Welcome back to Registering the Registry, where we consider and review the films inducted into the Library of Cognress’ National Film Registry by merit of their cultural, historical, and aesthetic qualities! Today, we discuss Elaine May’s directorial and screenwriting debut as Walter Matthau tries to kill her wealthy heiress character for the money in 1971’s A New Leaf.
* * *
One can look on the National Film Registry as the ultimate in validation for the American filmmaker. With its ten-year filter rule and tendency to select the twenty-five inductees from across the entire history of film in this country every year, the petty concerns of the moment fall away, and theoretically leave only the worthwhile. After thirty years of selections, with many of the undisputed greats filed away, the classics classified, the audience favorites granted another round of applause, the award darlings given their final shining accolade, we can count on the disused and shunned and financially insolvent pictures that were nevertheless important in one way or another to see their due. There’s an awful lot crowding the moviegoing public’s attention at any one moment, and not always just movies – the gossip around their production, the public personalities of those who create them, and the fickle national mood can unjustly sink a project beneath the waves of time. To torture a metaphor, with so many struggling beneath those cruel, unjust waters, bouncing against the flotsam and jetsam littering its briny mass, occasionally breeching the surface to rise to great heights on the inspiration of those they encountered, it only makes sense Salvage Ship NFR will come along to dredge them from the depths and plop them on deck for our consideration.
Improvised nautical metaphors are fun, and appropriate, seeing as we’re talking about a film by Elaine May, who started as one of her generation’s most gifted and influential improv comics. Over a sixty-plus year career, she’s appeared as one half of Nichols and May alongside fellow future director Mike Nichols, basically inventing the neurotic stand-up personality as we know it along the way; directed three cult classic features in the 1970s including today’s picture, The Heartbreak Kid, and Mikey and Nicky, the last of which was recently honored by Criterion; served as co-writer on the enormously popular Heaven Can Wait, as well as uncredited script doctor on such hits as Reds, Tootsie, and Labyrinth; and made a latter-day name for herself writing the Nichols-helmed films The Birdcage and Primary Colors. That there’s a rap sheet to count anyone amongst the high vaults of great American filmmakers… but if you’re anything like me, you know May first and best from her involvement in the grand flop Ishtar. Ishtar, the film synonymous with Box Office Bomb – Ishtar, it of ballooning budgets and out-of-control egos and on-set clashes and gossip of an indecisive, ineffectual director way in over her head – Ishtar, the towering monument to failure built by those who judged the film before they saw it and steadied by those who never would. And with Ishtar as the largest looming work in Elaine May’s entire career, the stories around her other films become supports for its legend – how she could never turn in a film under-budget, or without shooting less footage than three Gone with the Winds, or avoid commercially unviable three-hour cuts, or get along with her collaborators in the slightest. Safe to say, unless you’re tuned to the right corners of theater culture or dig deep enough into cult items, Elaine May is one of the industry’s big names who never got her due.
It’s true she’s always shied away from the spotlight, dodging the press and taking her name off all manner of projects in the name of privacy, but the induction of 1971’s A New Leaf to the Registry and subsequent place in her recent reappraisal gives us cause for celebration all the same. We can take this as the Library of Congress rejecting the Ishtar narrative, arguing there exists a clever, worthwhile comedic and artistic voice beyond the stupid camel movie. In including Elaine May’s debut feature amongst this number, we can better appreciate the artist on her own level, discuss what the enigmatic May really has to say. So, all this established, what IS May’s big idea in A New Leaf?
Questioning whether the rich have souls, of course.
Consider Walter Matthau as Henry Graham, a layabout rich kid several decades past anyone reasonably calling him kid, and one too many bad monetary choices beyond being called rich, too. Henry, as we meet him at film’s start, is dead broke: not a penny to his name, too many debts to dream of paying off, and absolutely, positively no societal, familial, or personal prospects worth a damn to turn his fate around. His uncle Harry (James Coco) despises him, his servant Harold (George Rose) barely tolerates him, any other potential friends are too shallow and dependent on money being involved to merit any mention. What’s more, Henry’s less concerned with the loss of all his very nice things (though make no mistake, he laments their going considerably as he walks the city in a wallow of self pity with birdsong all around), and moreso with how people will perceive him once he’s destitute. A vision in the mirror shows him mockery and contempt from his peers, the barbs from those who learn of his financial state cut deeper than anything they could physically do to him, and the thought of bearing the title “Poor” above his head is an intolerable torture worse than anything the devil might devise in hell. From the go, Matthau plays Henry as a pitable, self-absorbed sadsack, the kind of man who instantly jumps to thoughts of suicide before he’d ever entertain the notion of getting a job or bettering himself. The only thing keeping him a smidge above self-termination is the haphazard thought of killing another and taking their money for himself.
Trouble is, Henry’s best idea involves marrying a wealthy woman with no attachments before murdering her for the fortune, and Henry is as socially inept and sexually repressed as you can imagine. He can’t fake saying “I love you” to save his life, which from his perspective is literally what saying so would accomplish. He flees from intimate contact, undercuts every prospect as his reprieve from poverty grows shorter, and all the while he’s surrounded by a litany of nasty, self-interested people who only tolerate him because he still appears cash flush and steady as ever, including numerous faux-inspiring monologues from Harold, who’s only trying to keep his salary checks in the mail. With all hope lost, Henry has only one chance to save himself, the one person he could possibly stand a chance at scheming against and murdering should the card hand come to it: a painfully earnest, genuine woman. Elaine May’s part in her film is one Henrietta Lowell, a wealthy heiress who studies and teaches botany in her ample spare time, possesses no hand-eye coordination to speak of, and instantly falls for Henry’s bullshit platitudes because her lack of filter or capabilities make her a terribly isolated, lonely person. Who better to serve as temporary romantic interest for a man who only wants to look wealthy and bask in the praise of his peers until his rotten heart stops beating? Who better to fall for his fakery than the one person who puts on no airs and earnestly, honestly believes in his “affections”?
It’s really quite amusing how far Henry pushes himself to win Henrietta, and how well Matthau and May sell their dynamic. The man runs himself ragged reading up on botanical concepts to score freshly memorized compliments about peas and Brussel sprouts, purposefully ruins carpeting with overturned drinks to show solidarity, even physically mutilates himself as he endures a hundredfold mosquito bites and glass shards to the knees, all in the name of making his proposal. Whenever Henrietta isn’t around, Matthau will launch into a tirade about how terrible a person she is, how intolerable her choice in alcoholic drinks and conversation pieces are, in an annoyed, outraged tone of voice suited to decrying enemies of the state or genocidal dictators… for a woman who’s really not all that bad! May gets down the annoyances of Henrietta’s person – her roundabout way of speaking, her nervous disposition pulling apart anything she touches, her blinding obliviousness to hostility – but she also portrays a character who’s really sweet at heart, whose isolation comes due of lacking anyone to talk to on an even level, someone who believes with all her might she’s found a partner who understands and cares for her. She even comes complete with a scumbag lawyer (Jack Weston) and an army of servants, all of whom make it clear anyone who’s ever shown ANY interest in her only shows it for the money. You watch Henry humiliate and mutilate himself for the remotest chance to off her, all while she thinks herself the luckiest woman in the world to marry a man who privately rages against the mere thought of her touching his stuff, and you’ve a pretty bleakly hilarious comedy. Seems pretty cut and dry whether or not the man’s lifetime of monetary excess has left him – or anyone in his social circle – a soul. Henrietta only escapes the hollowing because she’s busied herself with dedicated work and giving back to the community, her money a distant liability. Anything less leaves you a ridiculous shell.
There is, however, a twist to consider! As Henry moves ever-closer to killing Henrietta and taking her fortune for himself, his actions gradually find him becoming a better man. Not ever once someone who’d think of murder for basal personal gain a monstrous act, oh no, but someone who takes responsibility for his own affairs and strives to better his understanding of finance so he can keep the books balanced. Someone whose outrage towards the exploitative and lecherous leads to him exposing Henrietta’s lawyer for the low-life he is, and firing a staff who were bleeding her dry. In faking affection for Henrietta, he draws from within her deeply felt expressions of romantic love, brightening her world to a substantial degree, and – to her mind at least – giving her the confidence to achieve her life’s dream of discovering and classifying a hitherto unknown plant, the Alsophila grahami. Contrast the withering lump of pity and misery and laziness who gives and receives only contempt from the start, against this proactive, quick-thinking new man who takes ready interest in the health and happiness of those around him, who feels a certain, unshakable sense of right and wrong… and who still presents as a disinterested hardhead, who still plots to kill his wife at first opportunity. Henrietta can present Henry with a token of her discovery, named in his honor, point out how she’s given him as great a sliver of immortality as she can manage from her humble position and sacrificing any chance at the same for herself; all she’ll get in return is begrudging thanks and a few mean comments. Hell, the third act includes a few moments of his daydreamt murder fantasies cutting into the picture with a series of electronic beeping, just in case you missed this man’s closer relationship to a calculator than the noble home sapien.
So, perhaps not a twist so much as a complicating factor: Henry can undergo what anyone else would call positive character development, and remain on the deadly course he charted for the same reasoning he started on. Itself damning confirmation the upper crust are beyond conventional morality or salvation, no?
Here’s where Elaine May’s reputation as director enters the picture. See, A New Leaf is based on the Jack Ritchie short story “The Green Heart,” and May’s original vision for the project hewed far closer to the text, including several blackmailers whom Henry murders for Henrietta’s fortune’s sake. Following a ten month editing period, May handed Paramount a version of her film that ran three hours, including the murderous subplots, and the studio blanched, ultimately chopping out in excess of seventy minutes of footage. Cue May suing the studio to have her name taken off, cue her losing in court because the judge thought the film was funny enough to become a smash hit anyways, cue nearly fifty years of wondering what might’ve been. The film as is bears few marks of the hatchet job, barring a few signs (audio equal in quality to what we hear when characters are talking on-camera presented over a montage or establishing shot, an occurrence or two given mention without ever appearing, transitions between some scenes feeling a touch fast), but from all I’ve read and understand, the inclusion or exclusion of the murders and all they involved makes a substantial difference in whether we find Henry and the wealthy as a whole redeemable or not. If he’s killed several times over in the name of killing his original target, and subsequently cannot go through with it, then the tone as rumored in May’s original cut casts his inability to go through with it in the finale as a masochistic sign of weakness. He can push himself well past the pale, dream of blood-soaked money every night and sleep like a baby for it, slit throats and watch men die to ease the process of killing his new wife… but come right to it, and he just doesn’t have the stones. Love don’t enter into it, it’s all down to Henry as the most hilariously pathetic excuse for a human being you ever done seen, the monster of a man who’s built himself the perfect ironic prison, bettering the world while tormenting himself and hating it.
Take the ending as it does exist, though. An accidental canoe capsizing has left Henry ashore while Henrietta is trapped midstream, he’s abused her trust one last time to convince her she should let go of the branch and drift downriver into awaiting arms that will never catch her, and is just about to wander off content in his new millions when, almost impossibly, he finds an Alsophila grahami growing on the riverbank. Even this sign from God is not enough to convince him he should act, though, for it is not until he notices he’s also lost the tiny token of his own immortality in the water, the little fern clipping encased in plastic, that he considers maybe, just maybe, if he can be bothered, it might be worth saving the woman who immortalized him. You can see how this pushes us a bit further into “true love conquers all” territory, how Matthau’s countenance and voice as he pulls May from the river bear the marks of someone who’s finally experienced a change of heart, firmly arguing money doesn’t actually destroy your soul as they walk into the sunset behind credits. Way I figure it, though, even without having killed anyone to get what he wants, Henry’s still walked every step of the film with bloodshed in his heart, his mind intent on a selfish, callous act from beginning to seconds before the end. If it is at all possible for the rich to prove themselves conscionable, moral actors, it seems May believes it can only happen after an unreasonable number of kicks straight upside the head, and even then only if they can feel bothered to preserve their stake in things. Whether or not the effort’s remotely worth it for the one man, to say nothing of the upper class as a whole, comes down to personal opinion.
You better believe this is a dark movie, one in which you’re invited to laugh at emotional manipulation and innocent fools digging their own grave and the impossibly deep well of emptiness and spite within anyone who defines themselves by their overlarge finances. May’s all too happy to render her own character a patience-trying annoyance, keep Matthau’s a cold-blooded would-be/already-is killer till the terminal moment, indulge her supporting cast as small, petty, money-grubbing worms. She also invites us to find the absurdity in it all, the humor in incompetence and the hilarity of how much it takes to make an aging rich brat put forth a modicum of effort to take care of himself or do the right thing. It take a titanic effort to budge Henry an inch, and if he really has given up on his murderous designs by the end and loves Henrietta in his own weird way, at least all his failed conniving and reluctant self-improvement has resulted in one woman’s greater happiness. In turning over Elaine May’s A New Leaf, we watch her undertake the nigh-impossible task of doing so for a slimeball whose person is multiplied by the millions all across the world, and shrug to the camera once she’s exhausted herself and managed the inconsequential flip – might as well take what you can get, eh? Be it a supposedly loving husband, or the start to career marked by many such impossible tasks to prove herself in humble anonymity compared to her male contemporaries in New Hollywood. Previous exposure in the harsh light of Ishtar might’ve crumbled a hard-earned career, but highlighting her now, as part of the 2019 Registry class, reveals a well-observed, bleakly hilarious talent who’s absolutely right about how ill-earned fortunes erode men into miserable wights who love the illusion of a dollar more than tender and caring flesh and blood.
(Ebert proposed the Grecian dress fiasco as the funniest scene in the film. I’m inclined to say it’s either the tea-spilling or glass-kneeling scene. Curious what you lot think!)
* * *
There isn’t going to be a review next week. I don’t know when there will be one.