Sunday, May 20, 2012

A New Leaf/Elaine May

A New Leaf(1971)
Directed by
Elaine May
Written by Elaine May from a story by Jack Ritchie
Starring Elaine May, Walter Matthau, Jack Weston, James Coco
IMDB Entry

Elaine May was a clear comic genius before she started working in movies. With her partner, Mike Nichols, they were astoundingly good stand-up comics, where the two of them would be both hilarious and psychologically astute. Here is their “Mother and Son” skit, which is both very funny and also ultimately dark and creepy.

Mother and Son

But all great comic teams come to an end and when the two of the amicably decided to move on, both moved into directing.  Nichols made a splash first with Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? in 1966, earning a Oscar nomination.  May took a bit longer to get the director’s chair,* but finally got her chance with A New Leaf in 1971.

The film is about Henry Graham (Walter Matthau), a spoiled rich wastrel who has run through his inheritance and is desperate for the money needed to keep up his lifestyle.  He meets up with Henrietta Lowell (May), a painfully shy botanist and, more to the interest of Henry, a rich heiress.  Henry goes all out to get the clumsy Henrietta to marry him, with the ultimate plan that he murders her and gets her fortune. But it’s not that easy, since Henrietta’s shyness and lack of class continually frustrates Henry.

And of course, no one was better at portraying frustration than Walter Matthau.  May plays Henrietta as a sweet but bewildered klutz, a perfect performance. 

The movie was beset with studio problems.  Originally, May wanted to have a subplot with Matthau murdering several other people, but the film went on too long and was cut.  The cuts seemed to have worked, since the film is ultimately a charming romantic comedy.

A New Leaf opened to good reviews, but poor box office, and I doubt May’s insistence on her own vision made many friends with movie executives, especially since the film’s cost was almost double its budget.  However, she struck gold the next time out with The Heartbreak Kid, even though she only directed.**  Still, the promotional material mentioned her name and it looked like she might make a big breakthrough in films, with two critical successes, and one commercial one.

Alas, it was not to be.  Her next film, Mikey and Nicky, was over budget and late; she shot an incredible amount of film (more than Gone With The Wind) as the two stars – Peter Falk and John Cassavetes – improvised for hours.  Her studio got angry at the delays and barely released the film.

It was 11 years until she directed another film.  That was Ishtar, which didn’t work out too well, either.***

May never directed again. Sexism certainly paid a part, but the fact that at least three of her four films came in late and over budget due to her penchant for perfectionism was probably the greater factor.  May vanished from Hollywood and rarely appeared on the stage, and only had a handful of movie credits, primarily as a writer.  Critics did love her in Woody Allen’s Small Time Crooks, where she was terrific in every scene.

May was a can’t-miss who missed.  But A New Leaf – even cut from her own vision – is a comic delight that makes you wish she had been far more successful.

*Was there sexism here?  Probably.

**The character of Lila was probably one she could have played, but she evidently wanted a younger actress, and cast her daughter, Jeannie

***The film was unfairly maligned when it came out, since it went massively over budget – the most expensive film up to that time -- without any crowd scenes or fancy special effects to show for it.  Everyone reviewed the price tag, but those who ignored that discovered a funny comedy with a few slow and uneven patches.  Critics are beginning to rediscover the film, and Heaven’s Gate and Cutthroat Island took over at the most expensive high-profile flop.  Eventually, I think it will be found to be a decent (though flawed) little film.


Glen said...

Chuck, if you've never read Jack Ritchie's short stories, of which A New Leaf was based on one ("The Green Heart"), I urge you to find a copy of Little Boxes of Bewilderment. I agree with you that May is a rare find, but in this case it was also a great story she was working from.

Dwight Brown said...

Glen beat me to it, but he's totally right.

The work of Jack Ritchie would make for a good "Great but Forgotten" entry. He spent pretty much his entire writing career cranking out these tiny stories constructed in much the same way a watchmaker constructs a fine watch. I like to think of him as the Howard Waldrop of the mystery community.