offer any appraisal of her work as a director, Biskind then details the budgetary problems and excessive filming that took place on her films, even trotting out the well-worn anecdote over her refusing to call ‘cut’ on a scene in Mikey and Nicky. This is followed by descriptions of her slovenliness (smeared lipstick, food crumbs and cigarette ash over her clothing, the dishevelled state in which she left a hotel room Beatty had put her up in). The narrative works to contrast her with professional efficiency of Beatty and to place her outside of the women that the actor normally gravitated to. Their relationship was a purely platonic one that was, over two of three projects mutually beneficial, built on an admiration of each other’s creativity, working methods and manner. Biskind wishes to present Beatty as capable of having fruitful platonic relationships with women, even one as genuinely unique as May. In order to depict the difference he could have painted her as some form of manic-pixie dream screenwriter (although that would also offer too crude a thumbnail) but instead he emphasises her most unappealing traits as if one should admire Beatty for taking this messy, neurotic ditz into his circle. Star is one of the few texts to probe with any depth into their working relationship, it is unfortunate that it is done with such condescension.

Biskind quotes Buck Henry (who also polished the Heaven Can Wait script) who compared May to Carole Eastman (who had written the screenplay of Beatty’s troubled 1975 production, The Fortune directed by Mike Nichols). “They were very different. Carole was scared of everything; Elaine was fearless. But they both had the same problem in their writing, an inability to condense and get it organized”.[6] The implication here is that for the genius of May (and Eastman, for that matter) to fully blossom on screen, it takes the efforts of a dedicated collaborator to provide the project with focus and professionalism. It is worth noting that Henry had adapted the screenplays for Nichol’s The Graduate (1967) and Catch-22 (1970), ostensibly succeeding May as the director’s collaborative partner. Whether Henry formed this opinion on May’s writing from his experiences on Heaven Can Wait or from what he learned working with Nichols is not clear. However although Nichols enjoyed a long and successful career as a film and director, he is credited with little as a writer. Presumably he had a director’s input into each screenplay, honing and refining the work to his requirements, but the bulk of the writing was left to others. If we are to believe Henry, May’s brilliance would be in the formation of great ideas, with others on board to structure them into a coherent whole. These others may have once been Nichols and now perhaps Beatty. Additionally it may have been the unpresent writer whom she was adapting that provided the required foundations on which she could apply her skills. “An inability to condense and get it organized” could well be the summation of the industry criticisms she received as a director on her two most troubled productions, Mikey and Nicky and Ishtar. The argument could be made that not only were these films produced from May-penned scripts without a co-writer, they were the only features that were original screenplays, not adaptations from another source. That May demanded an exhausting number of takes when directing those films is well known and a common criticism of her directing style. Actors who suffered such mentally arduous conditions have attested to the difficulties they encountered:

“There’s something admirable about somebody who’s that tough and perseveres that way, so I hung in there. But all those takes – I was going blind.”[7]

[in tears] “Just tell me what the fuck you want – and I’ll do it.”[8]

“You take me home right now!” (an aggrieved veteran actress, refusing the request for another take).[9]

These quotes were from, respectively, Gene Hackman (Reds), Jack Nicholson (Reds) and Katharine Hepburn (Love Affair, 1994) – all directed by Warren Beatty. As a director Beatty is notorious for the number of takes he demands and the length of film he shoots. Rarely giving his actors advice or guidance as to what he wants done differently, his process is a deliberate one in which he ‘finds’ the tone he desires during post-production. As an actor he has also been a master of deliberation and procrastination. From Paul Schrader (Hardcore, 1979) and Rob Reiner (Misery 1990) to Paul Thomas Anderson (Boogie Nights, 1997) and Quentin Tarantino (Kill Bill, 2003) there are many directors who can attest to Beatty showing interest in roles only to eventually demur. Yet rather than indecision, Beatty’s practices are excused perfectionism, also accounting for the glacial pace at which he has decided upon, and made, films in recent years.

Although he has received various criticisms for these personal and professional practices, he has avoided the harsh consensus that has been directed at Elaine May for her similar approaches. In requesting an excessive number of takes May is unfocused and indecisive, for the same request Beatty is an exacting perfectionist. In terms of their work practices May and Beatty have more in common than outward appearances would suggest. The crucial factor that accounts for this difference in perception is that, unlike May, Beatty’s films at this time were popular with the public. In Hollywood (and business in general) any number of unorthodox work practices will be overlooked if such means justify a profitable end. As a director May could not afford that luxury.

May took her time delivering the Heaven Can Wait adaptation. Her friend the novelist Peter Feibleman assisted in the process but although co-credited to Beatty the initial draft was mostly her work. From the chronology of the production it would appear that May’s version still had a boxer as its protagonist (on the assumption that Ali would be cast in the role). Once filming began May had little to do with the production, with Beatty and Buck Henry making any necessary changes (including Henry rewriting the female love interest as British, rather than American, after Julie Christie was cast in the role). Henry has said that he felt Beatty had more confidence in May’s abilities than his, critical that Henry’s contributions were obvious jokes that, although amusing, did little to advance the character. By the time shooting had wrapped it had gone through a number of changes since May had turned in her version, including Beatty’s friend Robert Towne providing a rewrite. The film’s production designer Paul Sylbert recalled that, “The script was Elaine’s but it was doctored, changed, fooled with, rewritten, all of which went on for the entire production.” Sylbert himself even contributed some scenes to the script.[10] Henry’s experience as co-director was not a pleasant one with Beatty overruling many of his decisions. Feeling as if he was being pushed from the film allowing the star to take sole credit as a director Henry saw the production through and achieved the co-direction credit but not receive one for writing, although he had contributed much throughout the shoot.

Thus it is difficult to detect what remains of May’s original work within the finished film. Henry (who also acted in Heaven Can Wait) did share an absurdist humour with May, having helped perpetuate the hoax that was The Society for Indecency for to Naked Animals. Although the brainstorm of fellow comedian Alan Abel, it was Henry who appeared as G. Clifford Prout, the spokesperson for the organisation on television between 1959 – 1963, decrying the depiction of animals without sufficient clothing in the media.

It is likely that this is the sort of comedy that May and Nichols would have found amusing in the early 1960s as it poked fun at the fussy mores of the establishment without being overtly political. Yet, when both May and Henry had input to a script where can one discriminate between the contributions between one and the other? It is known that May wrote the first draft, but how much did she know of American football and the machinations of big business, for example? Were these left by the wayside and overlaid by Beatty and, perhaps, Towne. [11] These are questions based on the sexist assumption that both subjects are male domains of interest. For all I know May could have had an abiding interest in such topics and have written such sequences as they appeared on the screen. Therein lies the conundrum – in a film with a collaborative screenplay do we take assign particular sequences to those with a track record of writing similar situations? Unless one is lucky enough to secure a rare copy of an early draft, historians have to suffice with the published, official versions of screenplays and these do not provide indicators or footnotes as to who – either credited or uncredited – contributed which particular line or story movement to the finished piece. Certainly within Heaven Can Wait May aficionados may be able to attribute particular sequences or wordplay to the writer, but less identifiable characteristics may be lost in character development and narrative cadence. We are left to guess, the notion of screenplay authorship wallowing in murk of an a priori assumptions often rendered falsehoods through personal development. To evaluate Elaine May’s contribution to Heaven Can Wait based on her previous works negates her potential worldview and her experiences since her last produced written work.

For Heaven Can Wait the onscreen credit is ‘Screenplay by Elaine May and Warren Beatty’. This sounds clear and succinct, however there is some devil in the detail. The Writers’ Guild of America has explicit regulations regarding credits with the use of ‘and’ between two writers denoting that both writers contributed an even amount of work with the second credited writer rewriting or revising the first credited’s work. The Guild also states that except under the most special of circumstances only two writers may receive a ‘screenplay by’ credit.[12] Thus, when broken down, word by word (in a way one cannot do with a published screenplay), Heaven Can Wait’s credit states that it the first draft was written by May and subsequently rewritten and revised by Beatty and others (Feibleman, Henry, Towne, Sylbert and possibly more). Then there is the original stage play, the first film adaptation and the Coppola script to consider within the stew of ideas that formed what eventually was performed in front of the camera. A collaborated screenplay’s authorship has long been a contentious subject in Hollywood, with egos bruised and career opportunities determined by the clamour to take credit for the popular and, conversely, to gain distance from projects that fail. Film historians and theorists have far less at stake when contemplating the same consideration, yet it is the concept of the collaborative process of most screenplays that has ingrained a reluctance to assign authorship to individual writers, at least in comparison to the ease in which it is applied to film directors who almost always work alone (one of the rare Hollywood exceptions is of course, Heaven Can Wait).

If one wishes to extend the authorship discussion, the 2001 Chris Rock comedy Down to Earth (Chris and Paul Weitz) features this credit:

Based on the film “Heaven Can Wait”

Screenplay by Elaine May and Warren Beatty

From a play by Harry Segall

Screenplay by Chris Rock & Lance Crouther & Ali LeRio & Louis C.K.

That four new writers are credited must have fallen within the Writers’ Guild’s ‘special circumstances’ and the ampersands (rather then ‘and’) between their names denotes that these four wrote jointly as a team.[13] Rock, an African-American stand up comedian became interested in the project when he heard that Bill Cosby had once considered starring in a remake of the 1941 film. Thus the lineage for this latest production thematically skips over the 1978 screenplay, utilising only its husk as a premise. Therefore, of the seven names credited with having some form of input into the writing process it is May who is credited first but who arguably had the least influence upon it. It is likely that Beatty still held some form of ownership over the property and its release to Rock was contingent upon an agreed accreditation along with a financial agreement, shared with May.[14]

Although a great boxoffice success – it was the fifth most popular film of the year in the United States and easily the most widely seen film May had been involved with – Heaven Can Wait is rarely the subject of revival or reappraisal, at least in comparison to the other films of the New Hollywood period. For a film that garnered Indeed, as a remake of a classical period Hollywood fantasy it lacked the urgency of the now or least an acknowledgement of the recent past that the likes of Shampoo (set on the day of the 1968 election) had, to the benefit of scholars and theorists then and since. Heaven Can Wait was an ephemeral piece, made to convince the moneymen of Hollywood that Beatty was a bankable star (plus director, producer, screenwriter). If Heaven Can Wait lacked being anything other than a pure crowd pleaser, Reds would be Beatty’s most overtly political statement. It was a slim likelihood that Hollywood would ever consider bankrolling a deeply cynical story concerning the doomed love affair between a pair of American Communists, and next to no chance of it being funded to the tune of $40 million ($100 million real value at the time of writing). Yet Beatty’s recent track record of success convinced a reluctant Paramount to back the project for, as Beatty said of the company’s head, Charles Bluhdorn, “He made the movie because he didn’t want to lose the movie”.[15] It was a huge gamble for any studio to make this film, but not as large as seeing it produced elsewhere and be a critical and financial success.

Beatty’s first choice of screenwriter was the British Trevor Griffiths. A former journalist and by this time television dramatist and playwright, Griffiths’ work was hard left agitprop that favoured, even romanced socialism, whilst condemning Stalinism. Perhaps what took Beatty’s interest was ‘Absolute Beginners’ (Gareth Davies, 1974), an episode written by Griffiths for the ambitious BBC series Fall of Eagles that dramatized the rise and fall of European ruling dynasties. Griffith’s contribution was set in 1903 and detailed the emergence of Lenin and Trotsky as key figures in the revolutionary movement as they forge plans to remove Tsar Nicholas II from his position of power. ‘Absolute Beginners’ is the work of true believer and is performed from a script steeped in didactic verbosity. However it is also the work of a writer steeped in the history of its protagonists and with an understanding of their motivations and personalities. In essence, Griffiths could provide the staunch and authentic, albeit cinematically dull, version of history that Beatty wanted and that he could massage into a draft suitable for studio consideration. Although Griffiths was initially sceptical of film star Beatty, he soon became aware of the actor’s keen knowledge and immersion into the subject. The first draft from Griffiths was one strong on the requisite politics and history but relied to heavily on the spoken word to drive the narrative. Beatty then joined him to complete a second draft, a long and frustrating process for Griffiths that was interrupted only by his wife’s death from cancer. By this time the second draft was completed the relationship between the writers had soured to the point of toxicity, with Griffiths frustrated by Beatty’s insistence on deviating from historical accuracy for the sake of including sequences that were more visually cinematic. At this point Griffiths left and never spoke to Beatty again.[16] The British writer would later claim that of his 320 page original draft, around 45% remained in the finished film.[17] Beatty consulted with other writers to offer input on the troubled script. These included, among others, Lillian Hellman, Paddy Chayefsky, Budd Schulberg, and Robert Towne. It was at this point that May was invited to co-write the third draft for a fee of $350,000.[18] May’s brief was to concentrate on the scenes involving Louise Bryant and John Reed and those between Bryant and playwright Eugene O’Neill (as played by Jack Nicholson), Reed’s friend with whom Bryant had an affair. Bryant’s character needed to have a 1970s resonance with second wave feminists. She could be depicted as a mere follower of Reed, she required her own strength, beliefs and agency. She was also well aware that Beatty was the star of the film and that the audience’s sympathies must remain with the protagonist and that Beatty (as opposed to Reed) must be allowed to sparkle on screen.[19] In other words she ‘got’ how Hollywood films worked. Such an understanding only confounds the enigma of Elaine May. As a hired gun she new the conventions of viable screen entertainment and could fulfil such requirements skilfully. It is this understanding of how Hollywood films function that perhaps influenced Mikey and Nicky, a film that appears to have been purposely conceived and executed to spite those conventions, to be as anti-Hollywood as possible.


May’s role was so defined that she delved little into the politics contained within Reds. “I don’t know anything about this history and I don’t particularly want to know anything about it”, she said and insisted that Jeremy Pikser who was a historical consultant for the film, be enlisted as her writing assistant. Knowing the rhythms of dramatic storytelling she would pass Pikser pages stating that the characters needed to argue over something at this point in the story. Pikser would then be required to provide a reason (historical, political, ideological) for that fight to occur, leaving May to write the dialogue.[20] Beatty’s reliance on May was not confined to the written word. She remained on the film over the course of its production and into post-production, offering advice on editing and sound mixing to the grateful director, often to the chagrin of the technicians involved.[21][22]

Pikser thought the combination of himself, May, Griffiths and Beatty as the primary writers was “Stupid” and believed that the likes of either Waldo Salt or Abraham Polonsky (once blacklisted screenwriters steeped in the ideology at hand) would have provided a better testament to Reed, with Pikser adding that the stature of those screenwriters was so great that Beatty would have felt diminished as a contributor. Reds was to be his vision and nobody else’s.[23]

In essence, one may say that Elaine May did not contribute to the writing of the screen story of John Reed and Louise Bryant, rather she assisted in writing Warren Beatty and Diane Keaton as Reed and Bryant and, with a hefty budget to recoup it was most probable that this was the path to audience acceptance. Considering its difficult subject matter Reds was moderate success with audiences, earning $21 million in rentals for Paramount. Generally critics were positive in their response, although Pauline Kael was scathing in the way the film treated Louise:

In the first half she’s presented as a tiresome, hostile, dissatisfied woman, and the film moves on the messy currents of sexual politics. In the second half…the film embraces her because she’s doing what a woman is supposed to do – go through any hardship to be with her man. [24]

This is, obviously, directed as criticism. However it also illustrates the difficult task May was handed: to present a character (Bryant) with a sensibility that would reflect modern values whilst reverting to tradition to conform to classical Hollywood storytelling. That she managed to achieve that goal enabled Reds to be palatable to a 1980s audience, that the aim was so transparent is what enraged Kael. Were this to have been attributable to May (and we cannot be certain or to what degree) then it is criticism that could only be served to the credited writers. May, satisfied only with a pay cheque as remuneration could own no public credit for the film’s success, but nor could take blame for any of its shortcomings.

May’s work with Beatty at this time delivered her first genuine boxoffice successes and invigorated her career. The experiences differed both in subject matter and in her roles; on Heaven Can Wait she was commissioned to deliver a first draft that was gutted and rewritten by others and on Reds she arrived in the final stages of the writing process, reshaping and revising the work of the original writer. But in both cases her sensibility was subsumed into that of her dominant producer-director-co-writer-star. For these reasons it is inadvisable to attempt to place these films too close to the centre of the May canon, rather they exist as crucial career markers that illustrated her ability to collaborate creatively. That May could develop unique characters of depth had never been in doubt, yet on these films she proved that she could also mould these characters to suit the screen persona of her employer with, perhaps for the first time, an aim to reach the widest audience possible. These are rare and valued qualities in Hollywood and her experiences with Beatty at this time provided May a lucrative industry reputation as a writer of screenplays and a doctor of others.

It is possible that Warren Beatty has retained the Best Picture speech he was never to give at the 1982 Oscars ceremony. Editor Dede Allen would have been amongst those thanked and, presumably, Trevor Griffiths. Perhaps he would have elaborated on why he had earlier thanked Elaine May and clarified what she brought to the production. Maybe, just maybe he might have revealed who thought of including the puppy.

We’ll never know.


[1] Rich, Frank, “Theater: ‘Occupations,’ Early Trevor Griffiths”, New York Times, 26 March 1982, 23

[2] “Warren Beatty ‪Wins Best Directing: 1982 Oscars”

[3] ‘Wolf’ (1994) Full Cast and Crew

[4] May, Elaine, “Elaine May On Warren Beatty & Heaven Can Wait” American Film Institute

[5] Lumenick, Lou “Bill Cosby and Muhammad Ali both coveted the same Coppola Script”, 9 June 2016, New York Post,

[6] Biskind, Peter, Star: The Life and Wild Times of Warren Beatty (London: Simon & Shuster 2010) 231

[7] Biskind, Peter, Star: The Life and Wild Times of Warren Beatty (London: Simon & Shuster 2010) 278

[8] Biskind, Peter, Star: The Life and Wild Times of Warren Beatty (London: Simon & Shuster 2010) 277

[9] Biskind, Peter, Star: The Life and Wild Times of Warren Beatty (London: Simon & Shuster 2010) 481

[10] Biskind, Peter, Star: The Life and Wild Times of Warren Beatty (London: Simon & Shuster 2010) 247

[11] Robert Towne had written Chinatown (Roman Polanski, 1974) that dealt with, among other things, the corruption of big business. The film was nominated for eleven Academy Awards. Only Towne won, for his original screenplay.

[12] “Guild Policy on Credits” Writers Guild of America West

[13] “Guild Policy on Credits” Writers Guild of America West

[14] Confusingly, Down to Earth shares the same title of the film sequel to Here Comes Mr. Jordan. The 1947 film (directed again by Alexander Hall) starred Rita Hayworth as a muse who gains permission from Mr. Jordan to leave Heaven and return to Earth for a period, then falling in love with a mortal. It was loosely remade as Xanadu (Gene Kelly, 1980) which was a noted box office failure. Chris Rock’s film bears no similarity to either.

[15] Biskind, Peter, “Thunder on the Left: The Making of Reds”, Vanity Fair, March 2016.

[16] Griffiths’ most celebrated work at that time was the stage play Comedians. Set in a Manchester night school for aspiring working class comedians under the tutelage of a once famous music hall comic who assists them in refining their acts in preparation for an opportunity to perform before an influential booking agent. Only one student, Gethin Price, is unwilling to sell out in order for a shot at the big time and although admonished by the agent is given respect by the tutor. The play was well-enough received to be produced on Broadway in 1976 under the direction of Mike Nichols. Gethin Price’s worldview is that of Griffiths who later said of Reds, “My folly was to believe movies were like plays; that you can fight for your vision. Forget it. A movie doesn’t belong to you at all.”

[17] Chalmers, Robert, “Putting the world to rights: Trevor Griffiths on Olivier’s dope-smoking, Marxist ranting and his 20-year purgatory”, The Independent, 9 August 2009

[18] Sloan, James Park, Jerzy Kozinski: A Biography, (New York: Penguin, 1997) 395

[19] Biskind, Peter, “Thunder on the Left: The Making of Reds”, Vanity Fair, March 2016.

[20] Biskind, Peter, Star: The Life and Wild Times of Warren Beatty (London: Simon & Shuster 2010) 268

[21] Biskind, Peter, Star: The Life and Wild Times of Warren Beatty (London: Simon & Shuster 2010) 308

[22] For one sequence involving a crowd scene the sound editors spent days mixing elements of specially recorded Russian voices, background noise, choral singing and music. Beatty loved it but May did not an uncertain Beatty eventually scrapped the mix and returned to the original, less complex recording. The furious sound editors and others involved in that sequence came close to leaving the production in disgust.

[23] Biskind, Peter, Star: The Life and Wild Times of Warren Beatty (London: Simon & Shuster 2010) 268

[24] Kael, Pauline 5001 Nights at the Movies (London: Zenith 1984) 488-9

Dean Brandum is an independent film historian. He gained his PhD at Deakin University (Australia) in 2016 for analysis of historical box office takings. He has taught at a number of universities in Melbourne and has written for various publications, generally on the topic of film distribution. His first book Technicolouryawn: Melbourne Drive-ins in 1970 is forthcoming.

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