‘A New Leaf'
As the keenly intelligent if neurotic distaff side of Mike Nichols and Elaine May, the seminal 1960s stand-up comedy team, May launched her moviemaking career in 1971 as a triple-threat talent — writing, directing and starring in a pithy, pitch-black comedy that sharply skewered the idle rich and the sunny conventions of romantic comedy. That film, “A New Leaf,” has since gained minor cult status, both as a forgotten gem and as an object lesson in one director's stubborn overindulgence.
It's a matter of Hollywood lore that May's final cut of the film ($2 million over budget and 40 days behind schedule) was a three-hour-long, subplot-laden farce of cruel conniving and bloody, murderous mayhem, which the studio and producer Robert Evans insisted should be drastically cut. When May refused, studio honchos seized the movie and cut it themselves. May publicly disowned the resulting version and sued unsuccessfully to stop its release.
Apparently, no copy of May's original cut remains, and so the truncated studio version is all that's left. So, even though May's longer vision for the Jack Ritchie short story “The Green Heart” seems lost forever, a new Blu-ray treatment of the surviving film at least provides a clean rendering of a work that critic Roger Ebert described as “hilarious, and cockeyed, and warm.”
The story concerns grudgingly blossoming love between the sorely mismatched Henry Graham (a hangdog Walter Matthau), a snooty playboy aristocrat who has frittered away his massive wealth, and Henrietta Lowell (May, wide-eyed and bespectacled), a frumpy, socially clumsy botanist whose considerable family fortune attracts the gold-digging Henry's eye.
Having plowed his way through his trust fund with a profligate lifestyle, the newly penniless Henry bemoans his fate — “I'm poor!” — and deviously plots a way back into the upper reaches of high society.
Henry's plan: to court and quickly marry Henrietta's money and then cunningly knock her off.
After the first two acts of haughty self-indulgence, the story goes a bit soft and gooey in its more conventional third act. That's when Henry and Henrietta's marriage proves a mismatch made in heaven.
So the pampered playboy becomes protector of the innocent waif, and against his every selfish impulse discovers his better self. Indeed, he turns over a new leaf.
The Blu-ray Disc in widescreen format shows some signs of wear and tear, but it should be enough that May's peculiar little movie is ready to bloom once again for a new generation of movie lovers.
— Dennis King