We may never know Elaine May’s intended version of A New Leaf: a rumored three-hour pitch-black farce involving false marriage, blackmail, and murder, which marked the famed comedienne’s directorial debut. Producer Robert Evans took the film away from May and drastically shortened it and the director/writer/star disowned the resulting version. I doubt it’s any consolation to May that, even in this current incarnation, A New Leaf is one of cinema’s great comedies, profoundly examining the blooming love between mismatched couple Henry Graham (Walter Matthau) and Henrietta Lowell (May).
Henry is an aging playboy who’s worn out his trust fund. Faced with bankruptcy and the prospect of driving a Chevrolet, he seeks out a rich woman whom he can marry and murder. Enter Henrietta, a clumsy, upper-class ugly duckling who seems the easiest of targets. Henry first spots her at an uptight high-society get-together; she twice spills her tea onto the hostess’s Oriental rug, and Henry—uttering one of May’s priceless lines about “erotic obsession” with carpets—comes to her rescue. It’s the beginning of a not-so-beautiful courtship and matrimony, with the oblivious Henrietta always outwitting Henry’s murderous intentions through her ingratiating ineptitude.
It’s easy to imagine Henrietta’s foibles being exploited for cheap, grotesque laughs. Certainly the character’s wardrobe (oversize glasses, clothing with price tags still dangling) and breathy demeanor are easily overplayed external factors, but May’s talent is in humanizing even the most minor behavioral tics. Think of her telephone operator from the old Nichols/May routine, a character whose tragically humorous life feels encapsulated in every syllable of her line, “That’s ‘K’ as in ‘knife?!’” May refines that persona in A New Leaf.
The best film comedy has its roots in the painful encumbrances of human existence—the cinema screen is the mirror that delivers the audience its filmic reflection. An extended sequence in which Henrietta attempts to navigate through a toga nightgown is hilarious precisely because of its expressive emotional flow from personal embarrassment to shared laughter and back again. Henrietta, no hollow comic shell, is a full-blooded creation of the emotional interior—it would be an insult to merely laugh at her or with her, and so we respond in complex kind, our hearty guffaws barely concealing winces of individual recognition.
Blessed with a perpetual craggy hangdog, Matthau is May’s perfect comic foil. Completely believable as a spoiled member of the upper crust, the actor simultaneously offers a sober and hilarious class critique through his unsightly gait. Upon discovering his bankruptcy, Henry walks dejectedly through some old haunts, tenderly saying goodbye to his material comforts—he’s a zombified bourgeois awakened to a harsh and unforgiving world. In Henrietta, Henry at first sees an impersonal victim; his is a newfound masculine power extending directly from upper-class viciousness. This mindset parallels the bloodthirsty film audience’s rules of the game. How many similar comedies would make us long for Henry’s successful enactment of his deathly desires, reducing Henrietta to a conceptual symbol in an effort at preserving the mean-spirited hilarity?
May recognizes the importance of moving beyond the symbolic, of trumping hollow laughter and infusing it with depth of feeling. Like the great director Ernst Lubitsch, May’s comic means are used toward humanistic ends. Henry (and, by extension, the audience) comes to love Henrietta in spite of himself, rescuing her from certain death at the very moment his initial intentions might be satisfied. A New Leaf leaves the characters in an Edenic wilderness, the camera capturing Henry and Henrietta’s ascendance into a heavenly sun. It’s a beautiful moment of emotional summation and one that equalizes our laughter with the divine spirit unique to great cinema.