Elaine May started out by turning over a New Leaf – I’m so clever with my word play…


Directed by: Elaine May

Written by: Elaine May [screenplay] based on The Green Heart by Jack Ritchie

Featuring: Walter Matthau, Elaine May, George Rose, James Coco, Jack Weston, William Redfield, Doris Roberts

Henry Graham is rich, spoiled and is facing the biggest problem he has ever faced in his entire life. He has run out of money, having spent all of the inheritance, with no prospects, skills or indeed work he decides of finding an eligible woman with a big enough fortune to keep him in the lifestyle he is accustomed to and pay back the money his uncle gave him to tide him over.

Elaine May who directed, wrote and acted in this black comedy was clearly a talent at a time when few women got to make a film in one of these disciplines let alone all three, she is probably better known for the similar but more polished Heartbreak Kid and the much-derided Ishtar which probably did more for her lack or output than anything else and her early years when she was the comedy partner of Mike Nichols.

A New Leaf follows the format of many seventies films with related topics, the main female character is kookie, eccentric and educated to the point of ignorance and the male protagonist, here played with ease by Matthau, is strong, determined and in this story lazy and mildly evil. So far so stereotypical, which I can forgive because of the year it was made, and because May works hard to get across a different take and plays her role with a clumsy charm that leaves the audience liking her despite her failings. Equally supported by Walter Matthau effortlessly at ease with his slime-bag character, including cod British affectations, and the superb and tragic George Rose who has to be seen as the prototype gentleman’s gentlemen before Gielgud and Denholm Elliot. A strong foundation to a story that in itself could be seen as the groundwork for the superb and similarly themed Heartbreak Kid that May directed only a year later.

If you then throw into the mix William Redfield in a small but memorable role as a frustrated bank manager explaining to Matthau that the ‘money is gone’ and James Coco and his louche uncle who is pivotal in to the fix that Henry finds himself in and you have perfectly cast and funny late 60s, early 70s film.

Much like The Heartbreak Kid, Harold and Maude and similar contemporary films the comedy is mainly deadpan with underlying darkness just showing through, after all in this story Henry Graham is lazy and arrogantly privileged who is more than happy to arrange for his new wife to perish so he can keep her fortune.

Ultimately, without recounting too much more of the story, The New Leaf is a witty, funny, fun and well-acted movie with some the best actors of that time on top form. Matthau only three years off The Odd Couple seemed to be able to turn his hand and his, err, unconventional looks to any role with sublime ease. Elaine May, not so well known, and unfortunately unknown to many, proved that her decision to go into the movie-making side of things was a loss for audiences everywhere. It did have me thinking that the ease at which Hollywood blamed her for losses and poor box-office performance which prevented her from fulfilling her potential was unfair and definitely due to her gender.

Rather than just a standard kookie comedy about an unpleasant character who will do anything to keep what he undeservedly had, we end up with a story about redemption, love and how even seemingly the worst of us has value.

I would recommend watching this and then watching The Heartbreak Kid to see Elaine May’s best work. There is a rumour that the working screenplay was chopped and cut about, and the film was edited without May’s input, allegedly the story was darker, with more unpleasant undertones but it is only on the hearsay of those involved as no outtakes or even the shooting script survived. It would have been interesting to see how different May’s vision from the final cut would have been.

Nevertheless, I recommend A New Leaf to a watch unseen comic gem from the early 1970s.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s