In A New Leaf (1971), Elaine May’s screenwriting and directorial debut, I think you will see the legacy of her indelible comedy partnership with Mike Nichols even though they had disbanded the act ten years before. It is in the daft sensibility, the timing, and what seems to be overall fearlessness that May brought to this film. She has created delicious bits of two-person comedy, and brought to life characters who are unafraid to be exactly who they are while still putting one over on someone else or even themselves.
Even with this imprint that could only be hers, this film, as released, was not the one Elaine May intended to make. She and the studio differed on what the film should be. May was more interested in the idea of a man getting away with murder, with having his cake and eating it too. She was not interested in a romantic comedy or a simple love story. The studio felt differently and heavily edited the film without her input. And yet I don’t think anyone who has seen the film would quibble with the finished result. Henry is a ne’er-do-well who finds some purpose and hidden depths in a partnership with Henrietta, a hapless but lovable mess. Henrietta finds the confidence to succeed on her own terms through the strength she gains from Henry. In removing the plot line about the murders Henry commits but leaving in the marriage that isn’t pitched as a life sentence, we come away with something that is not quite love, and yet is charming and even sweet.
Even though she was ultimately thwarted, I think May still managed to craft a fully accomplished work that could withstand the cutting. She built the story, she chose actors who could deliver, and she coaxed the performances to life. The darkness still comes through, and the cunning, and most of all, the laughs.
What you’ll find in this episode: theories on why Elaine May has not made more films, what was cut out of the finished film, and whether we think Henrietta knew Henry was planning to kill her.
Links and Recommendations:
Check out A New Leaf on IMDB.
Ericca’s further viewing pick of Monsieur Verdoux.
Cole’s further viewing pick of Ishtar.
Nichols and May mother and son sketch.
Nichols and May funeral home sketch.