When screen acting pioneer Lillian Gish was presented with an honorary Academy Award exactly 50 years ago, she broke new ground as the first female director to receive one, having helmed “Remodeling Her Husband” over half a century earlier. Within the last four years, internationally renowned filmmakers Agnès Varda and Lina Wertmüller have followed her lead. Now, the academy has chosen to recognize the eclectic career of multihyphenate Elaine May, thus making her a member of this exclusive club.
Along with Danny Glover, Samuel L. Jackson, and Liv Ullmann, May is set to be honored at the upcoming 12th annual Governors Awards. The 89-year-old has earned this accolade because her “bold, uncompromising approach to filmmaking, as a writer, director and actress, reverberates as loudly as ever with movie lovers.” Often cited as a revolutionary comedic genius, her work ethic and achievements have only garnered more respect and admiration over time.
As a child of stage actors, May developed a taste for performing at an early age. As a young adult, she met and quickly bonded with Mike Nichols at the University of Chicago, where they both joined the Compass Players improvisational group. The pair soon created their own stand-up comedy act and produced four immensely popular albums. Following the discontinuation of the partnership, May turned to playwriting and took roles in two 1967 films: “Enter Laughing” and “Luv.”
In 1971, May wrote, directed, and starred in “A New Leaf,” which was recently designated for preservation in the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry. One year later, she helmed “The Heartbreak Kid,” for which her daughter, Jeannie Berlin, scored a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination. She then wrote and directed “Mikey and Nicky” (1976) before earning her first Oscar bid for working with Warren Beatty to pen the adapted screenplay for “Heaven Can Wait” (1978).
After writing and directing “Ishtar” (1987), May crafted the scripts for two Nichols films: “The Birdcage” (1996) and “Primary Colors” (1998). The latter brought her a second Best Adapted Screenplay nomination. In 2013, she was awarded the National Medal of Arts, and her performance in the play “The Waverly Gallery” won her a Tony just two years ago. From John Mulaney to Lily Tomlin to 2013 honorary Oscar recipient Steve Martin, her artistry has been cited as a career influence by generations of creatives.
An honorary Oscar is given “to honor extraordinary distinction in lifetime achievement, exceptional contributions to the state of motion picture arts and sciences, or for outstanding service to the academy.” At least one of these awards has been conferred during or prior to all but 10 of the 93 Oscars ceremonies. Since 2009, they have been presented at an individual ceremony that takes place several months before the same year’s Oscars. May and her fellow honorees will collect their trophies on January 22, 2022.
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