Wednesday, July 12, 2017
You try to avoid certain things. Doesn’t mean you’re going to be successful. A NEW LEAF was shown first at the Elaine May double bill some weeks back and after it was over even though we were having a great time my friend insisted on moving seats before the next one due to a woman sitting behind us who had been laughing very loudly and noticeably through the whole film. To be honest, while I’d heard her it hadn’t bothered me very much since, after all, the response was sort of warranted. But my friend insisted so we moved seats closer to the front as ISHTAR began…then within moments another woman who was also now directly behind us began to laugh loudly and noticeably through the whole film. And we laughed too, as did the rest of the packed house, because this was ISHTAR after all. Just like in the great, great, great A NEW LEAF, you desperately try to avoid certain things in life in the pursuit of what you think you want but you just wind up running right into them anyway. Sometimes it’s inevitable.
As is generally the case with Elaine May films, her directorial debut A NEW LEAF has long been the subject of controversy surrounding its making and even Vincent Canby reported there was “something of a cloud” hanging over it in his effusive March 1971 review in The New York Times. May spent a long time shooting and cutting the film with her version not only considerably longer but also darker, involving the murderous fantasies of the lead character taken to their presumably logical conclusion. It seems very unlikely at this late date that we’ll ever get to see this footage so the version of A NEW LEAF we have is the one we’ll always know and the only one we can really judge. The full house that night seemed ok with this considering how the entire audience, not just that woman behind us, spent the entire film in hysterics and frankly it was one of the most joyous experiences I’ve had in a movie theater in a long time. There are few films like A NEW LEAF, a film which somehow becomes better and funnier the more I see it, the more I grow closer to the pain and desperation felt by the characters. Maybe the earlier version was darker and maybe the acceptance its main character arrives at near the end made some of that more complicated but the undeniable sweetness found in the release version still has something that we respond to for a reason. Say what you want about people who laugh a little too loud, if there were more packed revival showings of Elaine May films then maybe the world would be a better place during this horrible time.
Living a life of luxury off his trust fund with zero responsibility, Henry Graham (Walter Matthau) is one day stunned to learn that he has absolutely no money left. Desperate to keep his standing in life the way it is, he strikes a deal with his wealthy Uncle Harry (James Coco) to borrow $50,000 and helped by trusty butler Harold (George Rose) sets out to find and marry a rich woman within six weeks, one who no one will miss, then soon after murder her. Just before the time is up Henry meets the very wealthy Henrietta Lowell (Elaine May), a lonely botanist who lives in a giant estate all by herself and her servants. But once Henry gets around her loyal lawyer Andy McPherson (Jack Weston) who is desperate to hold onto his control over Henrietta he ingratiates himself fully into her life and finances, proceeding with his plan to do away with her.
The way Henry Graham obsesses over keeping his beloved Ferrari alive when we first meet him says it all, determined to keep what he has at any cost no matter the inconvenience. When he’s told the absolute truth that it’s all over he refuses to hear a word of it, eventually accepting his fate so he wanders the streets repeating “I’m poor” over and over again while visiting his favorite haunts for the last time. He has no idea how to do anything other than live the life he’s been living, one of bravely doing nothing but persisting in his devotion to “keep alive traditions that were dead before you were born” as faithful butler Harold puts it. From the very beginning, the language of the script by Elaine May (based on the short story “The Green Heart” by Jack Ritchie) lays all this out and is essential in our understanding of what Henry is, of the exactness of this world, the ever-repeating all-purpose phrase “carbon on the valves” to explain what’s always wrong with his car, something to talk about when there’s nothing to talk about and he has nothing to talk about except himself, barely able to maintain interest when there’s someone else in the room concerned about whatever their own version of carbon on the valves might be.
As director, Elaine May is fascinated by Henry Graham just as she would later be fascinated by Mikey and Nicky or Rogers and Clarke of ISHTAR or Charles Grodin’s Lenny Cantrow from THE HEARTBREAK KID in all their horribleness and desperation. The men are where her interests lie and while we can bemoan the fact that no Elaine May film would pass the Bechdel Test that’s just the way it is. What sets A NEW LEAF apart from her other directorial work is how her role in the film serves as an extension of that fascination of the male lead, peering up at him over her glasses, completely unaware of what he’s really thinking. This is the only film Elaine May directed that she also appeared in, waiting until close to the half-hour mark for her introduction as all at once she presents herself as the perfect mark and the one person who he can never quite figure out. The men in Elaine May films are generally baffled by the women in their lives if not flat out angered by their behavior for reasons that go beyond the mere use of sex, usually resulting in sheer terrified cluelessness. Matthau’s initial search for a bride leads him to Renee Taylor’s desperate widow undressing to his total horror and May plays the moment as totally understanding the desperation felt by both people. Henrietta Lowell can’t even hold a cup of tea without dropping it or eat a meal without emerging from the table with a pile of crumbs on her lap, discussing her love for Mogen David’s extra heavy Malaga wine with soda and lime juice with such a look of ecstasy on her face looking up at the total revulsion on his. And she’s enraptured by this attention as if no one has ever asked what her hopes and dreams are which may or may not be the same thing anyway as if somehow believing right away that they’re perfect together, knowing that he’ll be the one to cut the price tags off her clothing even if she doesn’t realize he only does it out of disgust. And when he tries to fix the Grecian-style nightgown on their honeymoon (“Henrietta, where is your other arm?”) the physicality of the moment between the two of them as he tries to get her to fix the problem is as perfect as an Astaire-Rogers dance routine right down to his final reaction to her appearance while also revealing the futility of her ever trying to sexualize herself in front of him no matter now desperately she tries.
Maybe the only director it makes any sense to compare May’s filmmaking approach to is her ex-partner Mike Nichols whose own early films often contain a certain distance from the material, an austerity to his storytelling through the widescreen frame and a dryness felt within the surrealistic tone he strives for. But even though May as director doesn’t go for strict realism, with the actual world of 1971 never much of a concern, any satirical point found within the frame almost feels incidental as well. Instead she moves the camera in closer to the characters, showing us the flopsweat on their brow and the desperation in their voices becoming increasingly palpable. Barely a scene goes by where it doesn’t feel like you’re being choked by the sheer tension of the moment. In some ways her films almost seem designed to complement films Nichols had already made while also comedically challenging him as if they’re actually taking part in a very complicated Nichols-May routine of her own making designed to reveal his iconic male leads for what they really are in all their selfishness. THE HEARTBREAK KID is a natural follow up to themes explored in THE GRADUATE and the movie star double act that includes Warren Beatty of ISHTAR is an obvious pairing with the even more problematic THE FORTUNE. The much darker MIKEY AND MICKY set entirely over one night feels like a distorted mirror of the cynicism of CARNAL KNOWLEDGE and its storyline which spans years but it’s more difficult to find one to compare A NEW LEAF to, whether by Mike Nichols or anyone else, directed by May in a style which feels detached but always in the service of the desperation of the characters, somehow mixed in with an undeniable sweetness that goes beyond the jokes, a balance between being aware of the horrifically cold nature of most people while trying to discover their goodness as well.
It’s not plot she’s interested in as much as the behavior, the reasons for their mannerisms more than where it’s going to lead. Of the four films May has directed (to date, I will stubbornly state), THE HEARTBREAK KID is the only one with a story that could be said to flow steadily from start to finish. The pacing in A NEW LEAF is definitely loose in comparison, maybe partly because of the post-production issues, but the tone always seems just right, not playing as a sixties sex farce or light screwball fare but something else with an intensity to each joke, that the response to it could cause everything in the world to come crashing down. Even the nitpicky nature of the May dialogue defies simple description even down to the small moments of Henry Graham referring to Henrietta as “feral” or the way he accuses a stuck-up hostess of having an “erotic fixation” on her carpet. And while we’re at it, let’s talk about how Jack Weston references the Canary Islands in both this and ISHTAR for some reason—an early version of the ‘on spec’ line from ISHTAR can be heard here as well. However erratic it feels, that can barely even be called a criticism since it becomes part of the film’s own idiosyncratic nature. It plays best in the first hour when the individual scenes have the most focus, the dryness of Henry Graham’s confrontation with money man Beckett, his proposal to Henrietta while kneeling on broken glass or the increasing desperation of Jack Weston’s lawyer trying to prove what he’s up to and the story becomes noticeably choppy once it hits the second hour, presumably where most of the cuts came from, which means Weston in particular drops out of the picture abruptly.
Even the staging of scenes has a certain casualness due to the framing (shot by Gayne Rescher, later the DP of STAR TREK II: THE WRATH OF KHAN) that makes it seem totally natural, if not completely accidental, whether in the middle of an argument or even Matthau not paying attention to what May is doing on the other side of the shot. When there’s more activity in a scene that can lead to a little too much clutter which in itself can lead to its own pleasures particularly when the disrespectful servants throw a surprise party for Henry right before he fires them. The film wouldn’t have the same tone without that scattered vibe anyway and even just the simple absurdity of Matthau asking a couple he meets, “Are you related to the Boston Hitlers?” is the right display of the casual apathy of this world but also seems like it was slipped into the script to see if anyone was paying attention. The final moments are a little rushed and the last ten or so minutes leading up to it aren’t the strongest part of the film but the way it isolates Henry and Henrietta from all the other plot complications helps it achieve a transcendence that maybe wasn’t what May had in mind but is about as pragmatic, accepting and, yes, romantic as anything I’ve ever seen.
Henry Graham’s lack of interest in women, let alone anyone else, is something the honeymoon sequence sidesteps and the idea of sex plays very little role in May’s films except for THE HEARTBREAK KID. For Elaine May marriage isn’t about sex or even the possibility of betrayal via sex the way it was portrayed in Nichols’ HEARTBURN, written by Nora Ephron from her own novel, which like A NEW LEAF also contains a protracted wedding sequence in a New York apartment involving a couple who have only recently met. Instead the idea of companionship between men and women, feels like something else altogether for her as if to say that for her, love is never what you planned. All that matters is Henry finally sees her as human which oddly gives it a similarity to the much later Mike Nichols film WHAT PLANET ARE YOU FROM? which in its portrayal of a rushed, seemingly incompatible marriage as its story line could almost be considered his belated response to A NEW LEAF, just not anywhere near as successful (but like A NEW LEAF, it’s also pretty odd, I’ll give it that much). In the end what Henrietta gets him to admit to himself, and to her, is what matters just as what he’s done for her has gotten him close to that kind of immortality he was talking about. Granted, A NEW LEAF plays differently at home without people around you screaming in hysterics and it’s those small touches that stay with you all of this making it, even in this allegedly abbreviated form a comic masterpiece but it feels like to call it one of the funniest movies I’ve ever seen might be underselling it. With some comedies you hit a wall after multiple viewings because you know all the jokes and there’s not much to get out of it after that which is never the case with this film. There’s not a laugh in there which feels dishonest, it all comes genuinely from the character and a tone which is unlike anything else. Or maybe it’s just a miracle, fully deserving of its own kind of immortality. Even if Elaine May has never been particularly happy about it.
There are few things as joyous as seeing Walter Matthau in a film, a joy that increases as time goes on. The canny intellectualism of his presence combines with an unmistakable snobbery, as if he considers it an insult to look another person in the eye with the timing of each gesture always impeccable and it’s as if he falls into synch with his co-star without intending to. And there are even fewer things as joyous as seeing Elaine May in a film, compounded by how we never got enough of them. Right from the first moment we see her there’s barely a word or movement she makes that you’d expect down to the way she perks up when she tries telling Henry about something she’s excited about, looking up at him with a total sense of yearning. They go beautifully together and I wish they’d made another ten films. Instead, all we got was their segment in CALIFORNIA SUITE which I guess is better than nothing. It’s an unforgettable supporting cast as well--George Rose is a wonder as the ever-efficient Harold and deserves to be ranked among the great movie butlers of all time, Jack Weston is like a terrified bull frantically barreling through scenes with his palpable desperation that he can never quite hold onto and Doris Roberts kills in her few scenes with the wanted sly winks she gives Matthau. Especially good is the pitch perfect exasperation of William Redfield, later of ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO’S NEST, as money man Beckett who calmly, desperately, tries to explain to Graham that he is indeed truly, genuinely broke and receiving nothing but grief for doing his job.
But I may as well come clean. When I mentioned that I was going to see A NEW LEAF the night before to a woman I know she proceeded to quote dialogue from the film for the next five minutes and frankly the only thing preventing me from attempting to kiss her right then was that, well, we were talking on the phone. But maybe it was just plain fear as well. Moving seats between films is a little easier, after all. So we try to keep things alive. Feelings we have about people, relationships that cause us to scream in the middle of the night. It’s not always easy to keep this going A NEW LEAF is unique in its observance of the world as well as a reminder that things aren’t always going to go the way we want. And that double bill was also a reminder that maybe the cult of Elaine May is growing, helped by someone like Colin Stacey who actually flew in from out of town for the double bill (it was a pleasure to meet him; he’s at @bcolinstacey on Twitter and tell him Mr. Peel sent you) after selling ‘written and directed by Elaine May’ t-shirts which use the MIKEY AND NICKY font on his website. According to some reports even Walter Matthau liked the studio cut of A NEW LEAF better while the few extant comments from May in public appearances of course still make us want to see more – “It was a love story, but what was interesting was that he murdered a guy. And (the studio) took the murder out and we went to court because I had script approval and the judge saw the movie and he said, ‘It’s such a nice movie, why do you want to sue?’” So maybe there is a hole at the heart of the film which we can only ever guess at. And never think that I don’t feel a certain amount of guilt praising a film that the great Elaine May took a studio to court over. If I hadn’t already seen ISHTAR so many times back in the day I would say that this would be the Elaine May film I’d want to see the most simply out of the pure pleasure of it. But maybe someday it’ll catch up. A NEW LEAF has a sort of truth to it, more than most films do, let alone just the comedies. Sometimes we’re faced with the fraud that we are. And all we can do is hope that someone loves us anyway. And besides, there’s always going to be a hole in life. A hole that’s filled with what you’re afraid of. What you’re trying to avoid.