Many people regard the early ’70s as a great era in Hollywood filmmaking, so here’s a quick quiz. How many women directed features for major Hollywood studios in that era? That’s right: one. And who was she? Elaine May. Very good. The first of her three brilliant ’70s films, A New Leaf (1971), is now on Blu-ray from Olive Films and it’s loaded with extras, getting the respect it deserves.
Although she’s the co-star, May doesn’t show up until nearly half an hour into the picture and then she’s tucked away in a corner. With a couple of brief exceptions, every scene follows the perspective of Henry Graham, played by Walter Matthau in full curmudgeon mode. The opening scenes establish him as a gadabout spendthrift who’s gone broke on his inheritance. He emerges stunned from a meeting with his lawyer, announcing “I’m poor!” in a hushed voice.
His valet (George Rose) — for Henry’s the kind of stuffed shirt who still employs a valet to dress him — suggests that his only options are suicide or marriage and there seems little to choose between them. Henry has always struck his acquaintances as “not interested in women”, not that he’s interested in anything else but fine living. As though stumbling onto a four-leaf clover while turning over a rock, it suddenly occurs to Henry to marry a rich woman with no relations and kill her off. He doesn’t turn a hair while considering this and for the first time in life he has a concrete goal.
Enter Henrietta (May), a wealthy, socially awkward dormouse with a gift for clumsiness that makes Inspector Clouseau look like Fred Astaire. She’s a botany professor, and her dream is to discover an unknown species of plant.
It’s ridiculously easy for Henry to court her and this accounts for much of the film’s hilarity. May’s script allows for physical comedy, like the setpiece involving her Grecian gown; for farcical characters, like her groveling attorney (Jack Weston) and slatternly housekeeper (Doris Roberts) and Henry’s gross uncle (James Coco); and for rich verbal humor, mostly put into the mouth of Henry, a character we simultaneously despise and admire for the reckless efficiency of his arrogance.
“You dare call me a son of a bitch?” he unreels calmly at an early party scene when dressing down his hostess. “Madam, I have seen many examples of perversion in my time, but your erotic obsession with your carpet is probably the most grotesque, and certainly the most boring, I have ever encountered. You’re more to be scorned than pitied. Good day, Mrs. Cunliffe.”
This moment is a festival of layers, as we enjoy seeing the materialistic, hypocritical upper-crust lady being taken down a peg for insulting Henrietta, and yet we know Henry’s motives in defending her are exactly as materialistic and hypocritical, just as we know that we would be exasperated with Henrietta ourselves. While laughing, we take all this in with the analytical approach of a visitor to an amusing zoo, or perhaps the classifying mind of a botanist.
Incidentally, please note that this comedy of sex and death, with such dialogue as the above, was rated G in 1971. Another incidental pleasure is the beauty of the film’s design and set decoration. Henry has wonderful sculptures borrowed, according to the credits, from various art agencies, and I presume the paintings must be the work of master scenic artist Stan Cappiello.
The film is based on Jack Ritchie’s “The Green Heart” a comical crime story included as a delightful bonus in the liner notes. As narrated by Henry, the story is very close to the movie, with certain scenes and bits of dialogue preserved intact. Henry acquires poison to be used on his wife and then two more characters enter the scene whom he must poison first. This isn’t a spoiler for the movie, because although May did indeed film those parts of the story, they’ve been cut out. That’s what makes the story behind the movie as interesting as the movie, and why this directorial debut became a literal trial for May.
If you’re still racking your brains, May was half of Nichols & May, a brilliant comedy improv act that burst over late ’50s America as part of a hip, sophisticated, “sick humor” about the neurotic modern world. This neurosis, somewhat difficult to distinguish now in the cozy images that tend to dominate our (false) impressions of that Eisenhower Era, extended from the Beat writers to Charles Schulz’s
Peanuts and from Lenny Bruce to Bob Newhart and MAD Magazine. The fact that so much of this now feels like solid mainstream culture indicates how well it took over.
Nichols & May were in the thick of it, dominating Broadway with a sold-out show and appearing on TV with Steve Allen, Jack Paar and the like. Then they broke up to pursue separate careers. Mike Nichols established himself as a director on Broadway and in Hollywood by the mid-’60s. May turned to playwrighting before directing a film of her own script,
A New Leaf. She landed that gig in 1968, shot the film in 1969, and engaged in a long ordeal of editing that resulted in her initial three-hour cut being taken away and recut by Paramount, whom she promptly sued. It wasn’t a happy event.
She claimed in court that the studio’s cut would be a flop. The court disagreed and proved right. The movie was popular with audiences and critics and has since remained on many people’s lists of the decade’s best comedies. This must have been bittersweet for May. We cannot compare the versions, for May’s original
New Leaf is yet to be turned over, although a three-hour character comedy that throws in two murders might seem, on the face of it, less of a commercial enterprise than the tightly focused charmer released to theaters.
The interpretations of this event in the Blu-ray commentary by scholar Maya Montanez Smukler tend to assume sexism plays a great role in it, because May was the only woman director in Hollywood at the time and the studio bosses who disagreed with her were, of course, men in a male-dominated industry. If sexism can’t help being the elephant in the room, it’s the one thing everyone rather rushes to discuss as opposed to avoiding it, and we’re reminded of the parable of the blind men and an elephant.
It’s fair to ask: would a woman executive have tolerated a three-hour comedy? And what about the males who turn in overlong cuts? If Mike Nichols had turned in a three-hour version of
The Graduate, it would have been taken away from him. It seems more likely, in this and other films she directed, that May belongs to that list of otherwise male creative geniuses who naturally clash with the commercial system, including Erich Von Stroheim, Orson Welles and Otto Preminger. Rather than demean May’s abilities, such a view pays her a higher compliment when assessing her career as a director, as opposed to a woman director.
Smukler quotes from memos by Paramount exec Peter Bart, saying that the first half of the script is a character comedy and the second, an
Arsenic and Old Lace type of farce. He likes the first half, not the second. He even suggests alternate outcomes, such as having Henrietta suddenly blossom into personal competence and save the day. This is all very far from the original story, and it’s interesting that May felt committed to sticking to it. The film’s ending preserves the story’s ending with virtual exactitude, whether or not one believes it.
May is known for mostly avoiding interviews, so she provides no voice here beyond her movie. Aside from the commentary, extras are the trailer, an interview with an associate editor, and an interview with director Amy Heckerling (
Fast Times at Ridgemont High, Clueless), who states that May’s existence was the validation of her own dreams of directing.
May has spent most of her career writing, often under pseudonyms. For example, during this period she wrote the screenplay for Otto Preminger’s
Such Good Friends, another 1971 dark comedy with James Coco and Doris Roberts. A true retrospective of her work would be a breathtaking affair. For now, we’ll hope for Blu-rays of The Heartbreak Kid (1972), which is in the running for best ever movie from a Neil Simon play, and the devastating Mikey and Nicky (1976) with John Cassavetes and Peter Falk.