A New Leaf ★★★★

All of Elaine May's considerable comedic talent was on display in her first film, which gives a nod in the direction of the screwball comedies of the 1930s and 40s, then updates them to the 1970s. May also wrote the screenplay, adapted from a Jack Ritchie story, "The Green Heart".

Man about town Henry Graham (Walter Matthau) has burned through his family fortune and, when his childhood guardian, Uncle Harry (James Coco), whose use of a battery-operated pepper mill tells us everything we need to know about him in one shot, refuses to give or lend him any more money, he seems completely incapable of caring for himself.

Henry would be a playboy if there were any women in his life, either romantically or sexually, but he does have a "gentleman's gentleman", Harold (a superb comic turn from George Rose), who suggests that there is another option apart from suicide open to Henry - marry money, and quickly. In a screenplay full of great lines, Harold gets some of the best of them: "How many men these days require the services of a gentleman's gentleman? How many men have your devotion to form, sir? You have managed, in your own lifetime Mr. Graham, to keep alive traditions that were dead before you were born". In a neat gender reversal, Henry becomes the gold digger.

The answer to his prayers comes when, at a painful salon in the home of Gloria Cunliffe (Rose Arrick), he meets clumsy, painfully shy heiress Henrietta Lowell (played by May) who spills her tea on the carpet, twice. Henry's pick up line is a classic. After Mrs Cunliffe has scolded Henrietta, Henry turns on her: "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." then sweeps Henrietta away.

Apart from being fabulously wealthy and utterly clueless about money, Henrietta is a botanist whose dream in life is to find and name a new species of fern. Henry's dream is to find a way of marrying and then killing Henrietta and her invitation for him him to join her on her canoe trip to the Adirondacks for her annual field trip would seem the perfect opportunity.

As she has done several times throughout the film, May does not take the obvious path with the situations she has set up and the ending is both totally twee but also totally satisfying.

As you can see from the examples above, May can write cracking comic dialogue and her comic timing as Henrietta is impeccable. As a director, she underplays the comedy where other directors might ramp it up and the constant laughter from the audience at the Melbourne Cinémathèque screening demonstrated how effective this technique is. On the couple of occasions when May lets things run on, like the wonderful scene where Henry drives around New York in his highly desirable, but also highly unreliable, sports car saying goodbye to all of the places that will be barred to him now he is poor, she still knows just when to call "Cut".

Given May's background with Mike Nichols writing and performing sketch comedy on stage, I expected good comic writing and an eye for what makes a scene work. What I did not expect was May's skill with physical comedy. My favourite scene in the film (it had me and much of the audience weeping with laughter) is a brilliant piece of physical comedy where Henrietta, doing her best to be sensual, has put on a Grecian-style, off-one-shoulder nightgown but has managed to put both her head and arm through the arm hole. In a long sequence, Henry, who has even less experience of Grecian-style nightgowns than Henrietta does, tries to get all of the relevant body parts in the relevant holes.

Matthau was a revelation here. I was very familiar with his comic work, including his run of films with Jack Lemmon, but he and May find depths in Henry that gently undercut his character as the ruthless and murderous gold digger. His reaction when Henrietta names "her" fern after him, mirrored in his facial reaction when he realises he has lost the medallion containing his piece of the fern, uses minimal acting from him that, together with May's careful framing, conveys maximum emotional content.

May had a rough time with the producers when her film went substantially over budget (the original $1.8 million budget more than doubled), they tried to remove her (but a $200,000 penalty clause in her contract put paid to that), and they finally took the film away from her in editing and cut it severely (reportedly 80 minutes was cut). May sued unsuccessfully to have her name removed from the film.

We will probably never get to see a director's cut, since the missing footage has not surfaced. I would, though, love to see the reported scenes of Henrietta's fantasy life where she envisions herself as Marilyn Monroe! What we do have works very well and, almost 50 years on, stands up better than some other comedies from that era.

Screened as part of Melbourne Cinémathèque's Elaine May season.

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