Odds and Ends: Elaine May

anewleaf Elaine May and Walter Matthau in A New Leaf (1970)

Is Elaine May America’s most underrated living filmmaker? Even though I first saw — and loved — her trenchant critique-of-masculinity/long-dark-night-of-the-soul gangster epic Mikey and Nicky back in the 1990s, I never bothered to check out the rest of her four-film oeuvre until recently. This was no doubt in part due to the disastrous critical reception of her 1987 buddy-comedy Ishtar — her most recent, and presumably final, movie as a director — but also because I had subconsciously and wrongly assigned partial authorship of Mikey and Nicky to lead actor John Cassavetes. Surely the godfather of independent American cinema and his old pal Peter Falk had improvised all of their dialogue, hadn’t they? (They hadn’t.) I finally got around to watching May’s directorial debut A New Leaf while looking for a female-directed film to illustrate the “screwball comedy” in a class (thanks, Paul Mollica!) and was blown away by what I saw: not only is it uproariously funny, it’s also exceedingly dark, and it updates screwball conventions for the Seventies in a manner similar to what Altman did to film noir with The Long Goodbye. Watching the terrific Walter Matthau, who can charitably be described as “funny looking,” doing a Cary Grant impersonation is as delightfully perverse as seeing nebbishy Elliot Gould playing the hard-boiled Philip Marlowe. I was also fascinated to find that May’s directorial follow-up, the Neil Simon-scripted The Heartbreak Kid essentially reverses the narrative trajectory of her debut: A New Leaf is about a wealthy bachelor, Henry Graham (Matthau), who agrees to marry a loopy heiress, Henrietta Lowell (May), in order to maintain his fortune, despite his having no interest in women. Although Henry initially plots Henrietta’s murder, he eventually learns to care for her and resigns himself to his fate as her husband. The Heartbreak Kid, by contrast, is about Lenny Cantrow (Charles Grodin), a young Jewish newlywed, who extricates himself from a marriage in order to obtain the blonde shiksa of his dreams (Cybil Shepard). After getting remarried, a chilling finale suggests that this sociopathic man is even more unsatisfied than before.

ishtar Dustin Hoffman and Warren Beatty in Ishtar (1987)

What impresses me the most about Elaine May’s first three features is how deceptively “entertaining” they are, using the conventions of various genres (screwball comedy, romantic comedy and gangster movie, respectively) in order to genuinely challenge viewer expectations in regards to character identification and narrative resolution. Just watch, for instance, The Heartbreak Kid and The Graduate (directed by May’s old comedy-act partner Mike Nichols) side-by-side: May’s film is a disturbing comedy that daringly asks us to identify with a truly selfish and terrible person while Nichols flatters us by having us side with the Dustin Hoffman character in opposition to a world of hopelessly square adults. Is it any wonder that The Graduate, which shrewdly marries its emulation of French New Wave aesthetics and vague anti-authoritarianism to a careful flattering of viewer prejudices, is the better known and more beloved of the two works? If Ishtar isn’t quite on the level of May’s first three movies, it’s still one of the best Hollywood comedies of recent decades — and one that deserved a far better reception than it got. Transplanting the Bob Hope/Bing Crosby road-movie formula to a fictional Middle-Eastern country roiled by real political unrest and international intrigue was a bold move on May’s part, and her direction of Hoffman and Warren Beatty is brilliant. Those actors have never been better — and they’ve certainly never been funnier. And yet the film’s financial failure ignominiously brought down the curtain on Elaine May’s directing career (even while she’s continued to find success as a writer and actress for films by Nichols, Woody Allen and others). Right now, my fondest cinephile wish is for the script that May has been developing with her husband, the 90-year-old director Stanley Donen (yes, he of Singin’ in the Rain fame), to start production soon. The list of the greatest movies never made has grown long enough.

You can check out the trailer for The Heartbreak Kid (1972) via YouTube below:


About michaelgloversmith

Filmmaker, author and Film Studies instructor. View all posts by michaelgloversmith

38 responses to “Odds and Ends: Elaine May

  • Renee Hirshfield

    I have been in talks with the head of the film department at a local university to teach a course on romantic comedy. When I was developing my proposed syllabus, I included May’s “A New Leaf” and then replaced it with something else. Your post today has confirmed my initial instinct: Should I ever teach the course, I will restore “A New Leaf” to its rightful place on my screenings list.

    As a college kid on summer break, I saw “A New Leaf” in New York when it first came out in July 1971. I thought it hilarious then and find it sublime now—and, of course, still very funny. Thankfully, Olive Films released “A New Leaf” on DVD and Blu-ray a couple of years ago; if only “The Heartbreak Kid” were so readily available.

  • John Charet

    I am going to leave two replies for this entry. First off, I will talk about your entry. I agree with you totally on Elaine May and now that you talked more in-depth about Ishtar I am thinking of giving it another chance. Hopefully I might elevate it to * * * stars which is pretty generous considering all the scorn it received. No doubt her first three films are fantastic (I gave all of them * * * * out of * * * *). Your comparison of A New Leaf with The Long Goodbye in terms of breaking genre conventions to their respective category during the 1970’s is spot-on. I always thought that she was by far the better filmmaker than her old partner Mike Nichols, whose filmography (for the most part) rests on films that are little more than drab. At first glance, it is easy to imagine that John Cassavetes was the director of Mikey and Nicky, but this just shows how interesting Elaine May is considering the fact that her first two films (A New Leaf and The Heartbreak Kid) were comedies. Speaking of which, I think The Heartbreak Kid is a far braver film than The Graduate since our main character is little more than a selfish ass. Where The Graduate asked you to love the main character, The Heartbreak Kid lets you decide whether to love him or hate him. The majority will most definitely go with the latter. I am interested in checking out that link about the project May is developing with Stanley Donen and like you, I hope it can get finished. I agree, the list of unrealized projects is too big.

  • John Charet

    P.S. David Cronenberg’s Maps to the Stars is going to be released here in the states sometime in autumn of this year, but Cronenberg does not know when yet. He has also written his first novel that will be released in the fall entitled “Consumption” google it. Keep up the great work as always:)

  • erica ganzorig

    I completely agree with you on how Elaine May brings so much entertainment into her films and how she switches it up a little bit, i did only watch one but watching “A new leaf” showed me how much talent she put into her work. By having the main male character not so attractive and putting a funny looking character instead just made the film so much funnier to watch. She does bring out the real humor in the characters. The screwball comedy between the two characters in my opinion is a perfect example, because both characters are equally funny and equally dorky. The dialogue and how the male and female in this movie interacted was smart and dark but hilarious at the same time and not a lot of people can pull that off but she could. That truly sucks that she wasn’t able to finish off her other movies because she probably has so many good ideas.

  • Nidhi Patel

    I agree with Smith on how Elaine May used screwball comedy and romantic comedy to entertain the audience. The romance and comedy went hand in hand and worked as parallel lines in this film. I personally thought it was very interesting to direct the film and act in it herself as the main character. Although both the characters seemed to be very dorky in the film, they worked very well together. This couple looked very compatible. You were able to see the love they had for each other through the humorous dialogue and action. My favorite scene was when Henrietta comes in a night gown and Henry says she out her head in the “arm hole”. This scene showed how an actual married couple would help each other when their spouse is doing something dumb. This has been my favorite movie that we watched in Global Cinema and would watch it again for pleasure also.

  • Grace Collamat

    I completely agree with you on how come why Hollywood has blacklisted Elaine May, considering that “A New Leaf” has got to be one of the funniest screwball comedy films I have seen. “A New Leaf” is between two married couple that should be loving to each other, but their not; But as the film plays, we see Henry Graham show more love towards her wife and becomes selfless, one favorite scene of mine is their honeymoon trip, because Henry is actually considerate enough to help her. Another great thing about the movie is that I never felt that Graham was the only actor to be considered as the lead, but Lowell as well, the characters were both equal. After seeing the picture, I now am looking forward to watching more of May’s work and the different types of screwball comedy films there are.

  • Zoe

    As a huge fan of comedy film, I was shocked that I’d not only never seen A New Leaf, but that I’d never heard of Elaine May at all. A New Leaf does a fantastic job at balancing lighthearted moments, with physical gags, and then moments of dark black humor. It was a film that kept me on my toes as well as laughing.
    Walter Matthau just has the perfect face for a grumpy, set in life curmudgeon and plays the unlikely romantic lead to perfection. I’ve seen him also in Hello, Dolly! where’s he’s steamrolled into romance by Barbara Streisand, but watching him slowly soften to the goofy and innocent fumblings of Elaine May was absolutely delightful (which feels like an odd thing to say but it truly was). The exasperated patience he has with her while also darkly still planning to murder her is so funny, and watching his character slowly become all the things he bemoaned he wasn’t in the beginning. Through his selfish hunt for fortune, he learns to manage money, run a house, Botany and toxicology 101, and he learns what it means to take care of another person.
    It’s just such a shame that she was blacklisted by the industry. Think of the amazing updates she could have given to other genres if she’d continued directing. With her, women might have taken back the gross humor comedy genre held by men years before Bridesmaids. Or considering the failure that has been the superhero comedy (Think: My Super Ex-Girlfriend, Hancock, Kick-Ass, or what she could have done with a Max Landis screenplay like Chronicle).
    Alas, we’ll just have to wait for the day that The Heartbreak Kid is available on Netflix.

  • Shy Hossein

    As a person who hasnt watched a screwball/dark comedy in quite a long time, I forgot how hilarious they can be. Well maybe its not that they are all hilarious, but just Elaine May’s New Leaf. I found that the moments with dark black humor were almost out of no where and the surprise alone had me laughing. Especially the moment when he says he got the 50 grand to spend it and then suicide, but having found Henrietta it restored his desire to live again. I was wondering how he was gonna get out of that one, and certainly didn’t expect him to take such a route. I believe its because the funny parts were so unexpected that added greatly the comedy of the movie

  • Annie Stavins

    I agree with Smith and everyone else that said this movie was a great depiction of screwball comedy. The fact that a women directed it only makes it better to me. I loved the character development we see with Henry. In the beginning he is extremely entitled and we see him slowly getting closer and caring for Henrietta as the film progresses. The movie was hilarious from start to finish. The butler, Harold added so much comedy to the film. I loved when Henry was being accused of marrying Henrietta for her money and we hear Harold outside the door dropping plates. Also, he had great facial expressions that really complimented he scenes. Henry was so smooth in this scene(and many others). The perfect words always seemed to flow to him. I haven’t seen many films created by women so when I do it’s very refreshing. It’s tragic she got screwed for something that didn’t even do that bad and male directors do so much worse and they aren’t blackballed for it. Overall I loved this film. It was entertained and had me laughing the whole way through.

  • Sana Aktar

    I can definitely see how A New Leaf is the epitome of a screwball comedy. The black humor is apparent throughout the film, especially in Henry’s dialogue. He jokes about suicide and death in a lighthearted manner that detracts from the dark nature of such topics, and it is especially entertaining to watch how he uses manipulation and two-faced tactics to wrap the clueless Henrietta around his finger. The great twist of irony comes when Henry grudgingly, but inevitably, falls for Henrietta’s rather endearing absentmindedness. I thought that the onscreen chemistry between the two was notable; it may have not have immediately mirrored romance, but Henry and Henrietta played off each other’s emotions well. I also thought that the supporting characters (the lawyer, Harold the butler, and the house servants) added a great deal of humor to the film by creating expressive reactions and contributing energy to it in general. I agree with the proposal that Elaine May should have been allowed to continue her directing career. Based on viewing A New Leaf, it is evident that she knows how to combine comedy with intricate characters and themes. Hopefully, the film industry will soon be able to advance enough that it does not condemn a female director for a single failure.

  • Patrick Aniol

    As my first screwball comedy film, I have to say that I was blown away by A New Leaf. When you were explaining the movie before we saw it, I did not realize how much of a good actor/director/improvisor Elaine May was. Her acting in that film was flawless for her character–I would even say she got really into it, she did an amazing job playing the innocent botanologist that could not even do the simplest of tasks. One of the things that made this film is how we see Henry change into somebody that becomes caring for Henrietta. Ironically, all he wanted to do was marry her for money, but we were able to see that it wasn’t the case anymore at the end (even when he wants her to drown, he changes his mind after). One thing that also made this movie amazing was all of the characters . Even people like Harold the butler, were able to add some amazing laughs to the movie.

    Even though her movie Ishtar, was a flop at the time, I don’t think her directing career should have been impacted as much. A New Leaf, proved that she was very capable of creating a masterpiece film.

  • Jacob Reyna

    Having never seen her final movie Ishtar, I can’t speak for why Elaine May is no longer a part of the Hollywood community or to her downfall. That being said, just based on her performance in A New Leaf I think she could and should go down as one of those lovable actors that you just want to see more of in the same role. Henrietta (Elaine May) is quietly funny, charming, and a perfect opposite to Henry (Walter Matthau). It’s a perfect example of how screwball comedies, and comedies in general, from before 2000 are funnier and more memorable than most comedies in recent years. It’s a shame we won’t be seeing anything else from Elaine May.

  • Sandra Kogan

    A New Leaf “is a love story about these two people, who are in desperate need of each other.” I found it interesting that the film switches up the “typical” gender roles. Usually women are depicted as a “gold digger” when marrying a wealthy man, but this film challenged that idea by making Walter the gold digger. I felt bad for Elaine’s character, for she was so innocent and clueless as to everything going on around her. The fact that her work entire staff was basically using her and her money, and then Walter only planned on marrying her because of her money. Although Walter Matthau’s intentions of marrying Elaine May were strictly because of her money, he actually ends up falling for her. There were many little moments in the film that showed Walter falling in love with Elaine, and I thought it was very sweet. Throughout the film he plans on murdering Elaine, but he ends up being very protective of her.
    Even though I really liked the movie being sweet and lighthearted, with some moments of dark humor, I thought it would have been interesting to release the alternate one. The “original cut was an hour longer and included two murders.” I think the film would have been more interesting if it included murder, for it would have added to the dark aspect of the film. Overall, I really enjoyed watching this film, it had the perfect balance of a sweet love story with a dark aspect to it.

  • Bennett Miller

    I was surprised when it was announced we were watching this in class that I had never heard of A NEW LEAF, considering I knew of Elaine May’s other films, ISHTAR especially, as well as the films of her partner, but this film very pleasantly surprised me. It almost caught me off-guard with some of the humor, especially the blacker jokes written in, but at the same time A NEW LEAF was a very heartfelt and sweet movie between two characters that I really enjoyed seeing on screen together. Walter Matthau was great in his role of a scheming, old-money type character but was believable when his character started to develop genuine feelings for Elaine May’s. Elaine May was a sort of ditsy not-all-there type of character that we unfortunately see women too often portrayed as, but for all her more air-headed moments we see scenes with her and Matthau where her character comes across as genuinely smart and informed on her field of expertise, botany. With such great dialogue between the two leads as well as with all the side characters who all have great scenes and wonderful expressions throughout the film, I can see why Elaine May is regarded by you, Professor Smith, as one of today’s best living filmmakers, and I’m now very curious to watch her other movies.

  • DM Watson

    “A New Leaf” is, in a word, hilarious. Although I had seen “Ishtar” and “The Heartbreak Kid,” I had no idea they were directed by Elaine May (or even who Elaine May was). I remember by mom being so excited about “Ishtar” coming out, but I always thought it was because she had a thing for Warren Beatty (“Heaven Can Wait” and “Splendor in the Grass” were on steady rotation in my house). After watching “A New Leaf,” I see now that my mom really had a thing for Elaine May.

    I can imagine my mother going to see “A New Leaf” as a teenager and connecting with Henrietta and formulating a plan for her future, following her bliss like Henrietta. Honestly, I had never imagined my mother ever being a teenager and trying to figure herself out, but watching and digesting “A New Leaf” has given me a whole new appreciation for the bold-at-the-time move for May/Henrietta to pursue science and not society. Her character didn’t alter when she found love, either. Henrietta was true to herself through-and-through. Same as my mom.

    There’s a lot of inspiring stuff there. My mom’s been gone for more than a dozen years, but this film has helped me understand her now more than ever. So, I sincerely thank you for sharing.

  • Serena Rayyan

    A New Leaf, was a film based on “love at first sight” in a way. Henrietta is a wealthy female who happens to fall in love with Henry Grant. The gender role in this film was flipped which makes love in this generation more difficult. Usually its the females who fall for men with money and are referred to as “gold diggers”. In this film Henry Grant happens to be the “gold digger” and only wanting to marry Henrietta for her money not her love. Elaine Mays character was such a smart and sweet young lady that she was being taking advantage of by everyone for her money. She made so much money that she did not realize that she was spending so much daily. Although Henry’s intention was to marry Henrietta for her money and his intentions were to eventually kill her, he eventually begins to fall in love with her towards the end. It was sad to see how clueless Henrietta was, but it was the little things that Henry did to show that he was intentionally falling in love with her. Overall, I really enjoyed this movie because it was a helpless romantic love story, and it was the little things that make people fall in love together.

  • Syeda Tahir

    This movie was really entertaining and I agree with Mr. Smith that it had dark humor surrounding murder and suicide. May brilliantly brings in these topics in a screwball comedy. I really liked how Henry’s character changes from being dark and selfish person to a caring husband. May’s acting was appealing, as a clumsy botanist. Walter Matthau is indeed “funny looking” which makes his character even more interesting. The character i liked the most was the butler, he was the only one who did reasonable thinking and had moral compass. It was a delight to watch this movie, if she had a chance to make more movies she would make it way better than the other directors.

  • Yvette Luna

    I was pleasantly surprised with A New Leaf from the comedic genius, Elaine May. I cannot remember the last time a movie has made me burst out into laughter so many times. As a screwball comedy May showed a battle between the sexes. The male protagonist Henry is seen trying to win over Henrietta so he could marry her and her wealth. Once they are married we see Henrietta trying to get more love and affection from Henry. We can see this when Henrietta making an effort to look good for his husband by wearing nightgown. The truth is both of them are seeking for attention but because they have different intentions they can seem to meet eye to eye, at least during the first half of the film. Henrietta’s character alone could have made a great movie. She is a nerdy, naive, clumsy, but loyal woman who brings balance into Henry’s life. Henry was very into superficial things in life and and the fact that Henrietta was a botanist made it easier for Henry to realize the simple things in life as just as important.

  • Marisa S. Cygan

    When learning about screwball comedies in your intro to Film course, they instantly became my favorite genre. I’ve always been a comedy lover but there is something about screwballs that make me loves them! This movie is a great example of a screwball comedy. I agree with Mr. Smith that A New Leaf was incredibly funny, dark, and had some film noir qualities. What really struck me about this film is how well the two were together on screen. They were very enjoyable to watch. They had a great chemistry and really made me laugh! Henry and Henrietta were not interested in each other at all and I love how in the end they end up actually caring for each other. I also love how his name is Henry and hers is Henrietta.

  • Francesca F.

    “New Leaf” was one of the most entertaining films we watched in class this semester. I loved the actors – Elaine May and Walter Matthau. They play such convincing characters. I also love black comedy – so overall this film was a big hit with me. What I want to touch is something unique about this movie, considering it regards a relationship… Not once in this movie do Henry and Henrietta ever kiss. Although it is true at points he is plotting to murder her, at the end I feel they do have a real connection, and it’s just unusual to watch a movie where there is virtually no physical intimacy between the couple. I think the absence of this, though, allows for connection between the couple on many more complex levels.
    It’s awesome that Elaine May directed this. Being a women myself, it’ refreshing to watch films that have been birthed from a female’s mind.
    I loved the reversal of gender roles. I love the way she styled her character. I love the light hearted attitude about suicide. I loved the butler. This is a film I will definitely take the time to watch again.

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