Friday, April 8, 2016

The Films of Elaine May: A New Leaf (1971)

A New Leaf (1971)
Directed by: Elaine May.   
Written by: Elaine May and Jack Ritchie (story). 
Starring: Walter Matthau (Henry Graham), Elaine May (Henrietta Lowell), Jack Weston (Andy McPherson), George Rose (Harold), James Coco (Uncle Harry), Doris Roberts (Mrs. Traggert), Renée Taylor (Sharon Hart), William Redfield (Beckett), Graham Jarvis (Bo), Jess Osuna (Frank), David Doyle (Mel), Fred Stewart (Mr. von Rensaeller), Mark Gordon (John), Rose Arrick (Gloria Cunliffe). 
With A New Leaf, writer-director-star Elaine May established two patterns that would continue throughout her too short directing career. The first being that she crafted a wonderful movie, full of great set pieces, biting wit and wonderful performances. The second being that she would constantly be at odds with the studio who she made the film for. A New Leaf is a wonderful screwball comedy – it wouldn’t have been that far out of place had it been made in the 1930s, and contains one of Walter Matthau’s best performances, and a wonderful one by May herself as well. It works pretty much perfectly as an example of what it is. But, apparently, the original version of the film ran an hour longer, and contained two murders – which puts the ending of the film, which in this version is happy, in a completely different light.
The film stars Matthau as Henry Graham – a middle aged man who comes from money, and has never worked a day in his life. He has no skills, and doesn’t want to have any. The first scene of the movie is a meeting between him and his banker, where he is informed he has no money left – and Henry has no idea what that means. He decides he basically has two choices – the first is suicide, and the second is marrying for money – and then murdering his new wife to keep it all for himself. Henry doesn’t seem too interested in sex – or really, in anything, except being his ability to do nothing, and be alone. He borrows $50,000 from his rich uncle to give him six weeks to find that rich wife – and it doesn’t seem like he will ever find her, until her meets Henrietta Lowell (May) – and she may well be perfect. She has no family to speak of, but a hell of a lot of money. She is eccentric – a botanist, who loves her plants, but really no idea about pretty much anything else. She couldn’t be more different from Henry – who looks down on her as an uncultured rube. She, looks at him in awe of his supposed refinement and intelligence – even if he uses that to mainly put her down (which, she doesn’t really realize).
It says something about Walter Mathau’s charm that here he plays a rich character, who has done nothing to earn that wealth, who simply wants to sit around and do nothing, and is planning on murdering an innocent woman, and yet we still cannot help but like him. Matthau will always be best known for comedies, even though he was more than capable of doing great dramatic work as well, and his work in A New Leaf is some of his best. Matthau never tries to hide his characters true intentions – nor even try to justify them. He is a greedy lout, who looks down on everyone around him – no one more so than May’s Henrietta. Yet Matthau is so charming and funny here, that you cannot help but like him. He may come into Henrietta’s life, and upend it – firing all of her employees for example – but then again, all those employees really are stealing from her. In a certain sense, he discovers some things he doesn’t know about himself – how he really does have some skills that come out with Henrietta. For her part, May is also wonderful in her role – a brilliant physical comedian, May knows just how to utilize herself in the role. Whether she’s hanging off a cliff, rolling down the rapids, or simply putting on a nightgown incorrectly, May is hilarious throughout. Her performance grows as it moves along as well – when we first meet her, we look at her much as Henry does – as a dim, clumsy, uncultured rich girl – an object of scorn. But throughout the film, her character becomes genuinely touching in her openness to Henry. One of the more miraculous things about the film is how it is about an asshole who wants to marry what seems like a very annoying woman for her money, then murder her, and yet, by the end of the film you really are rooting for these characters to properly fall in love.
Another fascinating element of A New Leaf is its view of gender. As has been pointed out by others, if May had been a man, this film (and her follow-up, The Heartbreak Kid) probably would have been described as misogynistic had they been directed by a man. The movie is certainly not kind to Henrietta – at first, anyway, while it offers a likable portrait of a man who uses her for his own means. All of May’s films focus on male protagonists, and a I think to a certain extent, the movies are about misogyny, but not misogynistic themselves (there can sometimes be a very thin line between the two – and filmmakers always try to claim that their films are about something offensive, not offensive themselves – but sometimes, that is actually true). We in the audience may well like Matthau’s Henry in the film – but that doesn’t mean we should, and May shows us that more than once – nowhere more so than in the climax, where Henry has to decide what to do (and takes a very long time to decide). As mentioned above, A New Leaf is essentially a 1930s screwball comedy made in the 1970s, and there was often a little undercurrent of misogyny in those movies as well – even if, ultimately, they were comedies that made everyone look silly.
I cannot help but wonder what the longer version of A New Leaf would have been – an hour longer, with some actual murders, that changes the end of the movie from a happy one – where the two characters seem to genuinely love each other, and go off into the sunset together, to a more ambiguous one, because Henry hasn’t so much fallen from Henrietta, as he is stuck with her – his punishment for his crimes. Perhaps that film would have been a masterpiece – perhaps not. What we are left with isn’t a masterpiece, but it is an often hilarious, somewhat biting movie – a definite wonder for a first time filmmaker like May. American movies had gotten very dark in 1971 – but while there cynical elements in A New Leaf, it’s also hilarious – one of the best comedies of its day.

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