Bonus Features: A New Leaf (1972)

Our current Movie of the Month, 1972’s A New Leaf, was the directorial debut of stage comedy legend Elaine May.  May reluctantly starred in the film herself opposite Walter Matthau, who plays a destitute, asexual playboy aristocrat who plans to marry her neurotic heiress character, kill her, and liquidate her fortune.  Only, his plans are thwarted when it gradually dawns on him that there is one thing in the world he enjoys more than money: his wife’s company.  A New Leaf is a darkly funny, bitterly anti-romantic romcom until, against all odds, it ends on the familiarly sweet notes of a traditional romcom.  Elaine May’s performance is a large part of its success, as the only reasonable response to watching her nervously unravel under her gigantic glasses is to immediately blurt out “Marry me,” regardless of whether you also want to kill her for her inheritance.  It’s a shame, then, that her frustrations behind the camera tripped up the film’s potential success.

Every movie Elaine May directed was delivered over-schedule & over-budget.  Even her relatively laidback, low-budget debut stretched 40 days past its shooting schedule, with an entire hour of extraneous bits & bobs the studio edited out of the final product despite May’s protests that it needed to be a three-hour romcom to work.  If she had delivered A New Leaf on-time, on-budget, and properly trimmed, it would’ve been considered a huge hit instead of just breaking even, and she might’ve had an easier time fighting for her cuts of similarly troubled productions down the line.  Instead, she toiled away in the background, writing screenplays for some of the most beloved Hollywood comedies of all time – poor thing.  She did manage to squeeze four feature films out of Hollywood producers before they took away her director’s chair, though, and luckily for audiences they’re all great movies, whether or not they lost money.  If you enjoyed A New Leaf, I recommend that you watch all three films May directed afterwards, detailed below.  And if you’re a Hollywood producer, I recommend that you spend even more money on whatever dream project the 90-year-old auteur wants to see made before she leaves this world.  Chances are high you’ve already wasted much more money on much worse films.

The Heartbreak Kid (1972)

I guess it’s inaccurate to claim that every Elaine May movie was a commercial flop.  Her follow-up to A New Leaf was her one hit comedy, enough of a financial success that it inspired a major studio remake starring Ben Stiller in the aughts.  Curiously, it’s also the only film in her catalog that’s not currently available to watch at home through official means. The Heartbreak Kid has been left to rot on YouTube and Archive.org as a long-forgotten 20th Century Fox acquisition that the art-indifferent overlords at Disney have no concern for. Which is a shame, since it might very well be May’s career best as a director.  At the very least, its anti-romcom humor is even darker & more vicious than A New Leaf’s, which is impressive since that debut was about marital murder.

Charles Grodin stars as a fresh-out-of-college shit-talker who immediately realizes on a honeymoon road trip that he despises his bride.  While vacationing in Miami, he ditches her for a younger, blonder co-ed who he has no business fooling with, inevitably finding himself still deeply unhappy after another successful romantic conquest.  The Heartbreak Kid is essentially a horror film about a nightmare world where everyone has to marry the first person who makes them horny before they get to have sex, regardless of compatibility or moral deficiency.  May’s psychedelic zoom-ins on the Miami resort sunshine, Groden’s complaints that his wife is “not really his type,” and the escalating tension of the plot’s sitcom hijinks are outright maddening, whereas the similar poisonous romance humor of A New Leaf plays oddly, subtly sweet.  Together, they make a great pair, and they’re the best argument for May’s genius as a comedic auteur.

Mikey & Nicky (1976)

May’s least typical work is her all-in-one-night gangster drama Mikey & Nicky, starring Peter Falk & John Cassavetes as a pair of uneasy, paranoid friends at the bottom rung of the crime-world ladder.  Falk appears to be the kinder, more calming presence of the two, but over the course of the film both characters expose themselves as low-level scumbag criminals without a decent bone between either of their bodies.  They’re not all that different from the self-absorbed, oblivious brutes of May’s comedies, except that working in a different genre means she no longer has to ingratiate them to the audience for the story to work.  Moving away from a character-based comedy structure also expands her scope to capture a portrait of a grimy, pre-Giuliana era NYC instead of just a couple losers who occupy it.  The film’s late-night setting, 70s funk soundtrack, guerilla-style camerawork, and authentic casting of dive-bar creeps as background extras all feel like they’d be much more at home in a Scorsese picture like Taxi Driver or Mean Streets than a typical film from Elaine May.  But she’s damn good at it.

Mikey & Nicky presents the best argument that May deserves as much time to tinker around in the editing room as she desires.  The dialogue has a tight, pointed feel to it, as if the screenplay were written for the stage. So, it’s mind-blowing to read about how its narrative flow was mostly constructed after-the-fact in the editing room, like a sprawling, improv-based Apatow comedy.  Her way of putting a story together might not have been financially sound at the time (considering that her over-schedule shoots were burning through celluloid while Apatow’s only clutter up digital servers), but you can’t argue with the results. She makes great movies.

Ishtar (1987)

The only time I can feel the overcooked, under-planned sweatiness of Elaine May’s directorial style is in her final picture, the one that effectively became a punchline synonym for box office disaster.  Ishtar is not nearly as bad as its contemporary reviews suggested.  In its earliest stretch, it’s an ahead-of-its-time, Tim & Eric style anti-comedy, starring Dustin Hoffman & Warren Beatty as a pair of sub-mediocre songwriters who abandon their shared dream of making it big in New York City to instead make some quick money as a nightclub act in Morocco.  The film also isn’t as great as its modern reclaimers suggest.  Once it arrives in Morocco, May loses the personable intimacy that makes her earlier comedies so great, as Beatty & Hoffman’s buffoons are gradually drafted against their will into a conflict between the CIA, leftist guerillas, and the dictator of the fictional country of Ishtar.  The movie loses a little of its post-Andy Kauffman, proto-Tim & Eric sheen as the whole battle comes to a head in its third act slump, which involves a blind camel, some unfortunate detours into brown face, and our bumbling leads getting lost in the desert.

Despite some of that exhausting, comedy-killing bloat in the third act, Ishtar does not deserve its reputation as One of the Worst Comedies of All Time. It’s doubtful it was even the worst comedy released in the spring of 1985. The film is often funny in a strikingly subversive, adventurously unconventional way. It even goes as far as to include harsh criticisms of US interference with political affairs in the Middle East instead of broadly stereotyping the people of the region the way lazier 80s comedies would (for the most part).  Still, it ended up being the straw that broke the proverbial camel’s back, as it finally sealed May’s reputation as box office poison after four consecutive debacles. Even the critics had turned on May at the arrival of her final feature, seemingly eager to tear it down before it was even released.  Even if her productions were overly extravagant for what she was supposed to be delivering, I’d say that was a mistake.  After all, she was only hurting the money men.  She consistently put out great art, even when it was bad for business.

-Brandon Ledet

Movie of the Month: A New Leaf (1971)

Every month one of us makes the rest of the crew watch a movie they’ve never seen before, and we discuss it afterwards. This month Alli made Boomer, Brandon, and Britnee watch A New Leaf (1971).

Alli:  Oh, heavens! I’m so glad to finally share this movie with y’all.

Elaine May’s 1971 black comedy A New Leaf is about bachelor Henry Graham (Walter Mathau), who goes absolutely broke after squandering his fortune on his Ferrari, horses, exclusive clubs, fancy restaurants, and his impeccable art collection. After getting the idea from his butler, he decides to marry a rich woman and kill her for her money. His target is botanist Henrietta Lowell (Elaine May), who is a hopelessly clumsy, gauche, and stunted adult. As their marriage and the movie progresses, Henry takes on more and more responsibility in their household in the hopes of having the opportunity to murder Henrietta and become independently wealthy again. I like to describe this movie as the “anti romcom.” There are plenty tropes of a standard romcom with none of the actual romance: a bachelor who has never considered marrying, a meet cute featuring lots of spilt tea, an impossible deadline for the wedding, and disastrous boat trip (although this one is a disastrous canoe trip). I’d even argue that there’s a sort of “opposites attract” dynamic at play.

Except they’re not exactly opposites. Henry. Henrietta. Two sides of the same coin. They’re both adults unable to handle the day to days of adult life. For Henry, it’s because he doesn’t want to. For Henrietta, she’s just so caught up in her ferns that she’s clueless. Both are unmarried and not actively searching until now. With Henrietta getting the confidence to hang off cliffs to find her ferns and Henry learning the practical logistics of household management and taxes, they find a way to—for lack of a better term—complete each other. By the end of the movie, I find them endearing together somehow. 

What did y’all think of the movie? Do you think they belong together even if they’re not lovers and—with some obvious queer subtext—Henry has no interest whatsoever in women?

Brandon: Funnily enough, when I search for “Walter Matthau A New Leaf gay subtext”, the top Google result I’m getting is Alli’s original review of the film for Swampflix in 2016.  Considering how much online movie nerds like to read into fictional characters’ “queer coding”—intentional or otherwise—you’d think we’d be in our usual spot in the double or triple digits of results pages.  All I can really confirm is that Henry’s sexuality was on my mind throughout the film. I kept trying to pin him to a specific modern queer context every time he intimately grabbed his butler’s arm or scoffed when a country club manager expressed surprise at his sudden (financial) interest in women.  Elaine May has enjoyed some recent reappraisal as an overlooked auteur in historically macho film canons (alongside other greats like Varda, Ottinger, Wertmüller, and Campion), an effort that’s intensified even since we covered Mikey & Nicky as a Movie of the Month in 2017. So, it’s a little curious that there doesn’t seem to be much consensus on how this marriage-cynical anti-romcom could be interpreted through a queer lens.

Ultimately, I settled on both Henry and Henrietta being some form of ace.  They are both so unbothered with and oblivious to physical sexual attraction that it doesn’t even occur to them that the everyday companionship of marriage might be emotionally beneficial even if they have no desire to fuck.  The entire arc of Henry’s character here is the painfully gradual realization that he enjoys & benefits from Henrietta’s company.  That delay is, of course, comically ridiculous, since no reasonable human being could watch Elaine May nervously unravel under those gigantic glasses without immediately blurting “Marry me!” (whether or not they also want to murder her for her inheritance).  Plot-wise, the two movies A New Leaf most reminded me of were Charlie Chaplin’s against-type black comedy Monsieur Verdoux and its Ealing Studios descendent Kind Hearts and Coronets, both about the convenient financial gains of murder. The difference is those predecessors have ice-cold hearts that May’s film only pretends to emulate in its earliest stretch.  This ultimately is a very romantic movie about two absolute weirdos who belong together but don’t know how to express—or even realize—their mutual fondness in a world oblivious to their asexuality.  At least, “Walter Matthau A New Leaf asexual” leads to much more credible online resources than this unpolished, self-published blog.

Boomer: I’m also going to throw my hat into the ring for Henry being asexual. There’s that scene right around the 25-minute mark where Bosley from Charlie’s Angels tries to fob Henry off on a water skier at some social event, and, when the two are alone in the night, she attempts to remove her bathing suit top and Henry bleats in terror: “No! Don’t let them out!” I laughed quite a lot at the delivery, but there’s something so bone-deep terrified in that line read that doesn’t say “gay,” to me, it says “completely and abjectly terrified at the very prospect of sex in any form.” It’s also the first time that we’ve seen Henry hit an emotional peak; he’s mostly just gruffly irascible and impatient, but he never hits a boiling point and instead stays in a low, simmering annoyance. The closest he comes before this moment to showing a positive emotion is when he surveys his favorite lunch restaurant and speaks, not to the handsome waiter but to the dining area itself, as if he is a lover bidding a final farewell. “Desire” only exists to Henry insofar as he can only tolerate the finest that life has to offer. 

To be honest, at first this felt like it was going to make me hate this viewing experience. When Henry’s attorney, Beckett, is finally able to make contact with him in order to tell him that he’s used up all of his (vast, incomprehensibly vast) funds, it follows closely on the heels of a scene in which Henry is about to go gallivanting around the skies in a fighter plane, and he doesn’t even seem like he’s having a very good time doing it. But even with all that rich assholery, it’s impossible not to love Walter Matthau in anything that he’s in; even when he’s a total jerk, you can’t help but be charmed by him and his curmudgeonliness. By the time he was wistfully bidding farewell to all of the cultural hallmarks of excessive wealth, I hadn’t come to like him necessarily, but I wasn’t taking delight in laughing at his downfall either. When it comes down to it, he’s ultimately very good with the household finances and starts plugging up holes in Henrietta’s estate budget immediately, which immediately stops her unscrupulous family lawyer from continuing to leech from her. That was the first scene where I really liked Henry, and it carried through the rest of the film. 

Britnee: I really enjoyed this! It’s the asexual “romcom” that I didn’t I needed. A New Leaf is one of the best comedies I’ve seen in a while. It reminded me of one of my favorite films of all time, What’s Up, Doc?. Both came out in the early 70s and are so comically chaotic. Walter Matthau’s performance as Henry, the spoiled middle aged man-child, completely blew me away. I’d only previously seen him in the Grumpy Old Men movies, Dennis the Menace, and Cactus Flower. He somehow looks like he’s been 70 years old forever. What a face! His emotionless delivery of back-to-back sassy lines had me howling. The scene where a child walks in on him while he’s getting dressed for the wedding is one of the best. When he yells at her to get out and repeats “I won’t have her touching my things!”, I saw so much of myself in his character. It’s very “psychobiddy,” even coming from a 50 year-old man.

I also have to mention how impressive Elaine May is. To manage such a brilliant film as her directorial debut while starring in it herself is such a major accomplishment. I’m ashamed to not have known of this sooner. This is why Movie of the Month is so great! Also, I’m dying to try one of Henrietta’s Malaga Coolers. Not only has May made her mark in the film industry, she’s also made it into the world of fragrance, as the Demeter fragrance line has a perfume based on the beverage. I’ll have to get one for my purse!

Like Boomer and Brandon, I also picked up on the asexuality of the main characters. It made sense for Henry, but I had to think a little more to figure out Henrietta. She was more into Henry than he was into her (obviously), but she was more interested in the companionship Henry offered than anything sexual or romantic. They both remind me of these old neighbors I had many moons ago. They would sit on their shared porch and nag each other constantly, but they hung out every day and appreciated each other in their own weird way. 

Lagniappe

Britnee: Renee Taylor (Sharon) is fabulous for her entire four minutes of screentime. That waterski scene is comedy gold. The character played like a younger version of her famous role in The Nanny (Fran’s mother, Sylvia Fine), which makes me wonder if that’s her true personality or just a character she’s developed. Either way, I’m so thankful for her existence. 

Alli: I’m also fascinated by the Malaga Coolers. All a quick google search on them brings up is this movie, so it was obviously the worst imaginable offense against wine snobs she could invent, which I love. BUT I actually have tried this beverage. Once, as an adult, I went to my grandma’s house, and she busted out the Mogen David and soda to whip some up.  It was … not great, as you would expect.

The Malaga Cooler: the drink of awkward botanists and crazy Grandmas everywhere. (RIP my grandma, who died this year. She was quite a lady.)

Boomer: So after having to drive my friend’s car back from the Halloween party last weekend because someone forgot to eat before drinking, I took my own car out for a midnight drive to get some fast food. Unfortunately, after passing the Whataburger because the line was insurmountable and getting halfway to Jack-in-the-Box, my check engine light came on, so I turned around and went straight home. After going to the AutoZone first thing the next morning for their free diagnostic, it turned out that there was an issue with my catalytic converter. You see, I had carbon buildup… on my valves. The man at the store asked if I took mostly small, short trips (I do), and apparently I, like Henry, simply don’t take my car out for enough long drives to “clear the throat” of my car, as it were. As a non-car-guy, I didn’t realize that this was what was happening with Henry’s car as well; I just let that whole scene float past me in the stream. Luckily, I went and got it checked out quickly enough that the AutoZone employee was able to recommend something called Cataclean, which you pour into your tank and it clears out all the carbon (from the valves). I’m happy to say that, four days later, my check engine light has gone off! (Not sponsored.) So this is my advice to all of you out there in readerland: if you take a bunch of short drives, like I do, then get you some of this stuff and use if before it becomes a problem. And if your check engine light comes on, don’t ignore it; get it checked out right away. The life you save could be your own (car’s). 

Brandon: Having now seen all four of Elaine May’s feature films, I find myself struggling with the question of whether or not she’s a “great” director.  She certainly makes great films.  Even the worst of her catalog, the misunderstood anti-comedy Ishtar, deserves more attention and praise than it gets.  At the same time, each of those movies was delivered over-schedule & over-budget, so it’s not like she was especially adept at managing her shoots.  This relatively laidback, low-budget debut stretched 40 days past its shooting schedule, with an entire hour of extraneous bits & bobs that the studio edited out of the final product despite May’s protests that it needed to be a three-hour romcom to work.  If she had delivered A New Leaf on-time, on-budget, and properly trimmed, it would’ve been considered a huge hit instead of just breaking even, and she might’ve had an easier time fighting for her cut of similarly troubled productions like Mikey & Nicky down the line.  Instead, she toiled away in the background writing screenplays for some of the most beloved Hollywood comedies of all time, poor thing.

I suppose Elaine May is a great director in the only way that should matter to audiences: her movies are sharply funny & uniquely entertaining.  How she manages time & money is more of an issue for Hollywood executives to worry about; they’ve certainly invested a lot more financial capital on projects with a lot less cultural value than May’s four modest bangers.  I only really bring up the question here to note that her management of the practical & financial aspects of filmmaking is remarkably similar to the disastrous, hands-off way she runs her inherited estate as Henrietta in A New Leaf, adorably so.

Next month: Britnee presents Peyton Place (1957)

-The Swampflix Crew

A New Leaf (1971)

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Walter Matthau plays Henry, an entitled man-child who squanders his trust fund taking his Ferrari into the shop after every time he drives it, wearing tailored suits, and having his butler take care of his every need. After he loses all his money with no other financial prospects, he does what any self-important ex-rich playboy would do and decides that he will marry a rich woman and murder her. Elaine May (who also directed the film) plays Henrietta, a plain-Jane botanist with an immense fortune and no interest in spending any of it. She is clumsy, uncultured, and infantilely clueless. Henry, seeing Henrietta as the perfect target, woos and marries her. With a synopsis like that A New Leaf seems like your typical straightforward black comedy where you’re lead along the entire film wonder if he will or won’t kill her, and in a way it is. Although much of what would be considered straightforward here seems actually more like subversive satire. Henrietta doesn’t get a makeover that involves removing her glasses. Henry doesn’t gain more affection for her and have a change of heart. They both just end up being frustratingly useless enough to deserve each other.

Henrietta is such an endearing character, before you find out how helpless she is. Her only dream in life is to discover and name a new species of fern.  May shines as a clueless nerd, with the awkward muttering and the soft exclamations of, “Oh, heavens.”  I, being a little bit of a clueless nerd myself, loved every awkward outfit, the bizarrely fitted hats, drab cardigans, and huge framed glasses. She is the perfect incompetent foil to Henry’s scheming, manipulative brooding. But eventually you realize she can’t even button her own shirts right.

A New Leaf is told mostly from Henry’s point of view. There’s a lot of handheld shots, grotesque close-ups from his perspective, and even a dream sequence. Though we’re constantly viewing everything from his side, we’re never expected to sympathize. If anything it only exaggerates his insufferable jackassery. Though, there is an interesting thing this movie brings up from his side: there seems to be some sort of underlying gay subtext. He is horrified at the idea of women. He’s never been married. There’s many jokes about the fact that he would even consider marriage. It’s a shame it’s played as a joke.

Elaine May had her own cut of the film that ran 180 minutes long. It was taken and re-edited to it’s released length of 102. The original cut of the film may not exist any more, so there’s no telling if the extra length added to the kooky absurdity. As it is, A New Leaf is one of the most warm and charming black comedies I’ve seen. It’s an awkward story about how two differently awful people deserve each other.

-Alli Hobbs