Elaine May’s A New Leaf (1971)

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Henry Graham in A New Leaf is an artist in shades of green: his palette is of money, which he spends not judiciously, but with grace and flair and a firm creative hand. Born into great wealth, his spending is an act of pure self-expression. The trouble is that Henry Graham has overspent, and the cheques which he has passed without a care throughout the city start to bounce. His attorney has been urgently attempting to contact him for weeks, only to be ignored; but when Henry at last finds himself divorced of all funds, he pays this attorney an agitated visit, and learns that he has squandered all of his inheritance. For the past fifteen years, he has been going through $200,000 a year, from a trust fund which only afforded him $90,000. Slow on the uptake, Henry is forced to consider what to make of his changed circumstances.

He lives in Manhattan, in a large apartment replete with works of art, sculptures, and rugs, and he has horses and a stable upstate. He is not about to become destitute – he could sell his apartment and buy a smaller one, and sell his horses and artworks and furnishings and still live out a comfortable existence. But he would no longer be rich, and would no longer live in the luxury which becomes him. It is a luxury which, enjoyed his whole life long, is indistinguishable from his very nature. Upon learning of his predicament, he makes a last tour of his traditional haunts, his tailors, restaurants, and social clubs. He seeks neither aid nor to apologise for any failed payments, but simply the habitual embrace of the life which he is accustomed to, and which appears to be receding. At the stables, wearing an equestrian helmet, he becomes tearful as he toys in the air with a riding crop.

At home, as his predicament slowly seeps in, Henry’s horror begins with the prospect of ready-to-wear. Wearing his bespoke wardrobe, he gazes into his full-length mirror, and envisions a malign future in which a slick-haired shop assistant attempts to convince him that an oversized suit ‘fits perfectly – it’s the best suit you can find in ready-to-wear’. This terrifying outlook extends to the potential loss of racquet club privileges, as a member of the lower-class looks on and offers that they go together ‘to the Y’; and to his car becoming a Chevrolet rather than his cherished Ferrari. Speaking to his manservant – a ‘gentleman’s gentleman’ – he laments, ‘I have no skills, no resources, no ambitions. All I am – or was – is rich, and that’s all I ever wanted to be. I don’t understand, Harold – why did it happen to me, why? I was so happy.’

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In old Europe, money could continue to matter even once lost. Families and individuals who had once been wealthy, but had fallen upon hard times, were still distinguished in culture and in mind from those who had always lived poorly. In Ireland, for instance, James Joyce’s father, John Joyce, in 1891 found himself pensioned at just forty-two-years-old. Having already abused a significant inheritance, from this point on the Joyce family lived on an ever-dwindling income: less than the salary John had once enjoyed, and with John continuing to spend recklessly and inclined to drink. Still, as Richard Ellmann writes, ‘To himself he was never a poor man, always a rich man who had suffered reverses. His family too accepted the state of poverty without ever accepting the word.’ In the United States of America in 1971, however, the situation is markedly different. Harold explains to Henry how acute is his difficulty: ‘You will have a little after you’ve sold everything but in a country where every man is what he has, he who has very little is nobody very much. There’s no such thing as genteel poverty here.’

Henry momentarily contemplates suicide. Harold demands that he instead persevere. ‘How many men have your devotion to form, sir?’, he asks, ‘You have managed in your own lifetime, Mr Graham, to keep alive traditions that were dead before you were born. Don’t give up the fight, sir, just because the philistines are upon thee.’ Harold’s solution is that Henry maintains his lifestyle by marrying into money. The concept shocks and disgusts Henry: upon the mention of marriage, he responds incredulously, ‘You mean to a woman? She’d be there. Asking me where I’d been. Talking to me, talking – I wouldn’t be able to bear it.’

There may be detected in this visceral reaction the strain of a certain disinterest towards the female sex peculiar to upper-class gentlemen. Henry’s response distantly echoes that of Ivan Fyodorovich Shponka, in Nikolai Gogol’s short story ‘Ivan Fyodorovich Shponka and His Aunt’. Written for the second volume of Evenings on a Farm Near Dikanka in 1832, and by a man who himself never married – and whose sexuality has been a matter of critical debate – the titular character Ivan Fyodorovich is thirty-eight years old, and without a wife. When his aunt brings up the subject, Ivan Fyodorovich becomes frightened: ‘What, a wife? No, auntie, for pity’s sake…You make me completely ashamed…I’ve never been married before…I absolutely wouldn’t know what to do with her!’. ‘You’ll find out, Ivan Fyodorovich, you’ll find out,’ his aunt retorts – but Ivan Fyodorovich remains unconvinced. That night, he dreams a pattern of strange dreams:

‘Suddenly someone grabs him by the ear. “Aie! who’s that?” “It’s me, your wife!” some voice said noisily. And he suddenly woke up. Then he imagined that he was already married, that everything in their house was so odd, so strange: in his room, instead of a single bed, there stood a double bed. On a chair sits the wife. It’s strange to him; he doesn’t know how to approach her, what to say to her […] Then he suddenly dreamed that his wife was not a person at all but some sort of woolen fabric; that he was in Mogilev, going into a shop. “What kind of fabric would you like?” says the shopkeeper. “Take some wife, it’s the most fashionable fabric! very good quality! everybody makes frock coats from it now.” The shopkeeper measures and cuts the wife. Ivan Fyodorovich takes it under his arm and goes to a tailor, a Jew. “No,” says the Jew, “this is poor fabric! Nobody makes frock coats from it…”‘


When Harold momentarily takes his leave, Henry at first continues to dismiss the notion of taking a wife. But then a thought strikes. ‘No – can’t. Can’t, better death or murder. That’s a good idea!’. Thus Henry Graham sets about finding a suitable partner. He loans $50,000 from his grotesque and unsympathetic uncle in order to pay his bills and keep up appearances, with the condition that the sum will be paid back with an interest of 10% after six weeks – or else his uncle will acquire all of his possessions. Henry therefore requires a female who is not only wealthy, but ready and willing to marry in haste. She does not need to be willing to hand over such a sizeable fee upon the conclusion of this transaction; for we understand that, once married and financially secure, Henry intends to murder his new-found wife. While his private change of heart suggests this to the viewer, a series of small slippages make Harold also concerned as to his master’s motives.

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Walter Matthau’s big-screen debut had come in 1955, when he played the villain in The Kentuckian, a Western directed by and starring Burt Lancaster. He would continue to feature as an antagonist across a string of Western and gangster movies over the next decade, playing judges and sheriffs tasked with bringing down heroes and antiheroes, and mobsters prone to upset when they discover that someone is stealing a piece of their figurative pie. Matthau directed a low-budget film in this mould in 1960, entitled Gangster Story. Yet interspersed with these genre roles, and with a strong background in the theatre, Matthau quickly found his way into some prestigious and original screen acting. His third film was Nicholas Ray’s Bigger Than Life, released in 1956, and starring James Mason as a school teacher who becomes addicted to cortisone. Matthau played a fellow teacher, the protagonist’s best friend. A year later he starred in Elia Kazan’s A Face in the Crowd, which depicts the rise and fall of an entertainer played by Andy Griffith. Then in the summer of 1958, he played opposite Elvis, as a powerful and vicious club owner in King Creole. The picture was finished just twelve days before Elvis entered the United States Army, and it would remain Elvis’s favourite acting project.

Bigger Than Life won critical acclaim, and in 1963 Jean-Luc Godard would rank it among the top ten American movies ever made. However, it failed to fare well at the box office; and the same would be true for A Face in the Crowd, which received a lukewarm reception upon its release. In the autumn of 1958, Matthau again featured in an Andy Griffith vehicle, the comedic drama Onionhead. A rare foray into comic acting at this point in Matthau’s career, Onionhead was a critical and financial flop and sent Griffith into television.

In 1960, Matthau was once more cast as the villain, entangled alongside Kirk Douglas, Kim Novak, and Ernie Kovacs in the adulterous relationships of Strangers When We Meet. He was richly arch in the highly entertaining if overworked Charade, opposite Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn, in 1963. Among other work, he played in Sidney Lumet’s fictional account of a Cold War escalation, Fail-Safe, in 1964; until in 1966 he partnered with Jack Lemmon for the first time on camera, in the Billy Wilder film The Fortune Cookie. The first of ten pictures co-starring Matthau and Lemmon, The Fortune Cookie was a significant breakthrough for Matthau, earning him an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor. But it was not until The Odd Couple two years later that he would be consolidated as a leading man.

So although he was fifty by the time A New Leaf was released, Matthau was just moving into the middle phase of his career. He plays the role of Henry Graham with an easy majesty. Languidly refined in movement and nuanced in expression – early in the film, for instance, when he unwillingly and inattentively hears his attorney present his case; and nostalgic as he lingers carefully between old faces and locales – he combines the bathetic comedy of his position with just the right amount of genuine pathos. Certainly a modern viewer of A New Leaf who has spent any meaningful time with Matthau elsewhere is inclined to root for his character during the film’s early stages. And they may be quite willing to stay with him too as he embarks upon projected murder, in what initially seems an episodic farce.

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Yet A New Leaf turns when Henry finds his wife. Henrietta Lowell is the daughter of a rich man, who was either an ‘industrialist or composer’ – one of the two; the film does not remember which – but is now deceased. His only heir, Henrietta inherited all of his wealth, and lives alone, on a large estate with a multitude of servants. Hearing that she is rich, single, and isolated, it only takes Henrietta clumsily spilling her tea at a social gathering for Henry to declare her ‘perfect’. When Henry makes his way over for an introduction and she spills a second cup, he takes the opportunity for a display of chivalry. As Henrietta assents to the criticisms bestowed upon her by the gathering’s hostess, Henry tosses the hostess’s whisky onto the carpet and spills what remains in his cup. He confronts the hostess, declaring ‘Your erotic obsession with your carpet is probably the most grotesque and certainly the most boring I’ve ever encountered. You’re more to be scorned than pitied’, and then takes Henrietta home.

Henrietta is played with great warmth by Elaine May, who also wrote the screenplay and directed the film. May had risen to prominence in the late 50s and early 60s as one half of the Mike Nichols and Elaine May improvisational comedy duo. Having met while part of The Compass Players in Chicago, in 1957 the pair broke from the group and auditioned in New York for the agent Jack Rollins – who would later work with the likes of Woody Allen and David Letterman. Soon, Nichols and May were successfully touring the country, and they released a trio of acclaimed and influential comedy albums: Improvisations to Music (1959), An Evening with Mike Nichols and Elaine May (1960), and Mike Nichols & Elaine May Examine Doctors (1962). By the time the third album came out, the celebrated duo had gone their separate ways, Nichols moving into directing with the films Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf and The Graduate.

May began playwriting, and acted in two movies in 1967: an adaptation of Enter Laughing directed by Carl Reiner; and Luv, a slapstick comedy which starred Jack Lemmon, but which met with disappointing reviews. A New Leaf marked May’s directorial debut. Well received by the critics, it struggled at the box office and its appearance was not without controversy. May had reportedly spent more than double her $1.8 million budget during filming, and after ten months in the editing room handed in a 180-minute-long cut. Displeased, Paramount had taken the film from her, and reworked the footage into the 102-minute version which the studio ultimately released.

Such battles marked May’s career as a director. After directing the Neil Simon-penned The Heartbreak Kid in 1972, she wrote and directed two further films, 1976’s Mikey and Nicky, and 1987’s Ishtar. Allowing multiple cameras to run and run in an attempt to catch moments of spontaneity, both projects went considerably over budget. Ishtar in particular became notorious as its budget ballooned and it went through an elongated and tortuous post-production – beset by claims that David Puttnam, the new head of Columbia Pictures, was intent on sabotaging his own studio’s film owing to a vendetta against one of its stars, Warren Beatty. May had more sustained success as a screenwriter. Under a pseudonym, she wrote Such Good Friends for Otto Preminger, which was released at the end of 1971; she co-wrote Heaven Can Wait, Reds, and Tootsie; before re-teaming with Mike Nichols in the 1990s for The Birdcage and Primary Colors. Acting again in 1978’s California Suite – which paired her once more with Matthau – and in 1990’s In the Spirit, she was awarded in 2000 for her supporting role in Woody Allen’s Small Time Crooks.

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As Vincent Canby and Roger Ebert wrote in their contemporary reviews of A New Leaf, whatever the rights and wrongs of its post-production, the film as it stands is a wonderful work of art, wholehearted and complete. There is nothing missing from its narrative; and just as the film steers its viewers on an emotional course while remaining comic, so it succeeds in retaining a fluid visual presence through a series of marked and innovative stylistic variations. As Henry returns home early in the picture having both uttered and left unsaid his series of goodbyes, the choral music and bell chimes which have swelled in accompaniment cede to be replaced by a softer melody and the chirping of birds. The camera centres upon a close-up of Henry’s unsteady hand, as it traces the shape of one of the sculptures which he fears he might lose. Traversing Henry’s arm for a close-up of his face, the camera then tracks him as he moves slowly about the room, gazing at a large painting hung on the wall, and sharing eye contact with a tribal piece which stands to his height in the corner. Lightly and playfully, in the juxtaposition of image and music, and as Henry displays an intimately tactile relationship with inanimate objects, the scene invokes the unconscious and the world of dreams.

Dark thoughts also emerge as visions. In the final quarter of A New Leaf, as Henrietta belabours an uninterested Henry about becoming a professor, distant pianos and synthesised electronic beeps disrupt the conversation. A series of fragmentary images show Henry plotting murder by poison, smirking, then slowly pushing open double doors and, beset by ropes and camping equipment – a lantern, a torch, and a duffle bag – moving anxiously but ineluctably toward an undisclosed destination. When Henrietta and Henry embark on a field trip, to go canoeing in the Adirondacks, their journey is suggested by impressionistic moving camera shots of the treetops and the sun flickering through. Beyond their natural beauty – and the shift to the outdoors after a world of upper-class interiors – these shots provide at once a moment of reflection and a sense of foreboding. Indeed, one of the tricks of A New Leaf is that we continue to believe, and increasingly worry, that Henry may in fact carry out his sinister plan. That the film feels complete is not to say that there couldn’t have been more: Paramount’s edit apparently removed a subplot which saw two characters murdered, and despite the slapstick and screwball comedy on display, and amid the intrusion of the surreal, there remains a darkness that could plausibly have been extended, even if that would have resulted in a significantly different work.

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Henry courts Henrietta. She tells him that she is a botanist, and a professor at the university; he reveals that he is, quite naturally, an avid botanical journal reader. Putting up with her lack of social grace, her physical awkwardness, and her idiosyncratic choice of drink, he soon proposes, and she agrees to a wedding ceremony by the end of the week. Henry has to overcome the obstacle of Henrietta’s lawyer, a suspicious man who feigns his own desire to become her spouse, but is clearly just as focused on her money as is Henry. In league, this lawyer and Henry’s rapacious uncle attempt to unmask Henry and prevent the wedding, but he outmanoeuvres them and he and Henrietta wed. On their honeymoon, hanging over the edge of a cliff, Henrietta believes she may have discovered a new species of fern. Preoccupied, Henry neglects several opportunities to do away with his wife, and after struggles with items of dress and some discomfit over sleeping arrangements, the pair return home happily enough, to Harold’s relief.

Though he continues to view his engagement with Henrietta as a strenuous entanglement with the uncultivated, and continually seeks methods and moments by which he may dispatch of her, through Henrietta we begin to see the growth and consolidation of Henry’s character. At Henrietta’s estate, seeing how her lawyer and her servants are abusing her finances, he takes charge and shows himself an astute accountant. Firing and replacing her staff, he uses his position as Henrietta’s husband to end her lawyer’s control over her funds. Then Henrietta finds that Henry has a B.A. in history; and she desires that he fulfil his intellectual capacity by joining her as a professor at the university. More, though his constant concern over Henrietta’s dress is immediately for the sake of propriety, it involves a bodily intimacy between the married couple which gradually extends beyond the social sphere.

Henry initially embraces the canoe trip in the Adirondacks as an ideal scenario to see off his wife. However before they depart, Henrietta excitedly reveals that the fern she found on honeymoon has been proven a true species. And renouncing her own claim to immortality, she has named this true species not for herself, but after Henry: ‘Alsophila Grahami’. Gifting him a pendant containing the tip of one frond, Henry responds in a customary manner, praising its ‘good lines – I mean, for a frond’. Yet he is clearly pleased, and stirred by the sentiment. Henrietta explains her choice, saying, ‘Henry, I don’t think I could have ever discovered it without you. You gave me confidence’. By the time Henry’s opportunity presents itself mid-stream during their outdoor adventure, we would no longer accept Henrietta’s demise, as A New Leaf has moved beyond farce to show two people tearing slightly the confines of their selves, and coming together in gentle connection.

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