Filtered through her experience as an unequalled comic performer, writer-director Elaine May scores a bulls-eye with this grossly underappreciated gem, fashioned in a style that could be called ‘black comedy lite.’ And that’s the release version mangled by the producer. What might it have been if May had been allowed to finish her director’s cut?
A New Leaf Olive Signature
1971 / Color / 1:85 widescreen / 102 min. / Street Date December 5, 2017 / available through the Olive Films website / 29.99
Starring: Walter Matthau, Elaine May, Jack Weston, George Rose, James Coco, Doris Roberts, Renée Taylor, William Redfield, David Doyle.
Cinematography: Gayne Rescher
Original Music: Neal Hefti
Written by Elaine May from a story by Jack Ritchie
Produced by Hilliard Elkins, Howard W. Koch, Joseph Manduke
Directed by Elaine May
Olive’s next title up for Signature Collection status is A New Leaf, the directing debut of comedienne-writer Elaine May. It’s certainly a worthy title. Although frequently omitted when lists of pioneering woman film directors are compiled, May could very well have been the first female director of a mainstream American studio release since Ida Lupino. Despite rapturous critical praise for A New Leaf she signed only three more pictures as director. Her second outing The Heartbreak Kid was her only hit, and her last two efforts were conspicuous flops. May’s expensive Ishtar made her an industry punching bag for studios and producers wishing to wrest power and creative control from the hands of directors of both sexes.
The witty and insightful A New Leaf is directed in an understated style developed over Ms. May’s many years as a comedienne and writer, with and without her original performing partner Mike Nichols. Star Walter Matthau had been playing in essentially the same aggressive, mouthy comedy groove since Billy Wilder’s The Fortune Cookie. May hands him a refreshingly different character, an insufferable elitist jerk who has ‘preserved in his own lifetime a way of life that was dead before he was born.’ This may be Matthau’s last movie before his face started to get heavy — at age fifty, becoming an occasional romantic leading man could not have been easy.
A tale of the true meaning of money, privilege and entitlement, A New Leaf focuses on Henry Graham (Walter Matthau), a Manhattan millionaire who has never worked and fastidiously refuses to acknowledge the needs or rights of others. But the luxury-loving Henry has been spending way too much for far too long. By the time his patient lawyer Beckett (William Redfield) finally gets Henry’s attention he is virtually penniless. As a lifelong adherent to the indolent, patrician lifestyle, Henry has no ability to make a legitimate living. He’ll soon lose his glorious town house, his butler Harold (George Rose) and his expensive Ferrari. Henry decides against suicide, instead taking the last-ditch suggestion offered by Harold: borrow some cash from his vindictive, gloating Uncle Harry (James Coco) and find himself a rich woman to marry but quick. After a few false starts Henry comes across Henrietta Lowell (Elaine May), a mousy, clumsy botanist. Henry makes a supreme effort to charm the clueless Henrietta, who is so trusting that she doesn’t see through his insincere advances. Harold is dismayed to discover that Henry’s intentions are doubly nefarious: he plans to follow matrimony with murder.
Filmmakers with a revue comedy background need more than a campaign bag of funny jokes – only a few came through with flying colors. Theodore J. Flicker’s stylishly successful farce The President’s Analyst boils down to a series of revue-style comedy scenes, some with former members of Chicago’s Second City troupe. Elaine May’s comic style was developed in The Compass Players, the precursor to The Second City. Her incisive little show spoofs no genres and tries for no grand effects, yet scores with every satirical barb. She has us in her pocket from the first scene, a never-bettered extended gag about the realities of Ferrari ownership. The words “Carbon on the valves” should have entered the public lexicon as a generic term for any technician trying to snow a client with vague non-information. In her first film outing, Ms. May shows plenty of aptitude for visual comedy. Our first sight of James Coco’s character is a perfect deep focus composition with Coco laughing in the foreground.
The Ferrari gag is followed by one of the driest, funniest comic scenes ever, when the lawyer Beckett ever so patiently tries to penetrate Henry’s umpteen layers of denial about his new state of poverty. Beckett approaches the touchy subject from multiple angles yet Henry still resists yielding to anybody’s reality but his own. When Beckett modestly volunteers the information that he has been personally paying some of Henry’s debts, Henry isn’t the slightest bit impressed or mollified. A colossal inconvenience has been perpetrated, and that’s the only issue he wishes to address. The verbal rhythm of this scene and several others reminds us of classic May-Nichols routines: the more civilized Beckett tries to be in the face of Henry’s abuse, the funnier the scene gets.
Matthau’s Henry Graham is a terrific characterization that indeed exists in real life; he’s the kind of insufferable, entitled jerk that revolutionaries greet with firing squads. Henry combines intelligence with an acute, myopic disdain for others. Henry views himself as a hero making the ultimate sacrifice. He’ll endure the indignity of speaking to other people as equals just long enough to ensnare a rich mate. As impossible as this seems (Henry is the most unlovable suitor imaginable), the perfect pigeon appears.
Elaine May’s Henrietta is an adorably maladroit klutz. She distills 101 social faux pas into one unlucky girl — wearing clothes with price tags still attached, leaving big stain lines on her lip when she drinks. Her idea of a great drink is Mogen-David extra-heavy Malaga wine with soda water and lime juice. Just writing the words for that is unpleasant. Yet Henrietta is neither stupid nor inferior, but an accomplished botany professor. Intensely focused on her little ferns and fronds, her greatest ambition is to find a new species, have it named after her, and become immortal. We love Henrietta on sight — she’s the patron saint of every high school girl unfairly branded as a social liability.
A drawback of Henrietta’s endearing social ineptitude is that she takes Henry’s insulting endearments at face value. It’s a match made in bankruptcy court. A series of awkward dates ensues. Henry’s plans are held up by his discovery that Henrietta’s lawyer McPherson (Jack Weston) and all of her servants (led by the marvelous Doris Roberts) have been systematically fleecing her, turning the Lowell mansion into a 24-7 party palace. Will Henry cut through McPherson’s web of deceit? Will he carry out his plan to murder his wife? Will Henrietta master one single rule of social etiquette?
The creative and prolific Elaine May did not play by Hollywood’s rules. After going far over budget and spending the better part of a year editing A New Leaf, she reportedly turned in an overly long director’s cut, which Paramount’s Robert Evans proceeded to radically reshape without her input. When the smoke cleared A New Leaf had been shorn of much of its darker content. According to various sources, in the unseen original version Henry Graham goes on a murder spree much like the one in Robert Hamer’s Kind Hearts and Coronets. After Henry dismisses Henrietta’s corrupt staff, her lawyer McPherson and servant Smith (William Hickey) retaliate with a threat of blackmail. Henry eliminates them both with poison. The final cut drops this and other developments that would turn Henry into an accomplished Bluebeard character, like Charlie Chaplin’s Monsieur Verdoux. As finished, A New Leaf’s quirky (and far more romantic) resolution works quite well. Yet it would be fascinating to know how Elaine May’s original experiment in black comedy would play.
The debate over A New Leaf’s postproduction battle was re-opened eighteen years later, when Ms. May’s Ishtar was excoriated as another reason why ‘irresponsible’ creatives should not be allowed to control the filmmaking process. Her films didn’t set industry records, but they had an edge missing from the work of many another high-profile woman director. The Heartbreak Kid is a merciless lampoon of matrimonial cruelty that made male audiences squirm, and Mikey and Nicky almost beats John Cassavetes at his own improvisational game. Had the box office dice landed differently once or twice, we may have seen more interesting movies from the talented writer-director. But it is unfair to make a feminist argument out of the conflicts between Ms. May and her producers, as three of her four films went wildly over budget and schedule. Few directors of either sex have overcome that liability.
Olive Films’ Olive Signature Blu-ray of A New Leaf is an improvement on an okay Blu-ray from 2012. It’s been remastered and looks much cleaner and even a bit sharper. The restoration is sourced from a 4K scan of the original camera negative. Colors pop; Gayne Rescher’s variable but serviceable cinematography looks fine. Neal Hefti’s bouncy music score wisely doesn’t give away the game by telegraphing the tone of dialogue scenes. The show has plenty of opportunities for funny music flourishes, the best probably being Henry’s terror-stricken nightmares of being de-classed to the level of an ordinary nobody. In one fantasy a well-heeled friend catches him driving an unexceptional middle-class car. To Henry that’s a fate worse than death.
This time around the Signature extras are quite good. Olive has elicited a thirteen-minute piece with the film’s assistant editor, who confirms the stories of an extended cutting period and that the rough cut was unusually long before the producers whisked the picture away. In another seven-minute piece director Amy Heckerling carries on the story of the wrong done Elaine May. She didn’t get the guild-mandated screening of her version, and when she appealed in court, the judge dismissed the contract agreements with the patronizing argument, ‘But it’s a good film, what are you complaining about?’ Heckerling’s talk about her own friction with the male dominated studio brass is very telling: in the 1980s, she still found herself in the humiliating situation of having to justify why she could be considered qualified to direct Fast Times at Ridgemont High.
Maya Montez Smukler’s audio commentary is quite good, covering all bases from the production history to the personalities involved, and adding a good analysis of the film’s comedic approach in general. The fifteen-page insert book carries a fine essay by Alexandra Heller-Nicholas, and also the film’s very short source story, by Jack Ritchie.
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
A New Leaf
Olive Signature Blu-ray rates:
Supplements: Audio commentary by film scholar Maya Montanez Smukler; The Cutting Room Floor: Editing A New Leaf interview with assistant editor Angelo Corrao; Women in Hollywood: A Tragedy of Comic Proportions with director Amy Heckerling; Trailer. Insert booklet with an essay by Alexandra Heller-Nicholas and the short story The Green Heart by Jack Ritchie, the source material for Elaine May’s script.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: Keep case in card sleeve
Reviewed: December 7, 2017
Text © Copyright 2017 Glenn Erickson