A New Leaf (1971) - Elaine May
"Perfect" was how Roger Ebert opened his review of Elaine May's brilliant, classic comedy A New Leaf. And that pretty much sums up this magnificent piece of work. A quirky, off-kilter comedy about a spoiled and self-obsessed playboy who has squandered his inherited wealth by living far beyond his means who is forced to seek marriage to a wealthy heiress so he can continue his decadent lifestyle.
The film takes on a familiar, tried and tested structure; Henry, pleading with his wealthy and repulsive uncle is loaned enough money to maintain his lifestyle and a six-week deadline in which to find and marry an heiress, otherwise, he will be ruined and destitute. Films of this type, including Brewster's Millions (1985) and Seven Chances (1925) offer variations on the same theme and use their deadline setup to thrust their characters into increasing intense and stressful comedic situations. But its rarely been done with such wit, charm and laugh out loud moments. A New Leaf offers a more self-aware, black comedy element that thanks to the sharp writing and great performances elevates A New Leaf to the heights of comedy gold.
Walter Matthau plays Henry Graham, who after an absurdly hilarious opening sequence which sets the tone for the entire film, Henry discovers, much to his dismay and bafflement that he is broke. Leaving his accountants office he wanders woozily through New York visiting his old haunts (a hotel, restaurant, suit fitters) wistfully saying goodbye to his life. Upon returning home he informs his loyal-to-a-point butler of their predicament. The only solution Henry discovers will be to identify and marry a wealthy heiress. Henry, aghast at the mere suggestion soon identifies a solution to the sanctity of marriage; killing the bride. He is not one who enjoys sharing wealth.
Matthau plays Henry masterfully. It's genuinely great comic performance. He moves from entitled, to baffled, too focused to enlightened and manages at every turn to make the audience both laugh at him, and with him. He is witty, intelligent, conniving but also inept, stupid and short-sighted. He often can't see the wood for trees and his own stubbornness, pride and delusion often threaten to destroy his plans and his life. Much to his confusion. There isn't a single moment or note in the film that Matthau doesn't master. He's never short of brilliant and seems perfectly in tune with May's off-kilter, kooky direction and style.
Which brings us to May. As a writer, director and actor, this is most definitely May's film. After a few failed attempts to meet women, Henry stumbles across May's Henrietta (a reclusive, introverted, booked character) at a society event. This "cute-meet" is also something truly spectacular as Henrietta breaks not one, but two teacup and saucers. Henry's coming to her defence, albeit not earnestly, is charming and bold, and something which continues throughout the film, often without Henry realising he's doing it. And it's completely, unexpectedly and unintentionally charming. Henrietta, despite her wealth, clearly isn't welcomed into this world, and to her eyes, Henry charges in light a knight in shining armour to defend her. The great comedy and irony of the scene is how Henry's great gesture, carried out in his malevolent attempt to marry (then kill her) charms her, and her uncharacteristic kookiness and inability to fit in with high society is exactly what will charm him.
Like Matthau, May is magnetic in the film. Despite her characterisation. She is a force unto herself and exists, it appears, in her own small world, oblivious to the whirring of the high society world around her; how that society laughs and ridicules her, how her house staff steal and exploit her and how Henry plans to marry and murder her. In this way, she is a true innocent, and this ultimately is the source of her power and charm, which will eventually win out over Henry. Henrietta's sole passion in life is botany. Her dream is to discover a plant, leaf or herb that has been unclassified and have it named after her. That, she believes will bring her some form of immortality.
May's original cut submitted to paramount was allegedly three hours long. Not surprisingly, Robert Evans, then head of the studio took control of the film and edited it down to a trim 104mins. It's unclear if this was done for commercial reasons or because May's version was unpalatable to Evans (probably both), and we'll probably never know how good May's epic version was, but what Evans cut from that original version is nothing short of a comedy masterpiece.
The real joy and glory of this film though are in how subtly and unexpectedly Henry comes to the realisation that Henrietta has unwillingly made him aware of his strengths, his skills and given him confidence and self-belief. Acting in her best intentions, which he tells himself are his best intentions, for example in riding Henrietta of her exploitative house staff and taking ownership of her accounts to get them in order, actually reveal his adeptness and skillset. By the films' closing moments, when he saves her from certain death (the exact opposite of his original plan, and the very definition of her innocence) he has completely changed character and realises the change in him she has brought about.
A New Leaf is a film that has been long overlooked in the history of cinema. Like so many female filmmakers working on the 60s and 70s, during the American Independent cinema revolution, that gave us Scorsese, Lucas, Coppola et al, Elaine May has been somewhat forgotten, remembered mainly as the partner of Mike Nichols (The Graduate). But A New Leaf demonstrates that not only was May's comic genius indisputable (it really is one of the funniest films ever made) but her style and direction (not to forget her acting) make her one of the most unique and intriguing talents of arguably the most creative period in American cinema.