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A New Leaf

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It didn’t make the telecast, but the American Academy presented Elaine May with an honorary Oscar this year. It was long overdue. May was (and is) a trailblazer. She found fame in the 60s in her comedy partnership with Mike Nichols. He went to Hollywood and made The Graduate. She adapted a short story by Jack Ritchie about a wealthy, timid, socially maladroit botanist, Henrietta, who is wooed and won by an unscrupulous cad, Henry, a rich playboy who has run through his family funds and intent on finding a wife to keep him in the manner to which he is accustomed (he is brilliantly played by Walter Matthau here).

Apparently to May’s surprise, Paramount wanted her to direct it and star, which she did – though the studio were less thrilled when she presented a near three-hour cut after going significantly over budget. May hated the studio’s much shorter version, and sued to have her name taken off it, but the judge sided with Paramount, declaring their 102-minute cut “hilarious”. Critics agreed. You will too.

The film plays like a classic 1930s screwball marriage comedy – think Arsenic and Old Lace – but it’s particularly icy in its caustic depiction of romantic self-deception. As Richard Brody notes in The New Yorker, “having started out with the hatred, dependency, and surrender that it takes most couples years to achieve, Henry and Henrietta are no less suited than regular folks for marriage until death do them part—one way or another.”

May went on to make two more films in the 70s: The Heartbreak Kid, starring her daughter Jeannie Berlin, who is dumped by Charles Grodin for Cybill Shepherd during their honeymoon, and Mikey and Nicky with John Cassavetes and Peter Falk. (Both are featured in Ragged Glory: Summer in the 70s.) In the 80s the notorious flop Ishtar marked an end of her directing career, though it has recently been reclaimed by critics. She has enjoyed a long and still successful career on Broadway.

The most gifted female performer of the generation that basically invented American live comedy as we know it, May only ever got one real showcase role, starring as Henrietta Lowell, a clueless botanist with a big inheritance, in her hilariously dark directorial debut… Her character is annoying, and some of the funniest moments in the film seem to find the writer-director-star siding with Henry against his unwitting victim. But May’s gift for the fine details of social awkwardly behavior continues to humanize the character, even when she seems to be dangling on the edge of caricature.

Ignatiy Vishnevetsky, AV Club

One of cinema’s great comedies.

Keith Uhlich, Slant

Director

Elaine May

Cast

Walter Matthau, Elaine May, Jack Weston, George Rose, James Coco

Credits
Country of Origin

USA

Year

1971

Language

English

19+
102 min

Book Tickets

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Credits

Producer

Hillard Elkins, Howard W. Koch, Joseph Manduke

Screenwriter

Elaine May

Cinematography

Gayne Rescher

Editor

Don Guidice, Fredric Steinkamp

Original Music

Neal Hefti

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