New Leaf, A (1971)

“All I am, or was, is rich — and that’s all I ever wanted to be.”

New Leaf Poster

Synopsis:
A financially strapped playboy (Walter Matthau) woos an eccentric heiress (Elaine May) with the intent of murdering her after their marriage.

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Review:
Comedian Elaine May was apparently so appalled with the drastic studio cuts made to her debut film that she wanted her name taken off of it; despite her discontent, however, A New Leaf remains a memorably unique black comedy, and the strength of May’s vision still shines clearly through. Perennial grump Walter Matthau is brilliantly cast as a spoiled bon vivant so enamored with his lifestyle of wealth and leisure that he fails to pay any attention to his rapidly dwindling trust funds; when reality finally forces him to confront his state of near-destitution, he contemplates both suicide and marriage — ultimately deciding that the latter is marginally more acceptable. Because he finds women an annoyance, however — preferring instead to indulge his tastes in fine wine, fancy sports cars, tailored clothing, and impeccable decor — his decision to woo the clumsiest woman in Manhattan (if not the entire United States) comes at no small cost to his personal sanity.

As bespectacled botanist Henrietta (whose greatest aspiration in life is to find an undiscovered species of fern and have it named after her), May is the perfect comedic foil for Matthau; together, they are the epitome of odd duck coupling, and could potentially stand a chance — if only Matthau wasn’t so determined to murder her at the first opportunity. Meanwhile, details of May’s premarital existence are gradually revealed, as we begin to understand the myriad ways in which every individual in her life has taken advantage of her extreme naivete and charity. Will Matthau simply be the next in line — or will he experience a change of heart, and recognize his chance for happiness and fulfillment with Henrietta? This comedic gem is well worth watching to find out.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Elaine May as Henrietta
    New Leaf May
  • Walter Matthau as Henry
    New Leaf Matthau
  • May’s darkly humorous screenplay
    New Leaf Humorous

Must See?
Yes, as an enduring comedic treat. Listed as a Cult Movie and a Personal Recommendation in the back of Peary’s book.

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2 Responses to “New Leaf, A (1971)”

  1. Hilariously black and a must!

    This is a real find that is wallowing in near obscurity. (It can be found at youtube.) Hailed by critics upon release, it did not do well at the box office. That is not a surprise, however: mastermind May’s character (who is definitely one that an audience can warm to and root for) is not the film’s focus and Matthau (brilliant as he is here; esp. with his reactions) is too much of a misanthropic sociopath for a general audience to feel comfortable with when watching a comedy.

    [In May’s original, hour-longer cut of the film, Matthau committed two murders. In the extant version, Matthau’s dark side is toned down but still very much in subtle evidence.]

    I haven’t read the source material – Jack Ritchie’s short story ‘The Green Heart’ (which first appeared, appropriately, in an Alfred Hitchcock publication) – but I’d now like to. Since the story was conceived by a straight man, it would be interesting to compare it with whatever license May took in bringing the story to the screen. Specifically, I’m not how sure how accurate it is to describe Matthau here as a “playboy”. Mainly since he clearly hates women. (Note, in particular, the tense – if still very funny – scene in which Matthau gives the heave-ho to May’s housekeeper, nicely played by Doris Roberts.) The film doesn’t actually identify Matthau in any real way in terms of sexual orientation – but there is sharp evidence that he is either completely asexual (very possible) or a nasty queen in deep denial. (Actually, the character’s sexual preference is probably best left blank, since clarity would perhaps usher in a much more complicated storyline for, again, a mainstream, comedy-loving audience.)

    It is so refreshing to come across a comic film containing real wit – and ‘A New Leaf’ (inspired title!) delivers countless gems.

    Two faves: early on, Matthau can’t seem to get it through his thick skull that he is penniless and badgers his accountant. As played with calm-yet-irritated fervor by William Redfield, the accountant rather quietly lets fly –

    Redfield: (to himself) I wish there were some other way I could say it… What could I…? How could I put it?~that money… You have no capital, you have no income – You have – (pointedly, to Matthau) No, it’s only money.

    Another classic bit comes after Matthau has proposed to May and is venting to his manservant (gay actor George Rose, btw, so there’s another bit of ‘subtext’), just about culminating with –

    Matthau: Did I say she was ‘primitive’? I retract that; she’s feral!

    As much as Matthau’s Henry practically feels the need for disinfectant after exposure to the female sex, the film also captures moments that are downright charming – such as those when Henry seems to somehow sense that May needs protection from the world, as well as herself (i.e., the ‘honeymoon’ scene, in which Henry has to show Henrietta how to dress properly: “You’ve got your head in the arm-hole.”).

    This 40-year-old movie has aged very well and does not seem dated in the least. Highly recommended to all ffs – and clearly among a choice bunch of comedies that one can return to, and enjoy all over again, from time to time.

  2. Amen! Truly a rare comedic gem, and certainly one I will return to again and again. Revisiting it recently (it had been years), I enjoyed it as though watching for the first time. Needs wider release, please!

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