There’s a first time for everything, as Elaine May can surely attest. The star won Leading Actress in a Play at the Tony Awards on June 9, her first official acting honor—ever. May snagged the statuette for her portrayal of Gladys Green, an attorney and activist battling dementia in The Waverly Gallery (besting the likes of Annette Benning and Laurie Metcalf). She’d waited long enough: May made her stage debut at age three, in her parents Yiddish theater troupe, and she’s now 87, so you do the math.
“The only safe thing is to take a chance,” May has said.
Though May initially rose to fame in the 1950s, performing with her comedy partner Mike Nichols, many remember her most for her work as a writer and director. She hit big in the 1970s with The Heartbreak Kid and Heaven Can Wait, for which she and co-writer Warren Beatty shared an Oscar nomination. Things went seriously south, however, when her bleak buddy movie Mikey and Nicky tanked; her next collaboration with Beatty was the catastrophic 1980s flop Ishtar.
Yeah, well, as May has said, “The only safe thing is to take a chance,” and her career rebounded in the 1990s. She reunited with Nichols to pen back-to-back hits The Birdcage and Primary Colors (netting another Oscar nod). In 2000, she got in front of the camera again for Small Time Crooks; she also had a juicy role in the recent TV series Crisis in Six Scenes.
So it seems very much like May to “chance” a Broadway comeback after 50 years. In accepting the Tony, she was as fiercely funny and wholly humble as ever, saying, “How I did it” by lauding the production’s other talented folks.
While May kept it short and sweet, Andre DeShields—accepting his first Tony, at age 73, for a featured actor in the musical Hadestown—remarked: “The top of one mountain is the bottom of the next, so keep climbing.” Elaine May is doing just that.