A New Leaf

In 2020, Elaine May is to direct her first new drama since 1983. Nothing much is yet known about this new project other than it’s called Crackpot and it is to star Dakota Johnson.

Here’s a slightly updated review of her finest work, A New Leaf, which originally mourned the fact that May’s directing career had been cut short. Assumptions. Assumptions.

A New Leaf was one of the most critically acclaimed American comedies of the 1970s, but over the years it mysteriously fell out of favour.

Based on the short story The Green Heart by Jack Ritchie, the film was adapted for the screen and directed by Elaine May, who also gave herself the role of Henrietta Lowell, a complete klutz with owl-like glasses that are almost permanently are on the brink of falling off her face and who needs ‘to be vacuumed every time she eats.’ Despite these eccentricities, she somehow also manages to hold down a job as a professor of botany.

Her co-star here is Walter Matthau, who plays Henry Graham, a dirty rotten scoundrel who has blown his entire inheritance and is desperate to continue in the bone idle yet extravagant manner to which he has become accustomed.

Aloof, irresponsible and filled with self-pity, he has managed to avoid responsibility at all costs throughout his life and with no business acumen, no real skills and a serious aversion to any kind of gainful employment, there seems only one solution to his problems and that is the one suggested by his English butler Harold – marrying an enormously wealthy woman who can subsidise his wasteful ways.

Cap in hand, he visits his Uncle Harry to beg for a $50,000 loan, so he can keep up appearances while he woos the unsuspecting female. Harry realises in all likelihood the money will never be paid back although an agreement is reached to give his nephew the loan for a period of six weeks with Henry forfeiting his home and valuables if he doesn’t repay the cash on the dot, meaning that he’s in danger of losing his swanky city apartment, cool modern art and Ferrari if his plan goes awry.

This looks likely after a series of failures but then he stumbles across the bumbling Henrietta.

A New Leaf (1971)

This becomes a true love–hate relationship. She adores him. He detests everything about her, even her spectacular gullibility which allows him the chance to prey on her. Henry certainly likes her wealth, though, the bulk of which comes from her heiress status.

So, he turns on the charm and makes his move on her. Oh, and I should also probably tell you here that he decides that bumping her off might just be an equally good idea, so screwball comedy moves into the territory of black comedy.

There are some very funny scenes here such as when Henry reads Beginner’s Guide to Toxicology while, in the background, she is on the edge of a cliff, seeking out an as yet unrecognised species of fern leaf, and there’s also a great slapstickish routine where he becomes involved in the epic task of helping a flustered Henrietta fit into her toga-style dress after she inadvertently manages to stick her head through the armhole of the outfit. I did tell you she was a klutz, didn’t I?

As well as being a hoot, the scene is also rather touching and Henry’s patience with her is actually rather admirable. Her ineptitude does somehow bring out the best in him and, of course, this seemingly very odd couple do have more in common with one another than Henry initially suspected. He might find her mightily kooky but he insists on driving his car wearing a motorbike crash helmet, to name only one of his own peculiarities.

With his hangdog expressions and flawless comic timing, Matthau is brilliantly cast here, and May in her only starring role in a film she directed herself is every bit as good and the perfect foil.

Elaine May and Walter Matthau in A New Leaf

Matthau made two other films in 1971, Plaza Suite, which was nominated for the Golden Globe Award for Best Motion Picture, and Kotch, which saw him being nominated for an Oscar as Best Actor but it’s A New Leaf that is the pick of the trio. The whole film from beginning to end really is a lot of fun and ranks up there with Harold and Maude, Annie Hall, Slap Shot and Paper Moon as one of the finest American comedies of the 1970s. All these years later it’s still definitely worth seeking out and with the promise of Crackpot being shot soon, this is the perfect time to see it if you haven’t already.

Why you might ask is the film not better known?

My theory would be the fact that Elaine May was entirely dissatisfied with the version of the film that was released, having been removed from the project by Paramount head honcho Robert Evans, who set about drastically chopping out over an hour of her cut himself, mainly by excising a subplot that involved Henry killing Henrietta’s crooked attorney.

May attempted to have the film shelved, and then when this failed, she also failed to have her name removed from the credits before publicly disowning the film.

Whether her cut would be an improvement on the studio release I have no idea but after watching the movie I’m certainly glad she was unsuccessful in having A New Leaf suppressed.

Like her directorial debut, May’s career seemed to be cut short after the critical and box office failure of her fourth film Ishtar. I haven’t ever seen this one, maybe because critics like to dub it ‘The Heaven’s Gate of comedy’ and ‘One of the grossest miscalculations of the blockbuster era.’

May did continue to work in Hollywood, most significantly penning the screenplays for The Birdcage and Primary Colors but on the evidence of A New Leaf (and to a lesser extent The Heartbreak Kid and Mikey and Nicky), it’s a real pity that she didn’t get the chance to direct more movies.

Hopefully, Crackpot recaptures the form of her first three directorial efforts and let’s face it, you’ve got to root for any 87 year woman given the chance to sit in a director’s chair, haven’t you?