Half a century ago, Elaine May didn’t intend to become one of the first women to write, direct and star in her own movie. She’d written the screenplay for A New Leaf, based on Jack Ritchie’s short story “The Green Heart,” and was just hoping to be granted approval of the director and lead actress. Paramount refused, but they did give her the option of filling both positions herself. Although she had never directed before and had only a couple of feature film roles to her name (at this point she was mainly known for her iconic comedy double act with Mike Nichols), she decided to accept.
Leading man Walter Matthau started his career in Hollywood as a perennial villain; he was genuinely sinister in Fail-Safe and Strangers When We Meet, and cartoonishly so in King Creole (which sees him have a fist fight with Elvis!) and Charade. By the late ‘60s however, his villainy had dissipated into the loveable curmudgeonliness that we still associate with him today. The two films he made prior to A New Leaf—Hello, Dolly! and Cactus Flower—showed that even with his hangdog face and general air of grouchiness, he could make a charming romantic lead. In A New Leaf, his charm and villainy are combined, and the result is still magical 50 years later.
The plot is simple. Henry (Matthau), an amoral man devotedly attached to his decadent life of leisure, discovers that his trust fund has run out. The only way to keep himself in the manner to which he has become accustomed is to wed a wealthy woman…and then kill her. He soon lands on Henrietta (May), a sweet, shy botanist with an enormous inheritance and a propensity for dropping things. Unused to any amorous attention, Henrietta is quick to accept Henry’s proposal. The two marry, and Henry starts trying to dispose of his oblivious new wife.
In any regular romcom, we would see Henry gradually fall for Henrietta and ditch his murderous plans in an act of heartwarming grandiosity. Not here. In A New Leaf, Henry is still planning to murder Henrietta up until the final sequence; the passionate finale is more of a grudging admittance of affection on his part.
So is this a romantic movie? Yes—just unconventionally so. Henry may not consciously realize that he’s becoming just a little bit attached to Henrietta, but we do. It helps that he starts from a place of such overwhelming self-involvement. He has no feelings, not even platonic ones, for any other human being (as he says when setting out on his wife hunt, “I can engage in any romantic activity with an urbanity born of disinterest”). The one thing he’s good at, the one thing he loves, is being rich. It’s that love that enables him to grit his teeth, adopt a pseudo-dashing façade and do what he needs to do to be reunited with his beloved riches.
Henrietta is so profoundly bumbling, so inept at everything except botany, that she offends the refined sensibilities he’s accrued from a lifetime in the upper echelons of society. It’s useful to Henry that she’s guileless enough to have no idea that she’s being taken advantage of; less useful is her chronic clumsiness. “She has to be vacuumed every time she eats!” Henry complains to his manservant Harold (the delightfully dry George Rose), and indeed there are few scenes the two of them share where he’s not brushing crumbs off her clothes or picking fluff out of her hair.
Ever so slowly, these small subconscious gestures, which begin simply as a way of keeping up appearances, become something more tender. This peaks in a lovely scene during the newlyweds’ honeymoon, when Henrietta gets tangled up in her fancy new nightgown. The two minutes it takes for Henry to help Henrietta escape are very funny (“Where are you now?” “I’m still where I was!”), and the patience and gentleness with which he comes to her aid are a sign that his feelings are starting to change. While he does still spend the rest of the movie plotting her murder, this—in a manner both counterintuitive and tremendously human—happens alongside his increasing protectiveness towards her. “Damn it to hell! Damn, damn, damn. Nothing ever turns out the way it’s supposed to!” Hardly a romantic declaration for the ages, but in the unique context of A New Leaf, Henry’s final reluctant realization that he may just have developed a slight fondness for his wife is as gushing as anything Romeo says to Juliet.
Henry is as curmudgeonly a character as they come, and Matthau’s performance sings with the relaxed confidence of a man in his element. May is joyously committed to Henrietta’s complete lack of guile. The two share a sweetly silly chemistry which powers the film through its succession of daffy, blackly comic sequences. The real star of the show, however, is May’s riotous screenplay, which contains a preposterously high level of laughs per minute. She would go on to write a number of other classic movies—Heaven Can Wait, The Birdcage and Primary Colors foremost among them—but A New Leaf would remain unequaled in her filmography for its mix of unrelenting hilarity and unconventional charm.
The tale of A New Leaf is rendered bittersweet by the fact that the final product did not turn out how May wanted. She had shot a three-hour version, more faithful to the source material, where Henry discovers that Henrietta is being blackmailed, kills the blackmailers and gets away with it. Paramount boss Robert Evans took her cut and discarded almost half of it. May was deeply dissatisfied with the end result, and tried—unsuccessfully—suing to get her credit removed. Her version has never been exhibited in public, so it’s impossible to say for sure whether it would have bettered the theatrical cut.
Still, the extant A New Leaf is such a masterpiece, it’s difficult to imagine another version improving on something so strange and so special. While May wasn’t happy with the final product, she proved resoundingly that—given the opportunity—she could be a formidable filmmaking triple threat (although sadly, she would never write, direct and star in a movie again). Fifty years after its initial release, the singular love story of Henry and Henrietta remains one of the greatest romantic comedies of all time.
Chloe Walker is a writer based in the UK. You can read her work at Culturefly, the BFI, Podcast Review, and Paste.