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Regarded by some critics as a giant of American film comedy, Elaine May started her career as a child actress on the stage. When she graduated to grown-up theater, she gravitated toward improvisational comedy, developing a fine-tuned sense of spontaneity and a unique brand of slightly off-kilter humor. She also forged a creative partnership with Mike Nichols, then a rising young comic with a similar flair for off-the-cuff dialogue and verbal clowning. Nichols and May became a nationally celebrated act, then split up in the early 1960s to try new things on their own. After a few years as a playwright, May turned to the movies.
May's history is important because each stage of her evolution plays a part in A New Leaf (1971), her deliciously eccentric debut film as screenwriter, director, and star. The picture's hallmark is a sort of improvisational wobble - a feeling that whether or not the words were set down on paper before the camera rolled, the actors seem to be saying them, and even thinking them, for the first time. May's experience with Nichols also contributes to the film, which shines most brightly in freewheeling comic dialogues between two people - usually May and Walter Matthau, but others as well. A pair of important reviewers - Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times and Vincent Canby of the New York Times - called the picture "cockeyed" when it premiered in 1971, and they were right. It's also quite amazing, especially if you like comedies that go in their own dizzy directions without worrying too much about adding up at the end.
Matthau plays Henry Graham, a bachelor with a trust fund that has enabled him to live a life of ease, comfort, and luxury. But years of overspending have drained his bank account to the dregs. One of the funniest scenes takes place when Henry's lawyer (played by William Redfield, a Nichols lookalike) tries to make Henry understand that he has no more principal, no more capital, no more cash, no more anything - stating the fact over and over until Henry finally manages to think the unthinkable. He then takes a goodbye trip around New York, bidding farewell to restaurants and recreations he'll never enjoy again. Even his loyal butler, Harold, gives notice that he's not loyal enough to keep working without a paycheck.
Yet it is Harold who dreams up a solution. Marrying a wealthy woman should set things right, he says, and Henry puts a sinister twist on the suggestion: He'll marry and then murder a very rich bride. This means Henry will have to keep up appearances a little longer, and that means borrowing money from his Uncle Harry, who despises him. Uncle Harry comes through, but on very strict terms, forcing Henry to find, woo, and wed a willing bride on an extremely tight schedule. After a few courtships that don't pan out, Henry meets Henrietta Lowell, played by May with a ditzy charm that's riveting to watch. Henrietta is a botanist who longs to discover a new species of fern that will bear her name forevermore. She is also an absent-minded professor who can't so much as drink a cup of tea without forgetting what's in her hand and dropping it on the increasingly stained carpet.
Henrietta has oodles of money and no relatives to inherit it, so Henry promptly marries her. Then he visits her estate and takes her unruly household staff in hand - firing the crooks and slackers, which is all of them, and alienating Henrietta's lawyer, who wants to marry her himself. On their honeymoon, Henrietta reads about ferns while Henry bones up on poisons, setting his murder plan in motion. The rest of the story swerves in unexpected ways, coming to a more or less happy ending without surrendering to sentimentality for an instant. It won't warm your heart, but it will keep you on your toes.
The zigzags, oscillations, and hairpin turns of A New Leaf aren't entirely due to planning on May's part. Principal photography exceeded the schedule by forty days, and May spent almost a year in the editing room, emerging with a three-hour cut that Paramount disliked intensely. Nor was the studio pleased with the ballooning of the budget from less than $2 million to more than twice that figure. By all accounts, Paramount exec Robert Evans took control of the picture and shortened it by almost half, eliminating a subplot involving Henrietta's attorney, Andy McPherson, and a chauffeur named Smith, who still appears briefly but memorably in the servant-firing scene. A couple of murders also landed on the cutting-room floor.
May apparently tried and failed to remove her name from the movie, which was a stroke of good fortune in retrospect, since the result is still a terrific comedy and a credit to her name. That said, however, the overruns of time and money on A New Leaf were waved in May's face when her idiosyncratic drama Mikey and Nicky (1976) followed a similar trajectory, and when it happened again with her epic comedy Ishtar (1987) her movie-directing career was effectively over.
Not every critic liked A New Leaf. The influential Pauline Kael offered only a hint of praise in The New Yorker, writing that "there is a sweetness about its absence of style and about its shapeless, limp comic scenes." Many moviegoers have a much higher opinion. I don't think this is May's finest comedy - that honor goes to The Heartbreak Kid, the 1972 classic she directed from Neil Simon's fine screenplay - but it provides many pleasures as it moseys along its meandering path, however truncated and bumpy that path may sometimes be.
May's performance is a gem, both verbally and visually, and Matthau's spot-on comic acting reminds us that he was one of the most skillful, versatile, personable actors Hollywood has ever given us. The excellent supporting cast includes pudgy, plaintive Jack Weston as McPherson the lawyer; pudgier James Coco as Uncle Harry the moneylender; Rene Taylor as a middle-aged wannabe bride; William Hickey as the recalcitrant chauffeur; George Rose as Harold the unflappable butler; and more. Occasional scenes fall a tad flat, but most of the going is great fun. Turning over a new leaf is rarely such a pleasant endeavor.
Director: Elaine May
Producers: Hillard Elkins, Howard W. Koch, Joseph Manduke
Screenplay: Elaine May; based on Jack Ritchie's story "The Green Heart"
Cinematographer: Gayne Rescher
Film Editing: Don Guidice, Fredric Steinkamp
Production Design: Warren Clymer, Richard Fried
Music: Neal Hefti
With: Walter Matthau (Henry Graham), Elaine May (Henrietta Lowell), Jack Weston (Andy McPherson), George Rose (Harold), James Coco (Uncle Harry), Doris Roberts (Mrs. Traggert), Rene Taylor (Sharon Hart), William Redfield (Beckett), Rose Arrick (Gloria Cunliffe), William Hickey (Smith)
by David Sterritt