Film / Elaine May

'A New Leaf' (1971) by Elaine May

. 6 min read . Written by Lindsay Pugh
'A New Leaf' (1971) by Elaine May

Vibe:
Hysterically funny. I grew up watching Charlie Chaplin, W.C. Fields, and the Marx Brothers, so I knew this film would be right up my alley. Elaine May is a master of physical comedy and I laughed for at least 5 minutes during the scene where she was stuck in her Grecian nightgown. (“You’ve got your head through the arm-hole, we have to get your head through the head-hole.”)

For whatever reason, films like this aren't really made anymore, and it makes me sad. "The Grand Budapest Hotel" is probably the most recent film to make me genuinely laugh out loud and before that, "Hail, Caesar!" Most 21st century comedies disappoint me and I find myself rolling my eyes the entire time instead of laughing.

And for fuck's sake, filmmakers need to stop making sequels. No one needs to see "The Hangover Part II," "Caddyshack II," "The Hangover Part III," etc. No amount of marijuana would make these films funny.

Best time to watch:
Next time you're having a no good, very bad day but have self medicated with an entire bottle of wine far too often and need an alternative way to deal with your sadness. I recently injured myself while training for an ultramarathon and have switched from drowning my sadness with prosecco to combatting it by watching a shit ton of movies. For the past 3 weeks, I think I've watched at least one movie per day. Having something excellent to watch after work certainly makes the day far more tolerable.

Whenever you need a reminder of Walter Matthau's insane talent. His comedic timing is impeccable and he connects with his audience better than most of the greats. I love Eileen Jones' description of him:

No actor was ever able to form a more immediate bond of trust and affection with an audience than Matthau in comedy. It’s as if he turned to us, muttering, “Okay, here I’m playing a wealthy bastard who went to all the right schools and dresses in bespoke-tailor-made suits and knows about fine wines and garbage like that, which goes against my whole star persona of a rumpled big-nosed baggy-faced working class Lower East Side cynical mensch. Just go with it.

And the audience, as always, says, “Carry on, Walter, we’re with you one thousand percent, which isn’t even mathematically possible!”

Walter Matthau 4 ever.

Worst time to watch:
I say this a lot, but there's probably no worst time to watch this film. I could see it 5,000 times and still wouldn't be sick of it. If I knew about it in high school, I'm sure I would have watched it during every sleepover I had with my bff, Maddie Petrak. It would have fit in perfectly with our standard rotation of "The Birdcage," "Johnny Dangerously," "Grumpy Old Men," and "That Old Feeling." Maddie lives in Texas now, but I'm going to make her watch "A New Leaf" with me the next time I see her because I know she'll love it.

Where to watch:
Amazon, iTunes, YouTube, etc.

Quick summary:
Henry (Walter Matthau) is an aging trust fund baby who has squandered his inheritance and found himself in a new and undesirable broke ass position. If he wants to keep living lavishly without putting in legitimate work, he only has two choices: marry or inherit. Since his fat uncle hates him and plans to leave all his money to Radio Free Europe, Henry decides to marry. His prospects look bleak until he stumbles upon Henrietta Lowell (Elaine May), a single, clumsy, wealthy heiress. All he has to do is marry Henrietta, murder her, inherit her money, and continue on with his life as if nothing had happened... but this proves to be a bit more difficult than anticipated.

Thoughts:
I wrote a (somewhat shitty) undergrad thesis on the evolution of film comedy from Charlie Chaplin to Judd Apatow and wow... I wish I had known about Elaine May back then. I could have potentially saved myself from pages of dick joke analysis (who am I kidding? I loved every second) and the tiring chore of watching "Funny People" multiple times.

The reason I likely wasn't aware of May is because she hasn't directed anything (aside from a PBS documentary about Mike Nichols in 2016) since 1987. After "Ishtar," she had some acting and writing credits, but not many. I've heard the stories about "Ishtar," a film that seems as universally maligned as David Lynch's "Dune." (The only difference is that "Ishtar" ruined Elaine May's career and led to a 30-year dry spell, whereas "Dune" was just a tiny blemish on Lynch's).

It makes me sad that Elaine May was only able to direct 4 films during her career. May really shines in "A New Leaf," both as an actor and director, and it's a damn shame that Hollywood essentially blacklisted her and deprived the world of her talent as a comedic filmmaker. I don't want to harp on the "Ishtar" controversy too much, especially since I'll likely touch on it later, but watch this interview with Elaine May and Mike Nichols if you'd like to know more.

I am a stone cold bitch and rarely laugh out loud during movies (or in life... every text message "lol" is a lie), but I was cackling like a hyena while watching "A New Leaf." I replayed the scene of Henry getting dressed before his wedding approximately 10 times just so I could see his interactions with the child "nazi" wedding guest.

Henry: Harold, you've got to stop her.

Harold: Stop who?

Henry: That little woman... she's touching things. Oh, no! Harold, she's unscrewing my Montrazini.

As someone with deeply pretentious and pedantic inclinations, I can relate to this scene more than I'd like to admit. Recently, my boyfriend borrowed my copy of "Jitterbug Perfume" and instead of putting it back on the bookshelf with the rest of the Tom Robbins novels after he finished, he left it on his nightstand, covered in crumbs. I wanted to scream, but didn't because I am in a mature, adult relationship and putting up with another person's quirks and inanities is part of the fucking game (unfortunately).

In relationships, almost everything is a compromise and anyone who tries to tell you otherwise is either stupid or lying. If you're in a relationship, it's partially because you need something from the other person. It might be money, affection, companionship, etc. but it's something that you can't get alone. If you could get it alone, what incentive would you have to put up with another person's bullshit? I'm sorry that this isn't some flowery, Hallmark card description of love and commitment, but in my experience, it's the truth.

For awhile, I thought I would likely end up growing old with my cats. I'm an introvert who enjoys spending time alone, thinks incessant chatter is a capital offense, and finds most people's tastes and opinions basic and grotesque. After I read an ARC of Kate Bolick's "Spinster: Making a Life of One's Own," I was like, "hmm... yeah, this sounds pretty appealing."

But then I met Luke, someone who is wonderful, kind, quiet, and thoughtful. He makes me a better person (mainly by telling me to cool it when I'm acting like a raging cunt) and my life would feel empty without him. So even when I want to kill him for drinking all of my prosecco, pissing on the toilet seat, and leaving all the closet doors open, I will refrain because I know that I need him. He might not measure up to all of my lofty standards, but who the hell would? They're ridiculous! Even I don't measure up to my standards, so how can I expect anyone else to?

"A New Leaf" is successful because it's a slapstick take on this dark, seldom discussed aspect of all relationships. Even though Henry is out of control, we can empathize with him because we're shown all of the horrible, gauche aspects of Henrietta's personality, and vice versa. I hope that someday, we're able to see Elaine May's full, 180-minute cut of "A New Leaf." It's allegedly even darker (with multiple murders!) and filled with even more bespoke suits, ruined rugs, and relationship truths. Or maybe Elaine May will come out of retirement (she's 85 now) and grace us with another one of these delightfully screwball comedies. We can only hope.