Legendary improviser Elaine May is probably best known for her work with Mike Nichols. The duo were members of The Compass Players, active until 1958, alongside Del Close, who went on to perform and direct at The Second City in 1960. May and Nichols were both adept at character development and had an unmistakably sophisticated style and remarkable chemistry, achieving a great deal of acclaim in their years performing together. In many cases, the two would hone improvised scenes into outlines or routines that could be performed for live audiences more than once. They released three comedy albums on Mercury Records between 1959 and 1961. Nichols went on to direct Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and The Graduate. Few people are as aware of May’s contribution to film after the two went their separate ways.
Elaine May wrote, directed, and starred in A New Leaf, an adaptation of a short story by Jack Ritchie called "The Green Heart." Walter Matthau co-stars in the 1970 madcap black comedy, which May intended to be much darker than the final cut with a subplot where he is a murderer.
Matthau plays spoiled playboy Henry Graham whose lavish lifestyle has exhausted his inheritance leaving him penniless. He is defensive upon learning the news, but once he accepts it, he is left in a delirious stupor. A haunting piano number plays overlaid by the sound of birds chirping and whistling. The sound of the birds is very cartoonish and similar to what an animated character might hear in the aftermath of a blunt blow to the head. Henry drives through wealthy neighborhoods stumbling in and out of his regular haunts whispering “Goodbye” to luxury.
You get the impression he might be on the verge of ending his life until his personal valet suggests he makes an effort to marry for money if he wishes to carry on. Henry makes a time sensitive arrangement with his uncle to find a wife in exchange for a loan. He begins his search, horrified time and time again, hoping to find a partner of extreme wealth and no ties to the world. You see, it is his intention to knock-off his bride.
When he meets the incredibly wealthy and adorably clumsy botanist Henrietta (played by May) he makes every effort to win her over, and just in the nick of time of his uncle’s deadline. He considers his crumb-dusted bride-to-be barbaric to his gentlemen’s sensibilities. Yet, for someone we have only seen engage in dialogue during transactions and dull repetitive smalltalk about carbon on the valves of his Ferrari, Henry appears at ease during conversations with Henrietta that contain a little more depth.
It is difficult not to be menaced by the thought of his nefarious plan to murder her when she confesses that she wishes to achieve a sort of immortality by discovering a new species of fern. Every move she makes is so endearing, how could Henry possibly resist this woman?
May employs improvisation in scenes throughout the film, most notably during the honeymoon of Henry and Henrietta. Without Matthau’s knowledge, his director and co-star managed to sew herself into a nightgown to provoke an authentic reaction as he helps to situate her garment so that her arm is not stuck. May is relentlessly charming in this scene. The visual gag is hilarious, and his willingness to help her is one of the first moments we see a change in heart. Although it is still possible he will kill her. After all, he is reading and taking notes about household poisons.
A second moment or redemption for Henry is when he insists on taking over affairs of the estate once he discovers household employees who have been taking advantage of Henrietta’s financial ineptitude and trusting nature. Henry transitions from the caricature of a selfish person to someone with a spark of humanity. But is he capable of being a decent human being?
A New Leaf is well-written and well-acted. I will say that sound editing is a bit peculiar throughout, which heightens the chaos of many moments. I am so curious about what May’s true intentions were for this wonderful story, yet I am more than pleased with the film that was released.
Jamé McCraw is a current student at DCH and performs with Watermelon. She enjoys watching squirrels through the windows of her little old house while holding hands with her cat, Stanley.