Now that countless men in powerful positions throughout Hollywood have finally faced a reckoning for their years of abhorrent behavior, a reevaluation has been happening where journalists and film critics, as well as film fans, have to examine the rumors that swirled about actresses and female directors who had reputations of being difficult to work with. Once such example has been Mira Sorvino, whose career seemed to flounder despite winning the Oscar for her role in Mighty Aphrodite – the common belief being that she was labeled difficult after turning down the advances of Harvey Weinstein. Suddenly those rumors that swirled and derailed the careers of so many have lost their weight and we’re forced to examine our own role in perpetuating this notion that difficult men are geniuses and difficult women are just impossible to work with.
One person who was designed “difficult” long ago and whose career has never recovered despite a critical reevaluation and die-hard fan base is Elaine May. In the ‘60s along with her performing partner Mike Nichols, Elaine May basically invented what we today commonly know as improv. They were the toast of Broadway for that short while when it all worked. Eventually, though, the duo would split. Nichols would become a hot Broadway director and his star would further rise when he moved into the cinema directing Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and The Graduate among countless other ambitious and interesting films. May got by with a handful of acting roles and couple of writing gigs before getting her chance to write and direct like her former partner with 1971’s A New Leaf. Now A New Leaf blossoms once again in a limited edition Blu-ray as part of Olive Films’ Signature Series.
As would happen throughout her career, Elaine May’s style of directing caused her to butt heads with producers and the studio. A New Leaf went 40 days over its shooting schedule and budget ballooned as a result. In the editing room, things got even more contentious as May took nearly ten months in cutting together the film and fought tirelessly to keep it away from prying studio eyes. Rumors have circulated that May’s cut may have run in excess of three hours, but whether or not a print of that cut exists is unknown. What is known is that Robert Evans, then the head of Paramount Pictures, took the film and trimmed it down to 104 minutes, a move that May protested to the point of unsuccessfully suing the studio and trying to get her name removed from the final film. The film was released to the public and was at best a modest success, though it was well-received critically and did earn a Golden Globe nomination for Best Picture (Musical or Comedy). Regardless, the behind the scenes battle of A New Leaf would follow Elaine May throughout her career.
In the studio’s defense, May’s film did run over budget and its lengthy editing process is difficult to defend. But May was also in the early stages of developing a brand new form of cinematic comedy, and piecing together bits of improvisation was a practically revolutionary tactic at the time – not like today’s comedies where the cameras just roll and then the best jokes are just simply spliced together. More so, Elaine May was defending her work with the same vigor that any acclaimed male director would. In a town where rumors and reputation are currency, Elaine May was already operating at a deficit after her first film.
Even though A New Leaf isn’t the nearly three-hour pitch black comedy that Elaine May intended, it’s still a delightful work. Walter Matthau stars as Henry Graham, a wealthy playboy who tosses money around like confetti. Despite his bountiful trust fund, Henry has exhausted his wealth with his reckless spending. With no discernable talent to earn a living to maintain his lifestyle, Henry schemes that the only way to remain on the upper echelon of class in America is through marriage, finding an unsuspecting blue-blooded aristocrat to wed and assume her wealth. It’s not so easy at first. Henry finds himself on a number of disastrous dates before finding Henrietta Lowell (May), an heiress with an interest in botany and severely lacking in social skills. Henry puts up the façade of a caring individual, and Henrietta falls for it. However, the greed that lurks under Henry’s weathered skin doesn’t find him content with his scheme succeeding. He instead plots to murder Henrietta so he may retain her entire fortune.
Matthau excels at the play a cad in Henry. The legendary actor with that unmistakable mug deftly weaves between the various stages of Henry’s scheming. At first, Henry is just wealthy twit, a man completely incapable of understanding that he’s depleted his wealth just as well as he’s incapable of treating anyone below him with the slightest bit of respect. Henry begins to grow as he finds a purpose in his search for a sugar momma to maintain his social standing. Suddenly this man who has trouble tying his own shoes is able to plan out multi-layered schemes and pays attention to the details of Henrietta’s interests. He’s still a selfish and horrible person, but he’s unwittingly learning how to become a person. Even with subplots of A New Leaf completely excised, May’s screenplay does a remarkable job in keeping Henry as a shallow and loathsome man, often giving the character a chance to be a better person. Often it feels that Henry is on the verge of a breakthrough only to dash any hopes of a moral being learned. That is, of course, until the film’s marvelous ending, one which reveals a lovely double meaning to the film’s title.
As much as Matthau shines, the real star of A New Leaf is Elaine May. On screen, May shines as Henrietta even though the film continues the absurd Hollywood tradition of placing a pair of thick glasses on a very attractive woman to make her seem unappealing. She gives a deft comedic performance that balances a shrill, awkward line delivery with elements of physical comedy worthy of the finest silent film stars of yesteryear. But May brings a level of wit to her scripted dialogue and visual gags. The film opens with a marvelous visual gag. The sounds of beeping. “How is she doing?” Matthau asks a man off screen. You’d naturally assume that this is a life or death situation in a hospital. In fact it’s an auto garage where Henry’s expensive imported sports car is being repaired, a frivolous moment handled with the gravest importance. May’s visual sensibilities in camera placement is on par with that of her former partner Mike Nichols. Both came up as a comedy duo, but Nichols despite having no training found himself a Broadway director before transitioning to Hollywood and one wonders what May could’ve done with the same opportunities to hone her craft, especially when it came to the editing room (not that the film is poorly edited, but the length and battles behind the scenes during the editing process).
A New Leaf is a special film from a special filmmaker. Sadly, Elaine May’s career as a director died with Ishtar (an unfairly maligned film that is much better than its reputation) and the same behind the scenes stories circulating about May’s process. Though placed in movie jail for Ishtar, May continued to write screenplays, including two for Mike Nichols. Thankfully, recent years have seen a rehabilitation of Elaine May’s reputation as a filmmaker, with the comedy icon gaining a devoted cult following. The special features on the new Blu-ray from Olive Films dive into the behind the scenes drama over the editing of the film and also has a fascinating interview with Clueless director Amy Heckerling about how Elaine May more or less became labeled, like so many other women directors since, a difficult collaborator. As we look back and continue to reevaluate how outdated attitudes have shaped how we viewing things in the past, we need to take that new vantage point in order to turn over a new leaf.