In A New Leaf, Walter Matthau plays Henry Graham, a playboy with a profligate spending habit that bankrupts him and forces him to ask his calloused uncle for a loan. Having no apparent real-world skills, Graham believes his only recourse is to marry a wealthy heiress, and after a series of failed and bizarre encounters, he finally stumbles on Elaine May’s Henrietta Lowell, a botany professor who is also independently wealthy. Her awkwardness and general lack of finesse draws Graham like a shark to blood, and through wit driven by desperation, he manages to convince her to marry him. But Graham’s intention all long had been to kill whoever was foolish enough to marry him so that he could spend his spouse’s fortune in peace.
A New Leaf isn’t a romantic comedy in the traditional sense. Even if one puts aside the fact that Henry is planning to murder Henrietta to possess her fortune, there are other unusual aspects about this comedy. The relationship between Henry and Henrietta verges on platonic, since both seem like asexual beings. Henry actively flees from the prospect of exposed breasts from one of the women he courts before Henrietta. Henrietta is so enamored with the field of botany to devote any real concern to anything outside of that, including her own well-being. Their dynamic is almost more of a father and a daughter with Henry’s pragmatism and Henrietta’s naivete clashing in amusing ways. The dynamic isn’t creepy since there is no sexual chemistry between the two, which is not a detriment to the movie.
Instead, a lot of the charm is seeing Henry doing good despite wanting to be extremely selfish because of how thoroughly Henrietta trusts him, such as when he realizes that all the people who work for Henrietta are crooks preying on her naivete. He fires them all because he wants to be the only fox in the henhouse. Or is it for some less selfish reason? A New Leaf is really about Henry’s redemption as a result of unconditional, selfless love, which is fascinating since one would think May, as director, would give herself the juicier role. Yet May realizes that her performance as Henrietta had to be the opposite of Matthau’s stiff, priggish Henry. Our first introduction to her is when she keeps spilling her tea at the fancy dinner club where Henry is scouting for prospects. There’s also a scene straight ouf a silent comedy where Henry is accompanying Henrietta on one of her expeditions. Henry reads a book on poisons while in the foreground we see Henrietta in the most precarious position as she attempts to reach a plant on a cliffside with only a rope to secure herself. Her performance of inspired clumsiness could have given Peter Sellers’ Inspector Clouseau a run for his money.
A New Leaf displays many of Elaine May’s excellent cinematic instincts. For a first-time director, May clearly had a feel for economic cinematic language. She had made her name as half of the famous comic duo Nichols (of later The Graduate fame) and May, and they both wrote material for their act. Even later in her life, when she had decidedly stepped away from directing films, she was well-known as a screenwriter and script doctor. The first fifteen minutes of this film are a masterpiece of efficient comic storytelling. She knows that a scene can do so much more than just convey information. The montage of the series of couriers who are trying to inform Graham of his bankruptcy is full of brilliant bits, such as when one of them is riding on a horse after Graham, and the horse slowly collapses from exhaustion with perfect comic timing.
The film bristles with visual and aural style as well. When Graham visits his uncle, our first introduction to the latter is him with his mouth wide open seeming to consume Graham’s head in a derisive guffaw. There is also the computing sound inside Graham’s head as he tries to calculate ways to kill off Henrietta. So many modern comedies are so flat and talky that this film is strangely miles ahead of its time with its cinematic inventiveness. Consider the scene in which Graham is trying to help Henrietta with a confusing Grecian nightgown. The scene goes on for longer than necessary since May had made the nightgown deliberately impossible to figure out without Matthau’s knowledge. Yet it is also one of the most memorable scenes in the movie. Few directors would have the courage to make a scene play out that long. This film is also several years before Woody Allen’s Annie Hall, which was similarly praised for its inventiveness, yet it is not impossible to think that a young Woody Allen carefully watched and studied Nichols and May’s skits and perhaps this film.
It should be noted that May disavowed this film because of studio interference. She was forced to cut about an hour from her film. She was a female director making her first feature in the 70’s studio system, so it wasn’t surprising that she had to meet their demands. It would be tempting as it would be to see Elaine May as a sort of martyr, but frankly, I think the studio made the right call. The original film would have been considerably darker, with Henry actually pulling off some murders successfully of people getting in the way. The story of Henry’s redemption would have been tainted if he had successfully gone through with his earlier crimes. I still would have liked to see May’s cut, but the film is so good as it is, and her original vision might have collapsed under its own weight. Then again, plenty of male directors were allowed to take huge risks at the beginning of their careers too, albeit with a lot of complaining and brandishing of egos.
I wonder how American comedy would have been different if Elaine May had been as prolific as Woody Allen. Judging from this and The Heartbreak Kid, we would have seen American masculinity torn apart in ways that no man ever could. We would perhaps have seen better roles for women and perhaps we wouldn’t be inundated with comedies about man-children. At the very least, May’s example would inspire future female directors lucky enough to see and be influenced by her work, which is only slowly starting to become a reality more than twenty years after her last movie..