A New Leaf

| December 5, 2017

With A New Leaf (1971), Elaine May became the first woman in Hollywood to write, direct, and co-star in a major studio motion picture. It was a landmark moment for women filmmakers that was sadly marked by such significant studio intervention that May at one point sought to have her name removed from the film and ultimately sued the studio. As such, we know the film in its final form no longer reflects May’s vision for the project, having much of its darkest humor cut by Paramount before release. Yet May’s brilliance as an artist and performer still shine in A New Leaf, a film that remains a quirky comic masterpiece even after the studio intervention.

The film follows comedy legend Walter Matthau as Henry who, though born into money and thus never had to work a day in his life, finds himself suddenly flat broke and forced to work, marry into wealth, or maybe even kill himself. So Henry chooses to marry… but with the vague intention of murdering whoever should agree to be his bride. Henry then meets and woos the meek and socially-inept botanist Henrietta (May), who also happens to have inherited a tremendous fortune. After their marriage, the sweet Henrietta tries desperately to nurture her relationship with Henry even as he takes control of her finances and plots her demise.

While Matthau is unquestionably the star of the piece as May purposely fades into the background as Henrietta, May’s performance evidences her tremendous comedic talents. Pay attention to her there in the background at any point and you’ll find her bringing the most impressively subtle humor to whatever scene she’s in. It’s a thankless role that could any other actor might play up so as to steal a scene or two, but never May. As an artist, she knows the function Henrietta should play in the story. She must be clumsy yet unobtrusive and altogether lovable. And so we hope more than anything that Henry will either come to love her and abandon his plot or maybe meet an end as horrific as that which he hopes for Henrietta.

All this points to a film that should rightly be as dark as it is sweet and heartwarming. Sure, in some ways A New Leaf lives up to its promise of dark comedy as the film occasionally steps into Henry’s murderous fantasies. In many ways, however, that intended morbidity was stripped from the film when Paramount cut May’s picture down from two hours to an hour and forty minutes.

As is revealed in the commentary by Maya Montanez Smukler on Olive Signature’s new Blu-ray release of the film, studio memos showed unease with the script as May had drafted it even before production began. Keeping with Jack Ritchie’s short story “The Green Heart,” from which the script was adapted, the film originally saw Henry committing a double murder in the latter half of the story. That the film would be taken from May in editing once it went over-schedule and over-budget was thus perhaps no surprise. (Though the way May tells it, a lot of people conspired to see her fail during the production as they saw her “overstepping her bounds” as a woman in Hollywood.) Still, though it remains a tragedy that we’ll likely never see A New Leaf as May intended it, the release version of the film remains a comic treasure in its own right.

Special features on Olive Signature’s release aren’t terribly numerous, but they, when combined, will add tremendously to viewers’ knowledge/experience of the film. They include:

  • Thoroughly insightful commentary by film historian Maya Montanez Smukler, who discusses not only May’s career and the film’s history, but also the struggles of women in Hollywood throughout the decades;
  • An interview with director Amy Heckerling about the May, A New Leaf, and also the troubles she personally faced trying to break into the industry as a director;
  • An interview with assistant editor Angelo Corrao, who speaks briefly to the turmoil that May faced behind-the-scenes;
  • An essay by critic, editor, and film programmer Alexandra Heller-Nicholas included on the disc itself and in the booklet included with the release;
  • The short story “The Green Heart” by Jack Ritchie, also included in the booklet;
  • And the film’s trailer.

About the Author:

Jef is a writer and educator in Chicago, Illinois. He holds a degree in Media & Cinema Studies from DePaul University, but sometimes he drops it and picks it back up again. He's also the Editor-in-Chief of FilmMonthly.com and is fueled entirely by coffee (as if you couldn't tell).
Filed in: Video and DVD

Post a Comment

You must be logged in to post a comment.