Director: Elaine May
Screenplay: Elaine May
Based on a Story by: Jack Ritchie
Starring: Walter Matthau, Elaine May, Jack Weston, George Rose
Running Time: 102 min
BBFC Certificate: U
There's been a lot of talk in the press about Hollywood's gender bias. Even after one hundred years of filmmaking bringing us into today's supposedly enlightened times, the industry is still dominated by men. The vast majority of directors and producers (particularly those handling larger budgets) are men, male stars earn more money than their female counterparts and observations/studies and the oft-mentioned Bechdel test give a painful view of the unnecessarily sexist viewpoint of most films' content. So it was refreshing to see the credits list of my latest screener from Eureka's Masters of Cinema series. A New Leaf was written by, directed by and stars Elaine May. OK, so Walter Matthau is the main star, with Elaine showing up about a third of the way through, and the film wouldn't pass the Bechdel test, but it's still good to see a film from this period (the early 1970's) being creatively driven by a woman.
I won't get bogged down in a feminist discussion though as I'm woefully uneducated in that field to comment, instead I'll dig into how I felt about the film at hand.
A New Leaf begins with the aristocratic Henry Graham (Matthau) discovering that he is in fact flat broke. He's spent his life living at the ludicrously high standard he's accustomed to, but never earned a penny, instead eating through the estate left to him by his now dead father. His only hope is to ask his uncle Harry (James Coco) for money, but he laughs in his face. Graham approaches him with an idea his butler Harold (George Rose) suggested though, that Harry lends him a few thousand dollars which he will pay back once he finds himself a rich woman to marry. Harry accepts this, on the grounds that if he doesn't pay it back within 6 weeks he will take absolutely everything Graham owns, which amounts to ten times the amount being loaned.
So Graham accepts this offer and goes about hunting down the perfect wife. He finds her in Henrietta Lowell (May), a clumsy, socially dysfunctional but hideously rich botany-loving heiress. She falls for his charms/tricks very easily, but her conniving attorney (Jack Weston) tries to make life difficult for Graham. They eventually do marry though and Graham, who has no interest in being a married man, plots to kill Henrietta and claim her fortune. As he enters Henrietta's life and finds himself improving it, becoming a better man in the process, there might be a glimmer of hope that he won't go through with the act though.
This was a refreshing change to the usual films I review (and watch of late to be honest). It's been a while since I've seen an out-and-out unabashed comedy like this and I enjoyed it a lot. I often find comedies hard to review other than to say they were/weren't funny, but I'll do my best.
Well, to get the blunt point out of the way then, yes it was very funny. May's witty dialogue, the film's wacky energy and the brilliant comic performances all combine to create one of the best comedies of the 70's that I've seen. The tone is unusual, throwing back to the screwball era (a year before What's Up Doc?) in its pace and irreverence whilst adding a distinctly modern (or at least of its time) quirkiness to the formula. From Matthau's wistful tour of his old haunts on finding out he's broke, to some random fantasy sequences, the film has an odd style to it which sets it out from the usual Hollywood comedies.
The performances really help the comedy rise to the top too. Matthau is on fine form playing the ignorant, stubborn and pompous anti-hero, doing so with such gusto that he's a pleasure to watch despite the character being such a bastard. His frequent rants are particularly enjoyable to watch, such as when he berates a young girl present at his wedding. May matches Matthau with a lovably innocent take on the frustratingly useless and clumsy Henrietta and the supporting cast largely shine too, particularly Weston, Rose and Coco.
I did find the belly laughs dwindled a little as the film drew towards its conclusion and it took a couple of minutes to attune to the unusual humour at the beginning. However, a wonderful finale ties things up perfectly and on the whole the wit is ever present, even in the slight lull of the final third.
So overall it's a very enjoyable and refreshingly oddball comedy gem that deserves to be better known. May only directed a few more films after A New Leaf with the critical and commercial bashing her final film, Ishtar, ending her career in the director's chair. It's a shame because Hollywood could do with more talent and originality like hers these days, not to mention more women calling the shots.
A New Leaf is out now on Dual Format DVD and Blu-Ray in the UK, released by Eureka as part of their Masters of Cinema series. The picture and audio quality is exceptional as usual for the label.
There's only one notable extra feature, 'The Bluebeard of Happiness', a new video essay by critic David Cairns. This 16 minute piece is an interesting appreciation of the film.
As with all Masters of Cinema releases, you get a booklet in with the package too, which, although fairly short, makes for recommended reading as always.