Elaine May is a remarkable entertainer, writer, actress and director, who many people today don’t know much about, or simply may never have heard of. Now at the age of 87, May began her career working as a part of a delightfully funny improvisational comedy team with Mike Nichols, (a man who also became a famous director of much acclaim), which lead her to a Hollywood acting career, and before long, directing. In fact, May is noted to be the only woman director who regularly made feature films for a major studio during the so-called enlightened period of the “New Hollywood” movement in the late 1960s-1970s. In July 2013, President Barack Obama honored her with the Medal of Arts award in a White House ceremony.
May’s first film as director was the edgy, dark comedy/romance, called “A New Leaf”. It featured May herself in the lead with Walter Matthau. In addition, May wrote the screenplay, adapting a story by Jack Ritchie, called “The Green Heart”. It’s a kooky tale that concerns the nearly middle-aged Henry Graham (Matthau), a wealthy philandering playboy, who is living way beyond his means. He’s completely incompetent and in fact, he’s plain broke.
He has no real skills either. After seeing his lawyer who carefully explains to him his dire financial situation, Henry confides in his dutiful butler: “I have no skills, no ambition…no resources. All I am…or was, is rich. That’s all I ever wanted to be.”
The butler suggests he could either beg his guardian, Uncle Harry for another bailout, or maybe commit suicide, or better still, get married. So Henry decides the easiest way to recoup his losses is by marrying a rich woman–then have her bumped off and take her wealth. When he explains his plans to Uncle Harry (James Coco) and begs him for $50,000 loan, Harry breaks into hysterical laughter and calls him an “aging youth”.
Soon after, Henry meets several eligible widows or divorcees at a local country club, finally, he meets the ideal woman at a society tea party. She’s the somewhat clumsy and unsophisticated Henrietta Lowell (May)—the heiress/daughter of Gary Lowell, a deceased industrialist. Henrietta is a botany teacher, who has a mousey voice, wears large glasses, awkward fitting clothes and lives alone in a large house, with many servants, on a 50-acre estate.
On their first date, Harry tries to impress her discussing exquisite French wines, whether the ’53 vintage is better than 1955. Henrietta asks, “Did you ever taste Mogan David extra heavy Malago wine with lime juice?—it tastes like grape juice and every year is good.”
When Henrietta tells her lawyer, Andrew McPherson (Jack Weston) that she will accept Harry’s marriage proposal, after just three days, the lawyer goes jealously ballistic because he has had romantic plans for the wealthy heiress, also. After the hysterical wedding, the film’s story becomes a bit too absurd with Henry firing all of Henrietta’s house staff. Then more slapstick scenes occur when Henry accompanies his bride on her annual field trip to the Adirondacks to find new plant species and canoeing some rapids.
Yet May’s subtle comedic acting style is nearly perfect for her role. From her silly, neurotic facial expressions, eye glances and shakes of her head, her comic timing is outstanding. Matthau, who had just completed a string of incredibly funny roles in comedies of the 1960s, is in top form as the pathetic Henry Graham.
Famed New Yorker film critic Pauline Kael nicely captured May’s comedic spirit so well in the early 1970s column. “Elaine May has the rarest kind of comic gift: the ability to create a world seen comically. Her satirist’s malice isn’t cutting; something in the befuddled atmosphere she creates keeps it mild—yet mild in a thoroughly demented way, mild as if impervious to sanity…May has a knack for defusing pain without killing the joke.”
May was said to have disliked the studio’s cutting of her film. Her preferred director’s cut would have run nearly an hour longer than its released time of 102 minutes. But according to Roger Ebert, Walter Matthau actually prefers the studio’s choice, realizing the novice director needed a little help in trimming the film.
A year later in 1972, May would direct Charles Grodin and her own daughter, actress Jeannie Berlin in the dark comedy hit “The Heartbreak Kid”. Both Berlin and co-star Eddie Albert received nominations for best-supporting actress and actor, respectively. “A New Leaf” literally began a new leaf in Elaine May’s career and her film remains a very funny off-beat comedy.